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A Benician in L.A.

How to almost even appreciate Los Angeles
by Steve McKee on November 27, 2008

It was while soaking in my aunt’s bath-like pool admiring a particularly handsome grouping of palm trees that I realized what most people don’t “get” about Los Angeles. It’s the micro, not the macro. The long drives to get everywhere can sure suck, but the buildings and spaces that await you at the end of your drive can be pretty sweet. Little paradises within the landscape of sprawl.

The moment came last July when Melody and I and daughter Gwenna had just traversed the entire L.A. basin by freeway to get to my aunt and uncle’s house in Murrieta, and in so doing passed through a vast unending landscape of mostly low-rise development seen against a backdrop of distant hills barely visible through smog. Now relaxing in the pool, cerveza in hand, the faceless blur of houses and buildings had been replaced by just this one house. The air seemed clear enough, the water was warm, Astrud Gilberto sang from a pool-side speaker disguised as a rock and the world seemed pretty good.

My aunt’s house is a Spanish style home, rambling and informal with courtyards and fountains and lots of Mexican tile. I love it, and not just because it’s my design and was one of my first projects where all parties were highly focused on doing something unique. After we finished the house, my uncle tricked out the outside like a resort with stepped terraces and patios shaded by bougainvillea vines. There are accents like waterfalls and up-lights on key trees. The final product is really a world apart.

It’s the classic L.A. situation of the desert transformed. Because I was flown down in 1997 to help pick out which of the very vacant lots to build out, I can attest to how remarkable the transformation truly has been.

After another swim the following morning Melody and I delivered Gwenna to her theater arts “camp” at UCLA and then proceeded to our Venice Beach rental house to become L.A. tourists for the week. Mel and I met at UCLA many years ago (recreational backpack class) and we each had our years of living in various two-story stucco apartments around west Los Angeles, but we never fully played the footloose tourists. When I left L.A. twenty-five years ago after getting my degree, I recall being pretty tired of the traffic and the way the built environment all just ran together. Too many strip malls. I was glad to get out.

So I have no great love of the place, and yet I somehow feel a need to defend it (a little bit anyway) when I hear northerners dismiss it all so quickly.

There is something unique and therefore valuable about Los Angeles, almost like we would have to invent such a place if we didn’t have one. It’s a sort of laboratory for our society to experiment with weirder things (like “out there” architecture) that might not have a chance in more staid environments elsewhere.

Take Venice Beach, our temporary home for the week. A hundred years ago Venice was created to be like its Italian namesake with canals and arcaded buildings. Some of this remains, but it’s morphed into something altogether different, the carnival version of L.A. Per capita tattoo shops must be the highest in the world. Head shops too. On the famous and crowded “beach walk” I saw the expected skaters and cyclists, but there was also a dog with a Mohawk, a band of Johnny Cash imitators and a sunburned barefoot guy holding a sign that simply said “7 foot back flip $1” and that’s just the start of the list of characters.

It’s the most “live and let live” place I’ve ever seen. Narrow pedestrian paths and alleys keep the density high and the yards small, but it all seems somehow happy. Not much graffiti at all, but every now and then a garden wall had intense graffiti, layered and colorful and dense like an art project. Venice absorbs and pacifies this sort of thing and makes it all seem like just more local color; like the wall and Venice would be worse off without those layers of paint on it.

Near the beach we took a look at a house by Frank Gehry, an architect that only L.A. could have produced. He is now world renowned for the way he breaks up a building’s mass into twisted and curved planes. He started in 1978 with an addition to his own Santa Monica bungalow that was turned inside out with exposed studs and a big tilted glass cube over the kitchen that was shaded by a big tree. I got to see the inside decades ago during my student days and can tell you it is actually quite serene. Gehry belongs in L.A. So do other architects doing slightly “weird” stuff that would never play in Peoria, the Midwest, or even northern California.

We visited Gehry’s new shining sculpture of a building called the Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. I have long held a wary eye to Gehry’s increasingly non-contextual buildings with their attitude of “Look at me! Aren’t I just the most special thing ever!” The world would be a pretty miserable place if everyone designed that way. But the Disney Hall seemed to work, from the various functional spaces performing their designated tasks, to having our human need for poetry met with exalted space that curves and expands in ways that buildings just don’t do. As much as Gehry seems to have become a one-trick pony, the results are unlike anything else in the history of the world. Because the Concert Hall stands out so definitively as an “object” in everybody’s mind, it succeeds at being an icon for the region that is known to all, which is appropriate for a cultural center. Another L.A. delight to be visited within the sprawl.

We also visited the J. Paul Getty Museum designed by New Yorker Richard Meier, a slick set of buildings that literally stand out on a hilltop above the city. It’s been argued by some that this campus of a museum would have served the city better if it were down within the city grid and not standing aloof above. Just about everywhere else that statement makes perfect sense. But this is L.A. land, the land of stand-alone architectural destinations. It makes a hell of a palace on a hill.

Of the two architects, Gehry and Meier, it’s easy to tell which building was done by the slick ultra-cool New York rationalist and which was done by the out-there “anything goes” L.A. guy. Without Los Angeles there is no Frank Gehry. We are better off for having that weird L.A. thinking available to us.

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