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ARCHITECTURE : Courtyard Apartments of 1920s Remain Practical Yet Romantic

May 23, 1991|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; West Hollywood-based Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

Before many of the residential streets of the Westside were turned into row after row of boxy condominiums squeezed around narrow courts and swimming pools, this area boasted beautiful examples of one of the most romantic and flexible forms of communal living in America: the courtyard apartment building.

These small apartment complexes (often no more than half a dozen units to a building) were never more than two stories high, were grouped around lushly planted oases, and came outfitted with complicated forms derived from a combination of a loose understanding of Mexican architecture and a desire to fit as much living space into as little room as possible. You can still see echoes of them in the little walk-up buildings that dot the Mid-Wilshire area.

The models for many of these courtyard buildings were the ones designed by Arthur and Nina Zwebell in West Hollywood during the 1920s. According to Stefanos Polyzoides, author of "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," their best design was that of "the Andalusia," a complex of nine apartments that the husband-and-wife team developed and designed in 1926. Its sequence of outdoor spaces, ranging from a paved parking court, through a garden court, to a small sliver of space at the rear of the building, organizes a variety of building forms in a tight space, and then enriches them with colorful Mexican tiles, wood balconies and rather idiosyncratic shapes. The building was once popular with Hollywood stars, housing the likes of Clara Bow.

The Zwebells moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest in 1921 and started developing property. Arthur was an inventor and tinkerer, while Nina was an interior designer, artist and furniture designer. Their designs were eclectic, but always practical.

The Andalusia, for instance, presents itself on the street as a two-story version of a Monterey Mexican home, but this white stucco mass is placed behind a group of pavilions that turn out to be parking garages. Here, cars are literally put in their quite formal and elegant place. The garages form a forecourt that is still part of the street, but introduces you to the forms and texture of the Andalusia: rough white stucco walls, dark wood balconies, red tile roofs and ornamental details grouped around windows and doors. After passing through a vaguely Moorish arch, you enter the main space of the complex.

A polygonal fountain, covered with yellow, blue, green and white Mexican tiles, acts as the focal point for a garden of architectural delights. A short tower on one side, an outdoor fireplace on the other, protruding balconies, two-story spaces (once containing the Zwebells' own residence) and one-story verandas form a picturesque village of forms isolated from the noise of the street. After taking all of this in, you can walk underneath the rear portion of the complex and down a few steps to a gravel-paved space, where another fountain ends your journey in a narrow slot of space that buffers the building from its neighbors.

Everywhere you turn, there are little details that catch your eyes: tiles set into the wall for no apparent reason, low, arched windows opening onto the courtyard, strangely shaped chimneys. The Zwebells blended inside and out together by using outdoor staircases, balconies and French doors, while red tile roofs drape themselves over the whole complex, giving it a sense of shelter and community. Hemmed in by condominiums and strip development, the Andalusia today still offers an oasis for romantic living, where public and private spaces are drawn together by an architecture of simple forms and rich textures.

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