It's all about the house

The private home vividly expresses the ideas on which Southern California was built. In this issue, we begin an occasional series on the architecture that defines the city past and present.

To an extent unique among the world's big cities, the architectural reputation of Los Angeles rests squarely, and comfortably, on its houses. If you take away Disney Hall, City Hall and the Hollywood sign — the postcard icons — the mental picture of the city that most of us carry around in our heads is a collage made up of residential types either invented in Southern California or refined here: a scrap of the bungalow and the garden apartment, a sliver of the beach house and the canyon hideaway. And nearly all of the local names we associate with important architecture — Greene and Greene, Neutra, Schindler, Gehry — first staked their claims with residential designs.

Indeed, if Los Angeles is a city of private rather than public attractions, as is so often claimed, one simple reason is that its houses and apartments, and the gardens and other outdoor spaces that go with them, have been compelling enough to keep people close to home, their focus directed inward.

There are other, more impressive-sounding explanations for the underdeveloped quality of public life here, beginning with the region's sprawling geography, love affair with the car and confusing jumble of a power structure. And theorists of all kinds, from Mike Davis to the filmmakers who brought us "Crash," continue to argue that any appealing picture of domestic life in Los Angeles, architectural or otherwise, is an illusion, mere camouflage for the alienation and disconnection that really define the place.

In an important if limited sense, of course, they are right about that; too often the detached house has been symbolic of a detached citizenry. But if New York had as many extensive backyards and light-filled bedrooms as Los Angeles does, especially in its middle-class neighborhoods, would there be a Central Park? Or even a Fifth Avenue?

Looked at in a certain way, the history of Los Angeles, and perhaps of Southern California as a whole, is the history of an effort to perfect the single-family residence, and then to advertise the results of that effort around the world. The driving force — and the chief metaphor — for the growth of Los Angeles over the last century has been the notion that the average working family could move here and find a handsome, sun-splashed little house with a patch of lawn and maybe even its own palm tree to complete the picture.

It was that promise, brilliantly and shamelessly marketed by the city's power brokers for much of the 20th century, that brought families to Los Angeles from Central America and Southeast Asia as surely as from the Midwestern United States.

Not incidentally, the most memorable residential architecture in Los Angeles has been produced by talented designers trying, in ever-novel ways, to bring sophistication to the affordable house. And if rising density and the limits of sprawl mean that the dream of the perfect Southern California house and garden has ended for all but the wealthiest of newcomers, that hasn't dimmed the power of the ideal. It just means that we have yet another contradiction by which to define Los Angeles: that this is now a city where houses built for the middle class or even the working class regularly sell for a million dollars or more.

Still, architects who have concentrated on designing houses meant from the beginning to be expensive have rarely distinguished themselves in Los Angeles. This is a city where attempts at architectural grandeur and even mere stateliness have tended to fall flat.

That isn't to suggest that there is no market for such architecture. The city is overflowing with it, from oversized custom-designed estates to apartment buildings straining to look more exclusive or expensively built than they really are. And surely it says something about Los Angeles' slippery sense of self that so many derivative styles associated with other regions, countries or eras have competed over the years for our attention, from the Spanish Colonial Revival to the vaguely (and pretentiously) Mediterranean, which has been all the rage in recent years.

But the residential designs that have stood the test of time have not been those meant to impress the neighbors, at least not in a bourgeois, pedigreed sense. They have been nearer the opposite: ones featuring an honest and straightforward approach, a clarity about budget and materials, and an assertion of the Modernist ideal that great design shouldn't be reserved for the wealthy. These qualities are precisely what connects the work of the anonymous builders who put up the bungalows in Pasadena and Long Beach with Modernists like Schindler and Neutra and contemporary figures such as Gehry and Mayne, whose residential works often feature a deliberately unfinished-looking, ad-hoc flair.

Indeed, nearly every residential design with architectural distinction here has been both experimental — in the sense of using new materials, or combining influences in a fresh way, to say something authentic about Los Angeles — and pragmatic.

Among the most appealing examples is the work of Irving Gill, whose talents emerged in buildings here and in San Diego in the years surrounding World War I. Gill designed his share of expensive residences but did his best work in projects such as the Horatio West Court apartments in Santa Monica. Completed in 1921, Horatio Court did more than suggest Gill's growing assurance in combining the clean lines of modern architecture with the plain stuccoed walls and arched openings of the Mission style, which already had a secure foothold here. It was a project that helped mark Los Angeles as the appropriate home for a kind of residential architecture that was economically and thoughtfully designed and open to the sunshine and fresh air. It was an exploitation, in the best and most humane sense, of everything the region had to offer, and an early example of dense development to boot. Its apartments are still sought-after.

Many of the same attributes mark Schindler's smallish house for himself on Kings Road in West Hollywood, which he built after moving west to supervise the completion of Frank Lloyd Wright's house for Aline Barnsdall on Olive Hill. In that case, it is the proportions and the craftsmanship of the Schindler house, and the way it engages its garden, that mark its importance rather than any flashiness or what we now call curb appeal.

A later example of the same kind is Paul Williams' house for his family in Lafayette Square. While he was designing sumptuous interiors for the Beverly Hills Hotel and grand houses for wealthy clients, as a black architect he was also, infamously, not able to enjoy some of his ostensibly public creations. But he was able to purchase a plot of land and build what perhaps should be considered his most assured design: a small, trim modern house on its attractive plot and with its own collection of palm trees.

Even many of the houses that we now associate with the stylish affluence of Los Angeles in the 1950s are actually experiments in the same sort of middle-class architecture. Anyone with even a passing interest in architecture, for example, is familiar with Julius Shulman's famous photograph of a house in the evening cantilevered out over its hillside lot; the image shows a living room scene and, on the other side of floor-to-ceiling glass, Los Angeles glittering in the background.

That picture has become something of a photographic shorthand for the appeal of Los Angeles. Its subject, however, is not an expensive custom design, but one of the three dozen Case Study houses commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine and built between 1945 and 1966 as prototypes for a new generation of affordable modern design.

Another product of the Case Study effort was the house Charles and Ray Eames designed for themselves in Pacific Palisades, set on an enviable eucalyptus-covered lot not far from the beach. (It is also not far from the houses of Rustic Canyon, many of which, perhaps most notably the residence of architect Raymond Kappe, are also landmarks of a modest West Coast Modernism, often executed in wood and glass, that blend easily with their sites.) Boxy and airy, marked by the easy sophistication that characterized all of the couple's' work, the 1949 Eames House remains a model of the way Los Angeles architects managed to humanize Modernism. Assembled from off-the-shelf building parts, it is down-to-earth and accessible, unlike the cold and aloof designs so often produced by Modernism's European pioneers.

There have been various attempts through the years to re-create the Case Study program. The most recent have been propelled by an explosion of interest in prefabricated houses, which attempt to do for a mass market just what the Eames house was able to do: combine affordable modular construction with high-design flair. Dwell magazine, for example, has held two competitions for low-cost modular houses, the second of which featured a site in Topanga Canyon. The magazine invited five local firms to design a prototype, Case Study style, for a low-cost prefab house that is also environmentally sustainable.

The winner, announced in December, was the Los Angeles firm Escher GuneWardena, which produced an attractive, clean-lined design, featuring an open pavilion of living space and a roof planted with grass as natural insulation. But if the architecture and the interest in sustainability seemed entirely up-to-date, the magazine's decision to use a single-family site in the hills suggested the continuing power of an outdated idea: that the primary appeal of Los Angeles is the chance to carve out your very own piece of residential paradise here, without worrying about neighbors or the environmental efficiency of driving your car in and out of Topanga Canyon every day.

The truth, of course, is that for several decades Los Angeles has been too full of people to spare even a minuscule plot of land for every family. The region's outlying suburbs have been taking up the slack, but even the ones two hours away by car have run out of room. What that means is that an identity crisis is looming, if it hasn't arrived already. If the very idea that has, arguably more than any other, helped define Southern California for a century has been rendered obsolete, what does that mean for the region's vision of itself? Will density spell the end of the unique relationship between Angelenos and their houses? Will residential architecture simply fade as a factor in defining the city in the coming century?

The great challenge for the city's residential architects over the next couple of decades will be making the old model of affordable charisma fresh and relevant again for a post-sprawl (or even a post-post-sprawl) Los Angeles. Already, developments appropriate for a denser Los Angeles are cropping up all over the city, including a spate of projects downtown that are turning old office buildings into loft apartments. And the tall, thin apartment towers that helped revitalize several cities over the last decade are beginning to gain favor here too. But what those projects mostly lack is a connection to nature and region, a sense that they belong in, and to, Los Angeles.

One possible alternative to their generally forgettable design is an updated version of the low-rise garden apartments that Gill and others pioneered here early last century: With their combination of moderate density and openness to the outdoors, they suggest an approach that might succeed even in a crowded city. But they are not popular with most developers, who prefer bigger projects — a little more bang for their construction buck. Already, an unfortunate number of the original garden apartments, and other attractive mid-rise complexes, have been demolished to make way for much larger apartment buildings. In Venice, tenants and preservationists are fighting to save the Lincoln Place apartment complex, a fine postwar example of the garden court style designed by Heth Wharton and Ralph Vaughn.

Modular design, too, could be employed to deliver stylish residential design to L.A.'s newcomers at a reasonable price, but only if it proves adaptable to a multi-unit configuration — and only if its champions can team successfully with powerful housing developers, who are content to stick with more proven, traditional designs.

Without those adjustments — or some unforeseen breakthrough from still-unknown young architects — the city's greatest houses are in danger of becoming mere museum pieces, evocative of a time when even the most forward-looking residential architecture was tightly woven into the daily fabric of Los Angeles life.