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Civic Blueprints

Revisiting the postwar housing experiment in Mar Vista by Modernist Gregory Ain reveals a style designed to adapt to changing social needs.

September 30, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Fifty years ago, Gregory Ain completed one of Los Angeles' most intriguing social experiments in his design for a bucolic housing development in Mar Vista that was meant to provide an affordable alternative to the vastly dispiriting postwar housing then spreading across the country. A half-century later, it seems opportune to revisit not only the career of one of Southern California's most accomplished, if least celebrated, Modernist architects, but also to look again at a time when architecture sought to actively shape the social landscape.

Originally planned as a development of 102 houses on a 60-acre tract southeast of Santa Monica, the Mar Vista development was reduced nearly by half because the Federal Housing Administration would not guarantee the necessary loans for the project's second phase. Yet the 52 houses that were completed encompass all of Ain's ambitions as a social planner. Ain believed in architecture's potential to shape a more egalitarian world. The Mar Vista housing project was an opportunity to expand those beliefs beyond architecture to an entire community. It remains one of his great successes.

Ain (1908-1988) was part of the so-called "second generation" of Modernists that flourished in postwar Los Angeles. Weaned in the offices of both Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra--the European ex-patriots who transformed Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s into a hotbed of Modernist architecture--Ain never abandoned his faith in Modernist doctrine.

For him that faith was coupled with firsthand experience in failed utopias. The son of a Russian Menshevik who migrated to the United States in 1906 after a spell in a Siberian prison, Ain lived briefly in Llano del Rio--the short-lived utopian desert commune founded by a group of disenchanted Los Angeles Socialists in 1914. His later architectural career paralleled the years of the Great Depression and the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, his leftist leanings were tempered by a desire to find practical solutions to the problems of everyday life.

At Mar Vista, Ain hoped to build a community that would both simplify the workload of the beleaguered middle-class housewife and encourage social interaction. The Mar Vista houses--which occupy one block each of Beethoven, Moore and Meier streets between Marco Place and Palms Boulevard--sold for about $11,000 each, a bit pricey for the area at the time.

Their design was deceptively simple: Long rectangular boxes with flat roofs and a mere 1,050 square feet of living space. Inside, however, life was ordered with the efficiency of a ship's cabin. Using sliding partitions, a family could reconfigure the house to fit its shifting needs. Close off the den to one side and open up the kitchen, and mothers can cook while calmly surveying a mischievous toddler in the cozy little living room or the garden beyond. Need to escape? Slide a wall shut and a den becomes a master bedroom, or one bedroom becomes two. The idea was to create a flexibility and flow that allowed for both family interaction and solitude.

The delicate balance--between public and private, between individual and community--extended beyond the house's interiors to inform the urban plan as well. In designing the subdivision, Ain used the placement of the houses and attached garages to enclose some exterior spaces, open up others. The landscaping--designed by California landscape architect Garrett Eckbo--was woven through the lots to give unity to the development and create a sort of communal park along the street.

Designs for Streets With Public Sharing

In a typical plan, for example, pairs of L-shaped houses--their plans flipped--frame a shared front lawn, encouraging communal interaction along the street, while in back, gardens were more privately segregated. The effect creates a subtle range of public and private spaces, a sophisticated antidote to the intentional isolation of the typical suburban lot.

Ain altered the pattern slightly from street to street, and the effect of such seemingly subtle shifts is telling. On Moore Street, front lawns are narrower and the internal life of the family seems to spill out onto the street. By setting some of the garages along a back alleyway instead of alongside the houses, children can zip by on bikes without the fear of cars turning across the sidewalk. On Meier Street, houses are set farther back, creating a more park-like atmosphere. Yet that openness is marked by a surprising stillness. The houses are less visible, more secluded. Deep front lawns keep visitors at a distance.

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