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RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECTURE : At Home in Los Angeles

September 21, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic.

In New York and Chicago, the dominant man-made image is the skyscraper. In Washington, it is the government building; in San Francisco, a bridge. But in Los Angeles it is the ubiquitous house, in its myriad forms.

Be they bungalows, modified missions, adobes, reconstructed Spanish revivals, rambling ranches, sleek modernes, nouveaux chateaux, fanciful Tudors, high-tech experiments, constructivist puzzles or postmodern essays, the individualistic house continues as Los Angeles' prime architectural heritage.

To be sure, it is a confused and often conflicting tradition, reflecting--in its way--eclectic architectural trends. But the provocative total is distinctly Los Angeles. It has not been always so.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, DURING the first of many real-estate booms, man-made Los Angeles could well have been mistaken for a Midwestern city. The favored house designs were mostly imported confections--ornate Italianate and a variety of richly detailed Victorians and Gothic revivals that looked as if they had been shipped intact from Boston or St. Louis to Angelino Heights. While these homes added a certain grace to the burgeoning city, the florid designs were deemed inappropriate for the benign climate and more relaxed life style.

At the turn of the century, the search for a new, expressive and less expensive residential architecture led to the California bungalow, a variation on a basic dwelling native to India and known as bangala. This simply styled, porch-adorned, boxy wood structure was cozy in the winter and cool in the summer. It fit very comfortably into the Los Angeles landscape. And when embraced by the wealthy and designed and built by brothers Charles and Henry Greene, the bungalow blossomed into the sublimely detailed Craftsman style.

While the bungalow proved quite popular, it still didn't satisfy those seeking an appropriate residential style for Los Angeles. Writing in 1895 in a then-influential local journal, Land of Sunshine, editor and social arbitrator Charles Fletcher Lummis declared: "It is broadly true that the average house here is artistically and in convenience an improvement upon the (Eastern) house." But he added, "Not one new house in a thousand here has learned anything locally. It is still the house of three-foot snows and zero (degree) weather, of summer rains, of forest, humid countries--grafted upon a semi-tropic soil whose sky is that of the Arid Lands. Its only adaptation to the new conditions is a pitiful little more of porch and a cheaper construction--since it no longer has to be burglar-proofed against the air of heaven, nor arteried with furnace pipes."

What Lummis had in mind for Los Angeles was a residential style that would reflect the region's Spanish heritage. The result was Mission Revival, with its stucco walls, arches and red-tiled roofs--and, in time, the more decorative Spanish Colonial Revival styles.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, architect Irving Gill at tempted to modify the Spanish styles into a purer, more function al mode, while Frank Lloyd Wright, in an interesting experiment with concrete blocks, tried to imbue them with a Mayan motif. But as Wright was to comment years later, the "stucco rash" persisted.

The individualistic efforts of Gill and Wright became small but significant pieces in the eclectic, local architectural collage. When Richard Neutra and R. M. Schindler began experimenting in the more severe International Style in the 1920s and 1930s, Los Angeles became known as a fertile soil for architectural innovation. The result was an emerging tradition of residential architecture that was distinguished not by any particular style--such as International, Meso-American, Craftsman, Mission Revival or Moderne--but by an innovative attitude sympathetic to the city's unique setting, climate and style of life.

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, this heritage was advanced by the Case Study House program. Sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, the program sought to apply the latest construction materials and methods to the pressing need for affordable, attractive housing. The Case experiment did that and more, showcasing modern design and prompting its broad application to less adventurous tract developments.

At about the same time--and very much in the tradition of innovative residential design--Cliff May began designing his ranch-style houses. In extending the use and form of that style's rambling characteristics, May in effect conducted his own experimental design program with results that remain popular. In the '50s and '60s, architects A. Quincy Jones and Ray Kappe applied modernist materials and designs to Los Angeles' relaxed life style and varied terrain. Their expansive post-and-beam constructions added a few more pieces to the city's architectural collage.

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