by Garrison Frost
Los Angeles is full of dingbats. I don't expect too many arguments there. After all, somebody thought it was a good idea not to run the Green Line all the way to the airport. Lots of other people go to the beach without suntan lotion. Day-glo is still popular. And people still build homes in Malibu.
Fair enough, but these aren't the kind of dingbats I'm talking about. In fact, I'm not referring to people at all. I'm talking about buildings.
Dingbats, you see, are the large, rectangular apartment buildings scattered all over this great city of ours from Norwalk to Pasadena to Redondo Beach to Santa Monica.
Built primarily in the '50s and '60s, the dingbats are usually simple two- to four-story wood and stucco structures which are balanced on small beams or poles to accommodate parking spaces on the first level.
Most dingbats are remarkable only in their complete lack of any distinguishable qualities. The builders of some dingbats, however, chose to decorate their flat facades with all sorts of gaudy decorations like tikis, cutout fish, planets and stars. Others sought to achieve individuality by giving their behemoths elegant names.
Nearly every book I consulted for this article credited Reyner Banham with coining the term dingbat; however, in his seminal work on Los Angeles architecture, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of four Ecologies, Banham gives UCLA colleague Francis Ventre credit for the name.
In his book, Banham speaks at length about the customized dingbats:
"A row of dingbats with standardized neat backs and sides will have every street facade competitively individual, to the extent that it is hard to believe that similar buildings lie behind. Everything is there from Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-line Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled and even in extremity Moderne."
In a city that has drawn architectural influences from almost every corner of the globe (for better or worse), the dingbat often serves as the vanilla for the more glamorous flavors that surround it. However, my feeling is that this rare indigenous form may have more to say about the essence of this town than any of the others.
Many people would give say that Los Angeles' defining architectural style is the so-called Spanish Colonial Revival that dots the Southern California landscape. Once referring to the basic forms of Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean, the term Spanish Colonial Revival now seems to refer to anything with a tiled roof, rough walls, real or artificial wrought iron and/or brown paint.
While it would be easy to describe this style as endemic to Los Angeles, it should be remembered that Spanish Colonial Revival is an import of a kind, an effort on the part of many individuals to reproduce an environment that existed elsewhere. Spanish Colonial Revival is merely decoration, and often pretty ugly decoration at that.
An even stronger case can be made for the bungalow as being the distinctive Los Angeles style. First seen in the area in the form of upper-crust creations by Charles and Henry Green, and in more modern versions by Frank Lloyd Wright, the bungalow style eventually evolved into an inexpensive facilitator for a whole generations of urban sprawl. You'll find bungalows everywhere from Watts to Pasadena to Santa Monica.
But as with other forms of architectural style in Los Angeles, the bungalow was simply a device that proved handy. It wasn't a product of Angeleno culture; it was something that existed long before Los Angeles but was merely found to be useful here
One style that could easily have stakes a claim as a true product of Los Angeles was the open to the sky steel and glass forms created by Charles Eames and Craig Ellwood in the 50s. Unfortunately, while this style influenced many architects around the country and abroad, it never really took hold in the city of its birth.
Which brings me back to the dingbat, which I will argue is the only true Los Angeles architecture.
They went up at a time when thousands of people were discovering the beauty of beach city living. Developers took advantage of this by maximizing the number of rentable units on their lots.
But I am less intrigued with the builders of the dingbats than with the people who eventually moved into these beauties. These were the people who truly made Los Angeles what it is today the recent transplants, the surfers, the starving actors, the people who were willing to suffer their surroundings because they felt they were destined for something better, something that only Los Angeles could offer.
Articles of praise like this one often include a cry of preservation, but one won't be necessary here. As South Bay architect Pat Killen explained, most dingbats pull in tremendous rents for their owners. You do the match on an eight-unit building on one lot that pulls in $1,200 to $1,400 a month from each apartment.
"They're cash cows," Killed said. "They're economic jewels and aesthetic blights." Killed added that most cities downzoned residential areas in the 70s and 80s to stop the dingbatization going on, which means that "the ones that remain will be there until they fall down."
And fall down they might. The priorities for dingbat builders were cheap construction and maximization of space. As the Northridge earthquake proved, when the ground moves your typical dingbat will just look for a place to fall down.
Ugliness and safety aside, the dingbats reflect a uniquely Los Angeles psyche. Banham wrote that the dingbat "is the true symptom of Los Angeles' urban Id trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusions of homestead living."
Although he isn't particularly fond of the style, Killen did admit that the dingbats were "part and parcel to the history of Los Angeles." To him, the buildings typified the philosophy of "trying to cram as many people onto a space as possible and at the same time pay homage to the automobile by giving it primacy on the first level."
"What could be more L.A. than that?" he added. What indeed.
There is one last aspect to the dingbat that makes them particularly important to me: They appeal to one's sense of whimsy.
I think of those names examples in the South Bay include Surf View, Hermosa Shores, Sea Surf, Hari Lanai, The Seagull, Tropic Isle, The Manhattan, Holiday Southwinds and I imagine a world where there are no addresses, where people just refer to buildings like in Raymond Chandler novels.
"Cabby, take me to the Hermosa Shores and step on it."
The dingbats epitomize an era when people didn't take themselves or their living spaces too seriously. Ugly as they may be, the oddly decorated structures hark back to a time when it was quite all right to stick a giant plywood seahorse on the wall, laugh at one's self and get on with the things in life that really mattered.
Perhaps the dingbats weren't so silly after all.
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