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PERSPECTIVE

Let's Go Back to the Drawing Board

L.A.'s growing population signals a need for developers to drop their surveys and make

the most of the region's architectural talents.

May 14, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

The City of Sprawl is booming again. Vast housing developments are filling the last tracts of open land at the city's edges. Apartment complexes are filling in the city's remaining empty lots. Clusters of coastal mansions are being constructed to satisfy the needs of the new twentysomething Information Age magnates. But architects aren't smiling.

The reason is that once again the profession's creative elite has been relegated to the sidelines, designing scattered landmark residences while the majority of new housing remains in the hands of corporate developers. The break between the worlds of first-rate architecture and conventional home building--never close in the first place--is now a chasm. Architecture schools rarely focus on housing issues. And even the most theoretical firms have had little success with new models for the way most of us live--once a central concern of 20th century design.

To some, the neglect of architectural talent in the housing business may seem inevitable. Developers, by nature, have always been a pragmatic, even conservative breed. Their goal is marketable housing, with an emphasis on the bottom line. They see high-end architects as lofty visionaries cut off from real-world experience, and the most theoretical work as potentially scary to clients.

It is the public, however, that is losing. Simple market practices produce conventional, cookie-cutter designs. What's missing is the creative intelligence that once made this city a center of innovative residential design.

Not so long ago, a generation of renowned Los Angeles architects saw the city as fertile ground for exploring new forms of housing that would serve the needs of a growing middle class. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1923 proposed development for a hillside site on the Doheny Ranch in Beverly Hills, for instance, was a stunning, if costly, interpretation of Los Angeles' peculiar realities. The design's low masonry homes and narrow roadways were conceived as a unified composition--shelter, car and nature inextricably bound together. Wright, however, could never find a developer for the project, and he eventually left Los Angeles in a huff.

Others had better luck. Gregory Ain's 1946-48 design for the Mar Vista development is an eloquent West Coast interpretation of Modernist themes, with 53 standardized, L-shaped houses that were arranged in various configurations to enclose private and semiprivate gardens. Inside, sliding partitions allowed families to adapt the 1,500-square-foot houses to their changing needs.

And then there were the famed Case Study houses of the 1950s, whose clean, steel-frame industrial aesthetic, marked by large expanses of glass, were meant as affordable prototypes for a more open, "transparent" society. The program, sponsored by the now-defunct, Los Angeles-based Arts & Architecture Magazine, produced eight houses for a variety of open-minded clients, each house a shining example of technological efficiency.

But such experiments never infiltrated the larger development community, and by the 1970s Modernism in general was in crisis. In more dense urban centers like New York and Chicago, the public perception of Modernist housing was a cluster of sterile towers rising out of a dead plaza. In Los Angeles, where the single-family home remained the predominant housing type, Modernism simply went out of fashion. Serious architects, under attack, largely gave up on the notion that they could have any impact on the mass market. Even the rise of new brands of architectural thought--many of which emerged from Los Angeles in the '80s--did little to change that. East Coast magazine editors logged thousands of frequent-flier miles searching for the newest Los Angeles architectural sensations. Houses by architects such as Eric Owen Moss, Frank O. Gehry, Thom Mayne and the late Frank Israel received national recognition. But these were made for the odd individual, and local developers took little notice.

As it turns out, the failure of contemporary architecture's great talents to tap into housing was a particularly American phenomenon. In Berlin, Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza designed a 1984 apartment block whose undulating facade, delicately sculpted stairways and external corridors created an elegant sequence of public spaces on a limited budget.

In Nimes, France, Jean Nouvel's 1987 Nemausus project remains a model of affordable apartments for a nomadic, industrialized culture, with enormous airy lofts and garage-like doors that open onto long, sweeping decks evoking the image of a landlocked ship. The success of such projects--mostly commissioned and paid for by government agencies--is a testament to what can be achieved even with limited means.

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