Letter from an Old, Practicing Architect in Los Angeles


12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604
12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604

Driving down Moorpark St. in Studio City last week, I passed a notably austere and well-designed apartment under construction. I stopped and walked around and shot some photos of the building which had precise lines, solid forms and possessed an architectural sensibility of the 1930s.

I later looked up the architect online and wrote him an email. To my surprise, he responded in detail. Even more surprisingly, he is a man who has been practicing architecture for over 50 years.

Here is what he had to say about the state of planning and architecture in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to the San Fernando Valley.

I have not disclosed his name to protect his privacy.


Dear Andrew:

Thank you for the complimentary words regarding my apartment project. They are truly appreciated. I looked at your excellent blog.

Your involvement in trying to better the quality of life in Los Angeles is noble. I suspect, however that you are constantly faced with the frustration and anger of dealing with a Los Angeles bureaucracy that has become stifling and counterproductive.

The planning department has been a dismal failure as long as I can remember and has continually failed to address the real and important problems that have faced our city.

Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.
Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.

I am sure you know the recent history of the Valley better than I do. I came to Los Angeles as a child in 1948, just after WW2 ended and lived in West LA.

A trip to the Valley was a bit of an adventure. Mostly open space. And it was hard to find a restaurant or much of anything. I did not realize then what we were soon going to lose. Tough-minded, enthusiastic, returning soldiers were coming to LA during this period wanting only to work and raise families in peace.

I was fortunate to have a few of these men as instructors at the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The Valley provided an abundance of cheap land on which to develop housing. And with the coming of these returning soldiers, a major Valley building boom began. Housing tracts and apartments were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was an exciting event to see a searchlight in the sky and drive towards it to find what new business opening it heralded.

Macy's, North Hollywood, CA.
Macy’s, North Hollywood, CA.

All of this was happening with virtually no master planning. One bland community rolled into another. As I drive the Valley today, I find it kind of fun to try to identify the architectural styles, if you can call them that, of each of the building booms in the 60 plus years since the end of the War. Thank God for the mature landscaping that is making the Valley environment somewhat more pleasant. I find myself, grudgingly, seeing a kind of quirky nostalgic beauty in whole thing. But enough rambling. No easy answers.

15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405
15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The specific problem you face in trying to elevate the quality of Architecture in LA is a tough one. It entails getting greedy bottom line developers to take an interest in the environments that they are building. They only ‘design’ that these developers relate to is that which they feel is necessary to rent or sale their product. This design is too often provided by their spouses or a friend with “good taste.”

A developer buddy of mine once exclaimed with the excitement of discovery that he had figured out how to build a modern building. It is simple he said – no details, white paint and a flat roof. He unfortunately built a number of large apartments in the Valley with his newly discovered understanding of modern architecture.

The developers must be taught that they have a moral responsibility to the community to provide good environment. Good luck on this one. Developers must also be taught that over time a well-designed building will make them more money.

Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405
Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The bureaucracy must be scaled down and restricted on the number of code provisions and roles that they can enact without public input and approval.

I have acted as an Architect, owner builder, and small time residential developer in LA for over a half a century. In the early 1960s, both the California State Board of Architectural Examiners and the A.I.A. for being an “Architect-Developer” chastised me.

There was a conflict of interest they said, not understanding the value of having the Architect as the developer as to opposed to a bottom line businessman. I chuckled when some years latter I ran across an ad for a course called the ‘Architect as a Developer’ sponsored by the A.I.A.

Studio City, CA.
Studio City, CA.

Yours is not an easy road to travel, but please keep it up.

If things are ever going to get better, and I am a pessimistic about this happening, it will take a rising up of the community, under leadership like yourself, to demand the changes you that you are seeking. Thank you for your efforts and good luck.

Van Nuys Bl. 2016
Van Nuys Bl. 2016

Before it Changes…….


Curbed LA recently published a photo essay by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin, “An Ode to the Valley Before it Changes” featuring images of grass growing through concrete and defunct gas stations in parts of the San Fernando Valley. It’s a type of setting I have long adored and sought out.

Photo by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin.
Photo by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin.

Mr. Boyd-Bouldin writes, “The Valley neighborhoods I encounter still vibrate with an authenticity that I took for granted in the past and that have all but disappeared from the rest of the city I love. I am doubtful the Valley will always look this way as the pace of redevelopment picks up around it.”


Here are some my photographs of Van Nuys, taken with a different eye and intent.

14640-victory
14640 Victory Bl.

Should one yearn for authenticity and places that have not changed or improved in 50 years, a person might travel down Victory Boulevard between Kester and Hazeltine, where the buildings are 1950s shops and 1960s office buildings converted to vacancy, pot shop, and bail bonds. The Coalition to Preserve LA would no doubt approve of the frozen in 1966 retardation of Van Nuys where “greedy developers” have not come in and built anything on the scale of The Grove. Here preservation, in the form of economic impoverishment has worked wonders.

van-nuys-branch-library

Should one desire a great example of failed urban planning from the 1960s, one might walk amongst the sleeping homeless gathered in front of the police station, next to the library, behind the Valley Municipal Building, on that mall of nothingness surrounded by the Superior Court and the small statues sitting in pools of pee.

Van Nuys is full of the real, the urban, the forgotten, the abandoned, the neglected and the ugly. We have blocks and blocks of empty buildings, empty parking lots, and shuttered retail stores awaiting tenants, investment, customers, renters and buyers.

14547 Gilmore
14547 Gilmore-why not a beer garden or a garden?

There are no parking problems along Van Nuys Boulevard because nobody shops here. There are plenty of parking spaces in big asphalt spaces on Gilmore west of the “downtown” where Matthews Shoe Repair shut down, and other buildings, with tens of thousands of square feet of space, awaiting the next boom.

Matthews Shoe Repair-CLOSED
Matthews Shoe Repair-CLOSED

This is Van Nuys. I’ve been writing and photographing it for over ten years. I show it as it is. Or I try to.

Van Nuys, CA 90401 Built: 1929 Owners: Shraga Agam, Shulamit Agam
Van Nuys, CA 90401-a slum property owned by a wealthy Encino businessman.
Built: 1929
Owners: Shraga Agam, Shulamit Agam
Van Nuys, CA
Van Nuys, CA-why not a cool burger spot? Why not?

And I welcome change, provided it’s done with some architectural integrity and it’s not just the result of shlock hucksters and con-men throwing up the next slum.

But I would live with change, I’d welcome it, if it made my neighborhood safer, more prosperous and livelier.

 

Crest Apartments


 

 

DSCF0752DSCF0753DSCF0754

One of the best buildings in Los Angeles has opened in one of the least likely locations.

Crest Apartments, 13604 Sherman Way, is a $20 million dollar, 45,000 s.f.,  64-unit apartment for the Skid Row Housing Trust. It is east of Woodman Av.

It provides special needs support for the chronically homeless as well as veterans. Social services and a federally supported health clinic are part of the complex.

Architect Michal Maltzan designed a five story tall, tautly elegant building. Rising subtly from its garish surroundings of motels, billboards, discarded furniture, speeding cars and urban decay, Crest Apartments is a crisp, all-white façade with no signage and no ornamentation.

DSCF0757

Mr. Malzan has experience designing many lauded buildings, including another homeless project near downtown, New Carver Apartments, which has received many awards.

There is irony in the fact that an exquisite, understated and artful building will now house a marginalized group of people.

The Crest Project is but a drop in the bucket of solutions to the appalling and obscene homelessness afflicting our city.

In a better nation, morality, money, architecture and the public good would join hands to build a more humane and aesthetic city. But reality favors bluster, bravado and bragging.

Some of the ugliest housing in Van Nuys and greater Los Angeles is still going up for those who feign affluence and success.

DSCF0738

Evangelizing Cask Ale.


 

IMG_1738

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary party at MacLeod Ale, here in Van Nuys, held at the brewery on Calvert St.

It coincided with one of the hottest days of the year.

A hot wind baked the concrete front yard set with white tents for ticket sales, another tent housing a barbecue preparation area.

IMG_1832 IMG_1839 IMG_1844 IMG_1849

A black cook loaded meats into a black steel smoker under a cloudless blue sky.

Inside MacLeod, workers, guest workers and guests hunkered down in dimness, air-conditioned. 30 or more firkins from various breweries were built into groups of six, laid down on inclined, mobile lumber units on wheels. Each cask was plugged on top with cork. And at the bottom each one employed a white plastic faucet for pours.

The Pasadena Scots Bagpipers warmed up in preparation for their opening march through the brewery.

Owner Alastair W. Boase made a last minute run in a small Mini Cooper and came back with bags of ice unloaded by the guest workers and brought in and laid on top of each cask to keep them cool. The drooping, dripping ice kept the beer coldish with the weak efficacy of wet towels on the sweaty heads of Indonesian soccer players on the field at halftime.

IMG_1821 IMG_1816 IMG_1788 IMG_1784

Last year, MacLeod held its one-year anniversary.

To me, hyped up on IPA, a lover of Full Sail and Lagunitas, MacLeod served a weak, warm, sweet, low alcohol malty authenticity called British Style Ale.

To my uninformed palate and to my unschooled-in-beer mind, the brews were something new but not always enjoyable.

The ideology of MacLeod Ale was firmly entrenched by a young and serious head brewer who rigidly and strictly obeyed his self-imposed dogma of what constituted proper British beer. Dour and dressed in leather braces and a tweed-driving cap, he affected a uniform of anti-social seriousness. He was obstinate, at times argumentative, sometimes on the warpath with owners. Others respected and admired his fastidiousness, commitment and exactitude. The truth of his tenure at MacLeod is subjective.

At 27, he was the head brewer of a new brewery. So that alone made him an object of envy. And maybe some of an element of Schadenfreude popped up when he fell down and was thrown out.

There was an upheaval within the brewery in late 2015 and the young cultist was fired and replaced with a new brewer.

The happy result, seen in profits and popularity, has been an artistic renovation melding historic beverage preservation with robust technological innovation.

New Head Brewer Josiah Blomquist came from an engineering background but he also had made his own alcoholic beverages, including beer, whisky and other exotic intoxicants. With investment in new equipment, and a new investor named Jerry Cohen, MacLeod now has advanced water purification, new tanks, and new filters to remove impurities. But there is also a fervent energy and openness to allow for colder, stronger, more aggressively flavored beers to come into the fold.

 


Last year, the one-year anniversary seemed to revel in presenting discussions, where brewers sat on a podium and talked in a panel about their various beers. There were two or three of these, lasting several hours.

This year, there was just one set up and it was dismantled after an hour. Afterward came a variety of jazz performers, including one terrific, 1920s inspired trio of musicians. The choice of music: individual, idiosyncratic, whimsical, embodies MacLeod.

MacLeod Ale today is no longer the ingénue. It occupies sort of a higher ledge above the goofiness of American, macho-man, craft beer. If it were a fragrance house it might be Diptyque or Le Labo where whispers of greatness spread quietly among the cognoscenti, and the scent of cultivated, curated success enters the room confidently without shouting.


IMG_1782 IMG_1772 IMG_1770

Yesterday afternoon, I met one gentleman, Ryan Bell, who worked as a sales rep for a downtown brewery,  Iron Triangle. He was dressed in a dark black shirt with company logo and a straw hat over his bearded face.

We walked over to try his company’s ale which was rich, deep, malty and reminded me of Old Rasputin. He said (if I remember correctly) it was somewhere between a porter and a stout and had an ABV of about 9%.

I expected the discussion to continue about beer.

But after I asked him what he did before he was a beer rep he told me he had been a 7th Day Adventist Pastor. And he was now, fully, committedly, devoutly, an atheist.

He said he wrote a blog, “Year Without God” and was the founder of “Life After God” where he wrote, spoke and consulted the happily godless on their journey of self-enlightened rationality un-poisoned by the imagery of the all mighty.

I was in the company, once more, of an evangelist, another hybrid in the spiritual community of Los Angeles whose own self-awakening constituted a new reality and a new philosophy for explaining and understanding existence. That it might be done by imbibing beer and abandoning faith seemed utterly logical to me, especially inside that hot, crowded brewery party after six or more ales.

My mind wandered from the packed brewery to the national scene and back again to the heat wave.

I was thinking of God and God’s successor, Nothingness. I was looking at Men and their Gods: beers and beards. I was wondering about intelligence and stupidity and how they were so often interchangeable. I was uncertain about what I should believe in or fear: Donald Trump, Radical Islamic Terrorism, certain atheism or certain faith, the NRA or Orlando, porter, ale or IPA.

Lubricated by alcohol, surrounded by many flavors of casks, some beers flavored with chiles, vanilla and rosemary, nothing seemed wrong or right, just there for the taking. I was elated by the possibilities of dropping long held beliefs, and flying into new consciousness by picking up new flavors, guided unintentionally by the atheist pastor beer salesman.

On that Sunday summer sirocco I was on the verge of a breakthrough. Or I might just collapse from alcoholic dehydration.

Fortunately, outside, there was Amy Crook, in a peach pleated skirt, whose hyena laugh and flirtatious giggle danced around the driveway as I recorded her. I joined her under the hot tent and helped check in guests. I tore off tickets, and peeled sticky armbands onto arms gleefully carrying glasses into a raucously animated party, one I knew I would later misinterpret truthfully.

Clean Up on Sepulveda.


DSCF2521DSCF2525DSCF2523DSCF2529DSCF2528DSCF2531

Through a multi-pronged alliance between City Councilwoman’s Nury Martinez’s Office (CD-6), the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, and neighbors who came together on Next Door, about 30 people gathered today between Haynes and Lemay on Sepulveda, and spent a good part of Saturday morning, raking, shoveling, pruning, digging, sweeping, and exhausting themselves to rid the dirt median of man made crap and improve a section of Van Nuys for at least a day.

Long an eyesore, the garbage strewn dusty, dry strip is a dumping ground of Carl’s Jr. burger bags, old condoms, half finished Styrofoam burrito plates, discarded diapers, tires, beer bottles, smashed soda cans, empty vodka bottles and anything else that might be dropped by an intoxicated prostitute at 3am.

Gloves, rakes, shovels, trash bags, water, all of it was brought along and given to the volunteers who included Field Deputy Guillermo Marquez, and Linda Levitan, both from Nury Martinez’s office; Penny Meyer, Howard Benjamin and Quirino De La Cuesta, all VNNC officers; and teenagers from Van Nuys. Families, older folks and an obscure blogger/photographer joined in to shovel and sweat.

Filled to the brim were garbage bags lined up along the curb and waiting to be picked up by the Department of Sanitation on Monday. Palm fronds, cut off from trees to reveal litter below, were themselves placed along the trash bags for disposal.

Work started around 8am, and by 11am the median had been raked and picked clean of garbage.

 

 

 

The Big, Empty Foreground


On Flickr, where I sometimes spend my time, there is a group of photographs called “The Big Empty Foreground.” These are urban places, usually wide-open spaces, without people.

Many of the contributors come from Europe, a place one does not often think of as empty. Soccer fields, parking lots, office plazas, old factories, these are some of the unpopulated places.


 

Sepulveda Cleaners 2In Van Nuys, we have a lot of wide, empty foreground. Expansive asphalt pavements, empty shopping centers, abandoned houses on large lots.

Reynoso's

Near Vanowen, between Archwood and Sepulveda, there is a collection of one-story businesses: a cleaners, a phone store, a fishing tackle store and an odd place called Reynoso’s Lapidary and Supply which specializes in rocks, gems, stones and agate slabs.

These are in a building put up when land was cheap, sometime in the 1950s. And they are plain and homely and functional, but also practical, because the cars are put in back and the sidewalk is in front. Signs are small and discreet.

What intrigued me, on a day when dark clouds enclosed the sky and transformed the light of Los Angeles into something moody and cool, was how casually open space was made in the back, without gates or fences, or trees. That’s the way we parked in the 1950s at a suburban place. There was no thought given to landscape, only to laying down asphalt.

A walnut or orange grove, on many acres, probably occupied this land before the building was built.

This landscape back here will probably be developed someday and covered completely in a banal apartment, approved by city zoning.

But for now there is light, and space, and sky.

 

DSCF2510