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In Defense of the Persian Palace

They're ostentatious and ridiculous and blot out their neighbors' sun. They're also open to light and the street, and expressive of an inviting, sociable culture.

December 17, 2006|Greg Goldin | Greg Goldin is Los Angeles magazine's architecture critic.

Paste, not taste, is the issue. Los Angeles suffers from an authenticity crisis. No one has ever been sure if the city is anything but confection--a lavish film industry set or an ever-expanding sequel to Abbot Kinney's transformation of the Del Rey marshland into Venice. The place is littered with architectural fakes, from Grauman's Chinese to the attic of the Gamble House, about which the critic Reyner Banham (who lived in and loved the house) remarked that if you "look into the roof spaces . . . you will find that the construction of what isn't seen, far from being carefully and lovingly wrought, tends to be the usual old US carpenter's crudwork, trued up with odd ends of lumber and spiked together with cock-eyed six-inch nails." The Spanish Colonial Revival, which is the L.A. vernacular, was invented by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, a devotee of the Spanish Baroque who adapted that opulent style for his design of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Goodhue's concoction caught on, and by the late 1920s, $50 lots were growing stucco and tile roofs.

So why not Persian Palaces? Alas, in neighborhoods with longstanding architectural traditions, they are taken as an affront. What bothers the neighbors, aside from the sunlight being blotted out, is the breach of decorum. We have settled notions of our unsettled city. We harbor illusions that our street is a pristine architectural exemplar. We may not want to abide by the burdensome restrictions of a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, but we like to think that our block deserves one. We also like to think that our house is in keeping with the nature of the place--that somehow our style of home, whether Craftsman, Spanish Revival or Modern, embraces the pueblo heritage and the parched ecology. But, as we secretly know, Los Angeles is a palimpsest--a city that is constantly stuccoing over itself. Such relentless re-imagining is the source of its energy, its inventiveness, its cultural cache. Who can deny that Persian Palaces speak to this aura of never-ending possibility?

Like the strip mall--L.A.'s last great urban innovation, maligned since its inception in the 1970s--Persian Palaces are a source of outsider cosmopolitanism. Mina Zahiri, who is building a home on Hamel Drive, on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills, says, "This is a new urban phenomenon. Beverly Hills was so quiet, and now you've got a mix of Middle Eastern, American, European. It's an architectural fusion, and it's bringing new life to the city."

Slow your car to a crawl on, for example, Rexford Drive, cruising below the Civic Center--which, by the way, is the largest postmodern pastiche in California. The Rexford tract was developed in the 1920s, and the street is dominated by one-story Spanish Colonial Revival homes, with an occasional timbered Tudor, gabled Gingerbread or Regency restoration. There are also a number of palatial newcomers. Midway along one block is a house, completed in 2005, that is defined by a two-story arch, set deep into the facade, from which sprout six coach lamps of the kind you might find on a Baroque Spanish four-in-hand. In all, the house is a credible likeness of a plainspoken Tuscan villa. One door to the north, another relatively new home shrugs listlessly, marred by a row of empty window boxes suspended too low to be of actual use. The house is trying to be some sort of palace, but it isn't trying hard enough. Then, one door farther north, you come upon an example so outrageous that you can walk by several times without realizing it's a clapboard bungalow wearing a neoclassical mask. Three pilasters, oddly spaced, form a decorative scheme apparently based on a drawing of a Corinthian temple. Outsized capitals, which hold up an undersized frieze, seem to depict sacrificial rams. That's the entire composition: nothing more than a flimsy facade, as one-dimensional as cardboard. You can almost see the original exterior through the addition. It's as if a set builder hammered the thing together on the front lawn, tilted it into place and left it balancing there without fastening it to the building it adorns--as if someone had played backward the famous stunt from Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

And you laugh, amused because the house unflinchingly flaunts its flippant facade. The neoclassical language--applauded in the Beverly Hills handbook when done correctly, derided when not--is so maddeningly wrong that all pretentiousness disappears. The house is whimsical, a bold declaration of independence from its staid surroundings.

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