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COLORFUL AND CRAZY : L.A. Style

February 28, 1993|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Whiteson writes on architecture for The Times. and

After a brief visit to Los Angeles in the 1920s, English novelist D. H. Lawrence summed up the city in a neat phrase. "It's a sort of crazy-sensible," he wrote, putting his finger on the character of the place.

That phrase, "crazy-sensible," captures the easy mixture of the mad and the mundane in the social and physical landscape of Southern California. A landscape in which the bizarre and the banal exist side by side without seeming at odds, and no one appears to notice the difference.

This crazy-sensible quality is reflected in a vital and creative streak in the architecture of Los Angeles. It shows up in hotdog stands shaped like hotdogs, in a spaceship-like house in the Hollywood Hills propped on a single concrete column, in a downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant mimicking the looks of an ocean liner. It's evident in 1950s coffee shops straight out of "The Jetsons" and an Aerospace Museum with a real jet fighter hanging from its front wall.

One of the most interesting recent examples of crazy-sensible architecture in Los Angeles is the Harvard Apartments in Koreatown.

Designed by Westwood-based Kanner Architects, the design of the Harvard Apartments transforms a standard three-story, 13-unit apartment block in an ethnically and physically mixed Mid-town district into an act of sheer delight.

To fully appreciate this building you have to know its social and architectural setting.

Socially, the district surrounding the intersection of Harvard Boulevard and Ninth Street is a microcosm of L.A.'s tense human diversity. Here Koreans and Latinos live side by side in an often uneasy mix. Middle-class immigrants of both origins meld with their working-class neighbors, their children attend the same local schools and touches of affluence coexist with patches of poverty.

In April, 1992, shops and stores a block away were looted and burned as the local Korean population was targeted by rioters.

Architecturally, the district is graced with fine apartment blocks left over from the 1920s and '30s when these mid-Wilshire avenues were home to a thriving Anglo middle class. Designed in a range of styles, from Spanish Colonial Revival through Art Deco, Norman and Streamline Moderne, the blocks rub shoulders with the cruder "dingbat" apartments of the 1950s and '60s.

The architects decided to trump this complex social and architectural context with a crazy design that is at the same time completely sensible.

"The client asked us to give him a building that was more than just another box," said architect Stephen Kanner, the project's designer. "What we gave him was a ham-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich of white-bread Modernism with a filling of L.A. funk."

The vertical Wonder bread sections of this architectural sandwich are provided by white stucco layers front and back. The "ham" is a thick, red-painted central slice peppered with square windows of various sizes, set at angles in a scattered pattern. The "Swiss cheese" section is a slimmer yellow slice alongside, ventilated by porthole windows.

The frontages along Ninth Street and at the rear of the block provide the building's sensible elements. Severe and rectangular, the frontages are uncompromisingly Modernist in their alternation of horizontal window slits and flush white surfaces. In their style the frontages echo a long tradition of local Modernism dating back to the 1920s and '30s, to the designs of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.

The funkier middle sections derive their inspiration from the futuristic 1950s coffee shops featured in movies such as "American Graffiti." The bold and fanciful coffee shop style, known as "Googie," survives in a few examples, such as Ben Frank's on the Sunset Strip.

They featured wild, sweeping roofs and futuristic decor fused with a romantic South Seas ambience, as if to transport their clientele out of the city to a fantasy of balmier climes.

In its layout, the Harvard Apartments is conventional. Thirteen one-bedroom units line each side of a central corridor with stairways at both ends. The living rooms on the top-floor apartments have high ceilings. There is underground parking for 11 cars, plus four more at street level.

Where the building is exceptional for its type, beyond its style, is in its details. Great care has been taken to keep the exterior profile clean and uncluttered.

To this end, the rainwater downspouts are placed inside the walls and the garage exhaust pipes are also concealed. The block's crisp profile is enhanced by its high-quality stucco finish and paint work and its top-grade metal windows.

"The owner could have gone for a cheaper building, for cheaper finishes and a less-distinctive design," said senior partner Chuck Kanner. "But he chose to go up-market to attract a class of tenant willing to pay a higher rent for quality accommodation."

In less skillful hands the Harvard's architectural mix could have seemed crude and silly, but the designers have achieved a vigorous combination of seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch. By these means they have managed to transform a commonplace building type into an act of architecture that satisfies its function and catches the eye.

This vivid fusion of seriousness and lightness has won many awards for Kanner Architects' designs. The Harvard Apartments received a 1992 Distinguished Building Honor Award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. And Kanner's Montana Collection shopping complex on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica also won several citations, including a 1992 Honor Award from the AIA's California Council.

Now in its third generation, Kanner Architects is evolving a distinctive design style rooted in our rich local vernacular--a style that is thoroughly sensible yet a little crazy in the best Angeleno tradition.

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