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Metropolis / Chat Room

Art History Is Moving to the Suburbs

April 21, 2002|GINNY CHIEN

Move over, Angelino Heights. Mid-century suburbia is the new darling of architectural preservation. Urban historian Greg Hise, an associate professor at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, made a case for protecting L.A.'s postwar planned communities in a recent lecture at the Getty Center. We asked the author of "Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the 20th Century Metropolis" (Johns Hopkins University Press) about what makes tract homes special.

Are you telling us that suburban tract houses could have the cachet of Victorians and Craftsmen?

Don't they already? Chronicle Books even published a design book about Joseph Eichler houses. And the Gregory Ain tract in Mar Vista is immensely desirable. The fact that the Getty [Conservation Institute] and the L.A. Conservancy are presenting this lecture shows that people are paying attention. Some of it is the 50-year designation. Some of it is nostalgia. But this is just the beginning of a long conversation.

What's distinctive about a postwar suburb?

One critical difference is scale. These developments are much larger than the ones found before 1945. And if you're building lots of houses, what's the most efficient way to build quickly? Use a plan that's more square, doesn't have things [protruding], like porches. [Also,] because they were working with such large areas, developers sold communities rather than just houses.

Where do the barbecue and the pool fit in?

The way houses are positioned on typical tracts of the '40s shows that the emphasis is on cutting yourself off. This privatization turns the backyard into an outdoor family room. Things that had been public can now be private.

What are L.A.'s best examples?

You almost couldn't miss if you threw a dart at a map. But Lakewood is a prime example. Panorama City and the San Fernando Valley were case studies I developed in my book.

Why preserve suburbs?

It can help us see how we got here, and perhaps how to get the city we want for the future. I think Atlanta and other cities developed similarly to L.A. You can't really talk about a city without looking at the suburbs. We need the whole picture.

How do you preserve a suburb?

Good question. Some of these houses were built from cheap material that could be put up quickly. They were meant to be changed and adapted. And if you only preserve the houses, I'd argue you're missing the point.For example, Panorama City was developed with a retail district. Designating the tracts are challenging issues. No one is about to declare the San Fernando Valley a historic site.

Is the homogenized suburban image fair?

You'd be hard-pressed to find an "Ozzie and Harriet" family or a "Leave It to Beaver" neighborhood. That just isn't reality. The simple dichotomy of city and suburb doesn't cut it. Each type, like working-class suburbs or industrial suburbs, has its own culture.

How has suburbia shaped the L.A. character?

For people who don't live here, I think suburbia is their image of L.A. They tend to picture everybody driving. And where are we all going? From our house in the suburbs, past strip malls, to a job in the city.

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