RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECTURE : The New Suburbia : Mediterranean-Style Villages Are Replacing Cookie-Cutter Tract Homes in Award-Winning Southern California Developments

<i> Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' urban design critic. </i>

THE SUSTAINING DREAM of most Southern Californians is to not live in, or even near, a city. Just as when millions of young families flocked to the small farming towns on the fringes of a burgeon ing Los Angeles after World War II, today people are seeking economically and socially homogeneous suburban neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean the cookie-cutter tract developments of the ‘40s and ‘50s, however; today’s suburban home buyers seek subdivisions with sensitive master plans that incorporate meandering bike paths and jogging trails, pleasant parks and pools, competent community schools and convenient shopping centers. In short, they’re looking for a comfortable small-town atmosphere within commuting distance of a big city, an almost idyllic place to watch the kids, the grass, the real estate values and the equity grow while they pursue the American dream.

Across Southern California the population is expanding into spanking new suburban areas in Irvine, further south into San Diego County, east into San Bernardino, north onto the high desert and west toward Ventura. In 1987, this growth accounted for two-thirds of the region’s population increase.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 16, 1988 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 1988 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Sept. 18 issue, photos accompanying “The New Suburbia,” by Sam Hall Kaplan, were taken by photographer David Glomb. --The Editors

Southern California is, without question, the pacesetter for the design of the new, village-oriented, suburban America. “Ever since the sprawling (93,000-acre) Irvine Ranch was master-planned in the 1960s, we have been making pilgrimages there to check out the latest designs,” remarks Nevada developer Mark Fine, who surveys residential developments in the United States as an officer of the Urban Land Institute.

“What you see going up in Southern California now is what you most likely will see going up in other suburbs across the country in the next few years,” adds Fine, who has used these ideas in developing Green Valley, a successful 8,300-acre planned community outside Las Vegas. “The materials and architectural styles may be different because of the weather and local preferences, but the land-use concepts, floor plans and marketing concepts will be quite similar to what’s on the rise in Southern California, generally, and in Irvine, specifically.”


The latest innovation in the shaping of Southern California suburbia is what planners call “increased densification"--putting more housing on less land. In the ‘50s, the average density in a tract development was perhaps three or four homes per acre; today’s developments artfully compact as many as 7.75--sometimes even more--homes on an acre. Significantly, developers have not only doubled the number of homes per acre, they’ve also doubled their size from an average of 900 square feet to an average of 1,800 square feet. But this does not necessarily mean that suburbia is being overwhelmed with cheek-by-jowl housing.

“If you can--with imagination--keep the amenities people want in suburbia, such as the back yards, the bike paths, parks and a sense of open space, increased densification is not bad,” observes Santa Barbara-based architect Barry Berkus. “In fact, density can increase the desirability of a community by creating a friendly village atmosphere, not unlike in a Mediterranean country.” Berkus was a pioneer of what are called planned-unit developments in Southern California--including the prize-winning Woodbridge Landing and Turtle Rock Highland neighborhoods of Irvine--and recently he has been experimenting with even higher densities, inspired in part by the ancient villages and towns of Italy and Greece.

Berkus’ design of the new Leisure Village Ocean Hills retirement community, in the rolling hills of north San Diego County near Oceanside, is considered one of the most successful of the recent, higher-density developments, with 5.2 homes per acre. Architects and developers from across the country are also studying the Le Parc planned communities in El Toro, Chino, Simi Valley and Westpark in Irvine.

Westpark, designed by the architecture firm of Richardson Nagy Martin of Newport Beach, won a Gold Nugget Award for best site plan last year from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference. The Westpark plan was cited for creating “a distinctive architectural character and sense of community on a site devoid of natural or topographical amenities.”


A collection of six neighborhoods totaling 4,500 homes, Westpark is being constructed over a five-year period. It focuses on homes for the “young professional couple with a growing family” and “maturing professional families,” according to sales literature. “Informal living” is stressed and, judging from the strollers and bicycles scattered in front of the houses along the gently curving streets, the developers targeted their market correctly.

What Westpark illustrates is how so much house can be finessed onto relatively small lots. In the case of the single-family Promenade subdivision, where houses averaging 1,800 square feet are selling for about $300,000, the developers achieved a density of 7.75 detached single-family houses per acre, equal to the densities of some of the attached townhouse developments in the area. Just a few years ago in Irvine, the density of detached housing developments averaged about four to five per acre.

This successful higher density--which makes the site seem larger than it is--was accomplished by a clever technique known as the Z-lot plan, in which the lot and house are laid out diagonally to the street, forming a Z, with front and back yards at angles to the home. The front entrance, located on the lot line, can be better detailed and made more attractive, improving curb appeal. Compact yards become more usable, and the floor plan of the house both feels and looks more spacious than the old ‘50s boxlike tract model. Numerous windows brighten the interiors with natural light.

In the two-story Promenade model, designed by Walt Richardson, gated archways lend the front facade a pleasant focus and, not coincidentally, take your eye away from the double garage doors edging the street. The archway leads into a welcoming private courtyard. Once you step inside the front door, the living and dining rooms are arranged so that you can look diagonally through them into the rear yard. This see-through design, aided by large corner windows, lends the house an openness and makes it seem larger. The layout is an impressive architectural maneuver.


“The houses have a strong indoor / outdoor relationship that small houses can’t do without,” comments Richardson, who designed the houses in a fanciful, abstracted California style with vaulted chimney tops and half-round Palladian windows.

“Streetscaping” and landscaping, as well as security and maintenance, are stressed in the Berkus-designed 1,672-unit Leisure Village Ocean Hills development. Designed in the spirit of a Greek island village of attached houses and geared to the active older adult, Ocean Hills is being developed in stages. The most recent units range in size from 1,131 to 1,936 square feet and sell from $160,000 to $224,990. Of 1,636 homes, 960 have been sold.

Striding through his instant village, Berkus pauses every few yards to call attention to fragrant flowers in bloom, the use of classical forms such as arches and bell towers, the extra thickness of hand-finished walls and the patina of the red tile roofs to “hint at a certain architectural timelessness,” as he puts it. He paid particular attention to the country club at the center of the property. “We wanted to create a place that was like a resort, where residents would want to get out of their houses and enjoy taking part in activities,” he explains.

Although it is new, there is a real sense of place and a feeling of community at Ocean Hills. “People no longer just want shelter, a house with a back yard set off from their neighbor’s, as they did when they first started flocking to suburbia in the 1950s,” Berkus says. “Tract housing is out.”


Suburban design, Berkus explains, is responding to shifts in life styles. “People who look at computer screens all day want to get out and walk, see what is happening up and down the street, maybe talk to a neighbor, take part in an activity,” the architect says. “To achieve that feeling, higher densities actually help. Not only does it reduce the cost of housing and make it available to more people, but higher density actually makes for a friendly community and, in many ways, a more interesting design.”

The delicate balance between the social and physical aspects of density is illustrated dramatically by the Le Parc projects, which were planned with first-time buyers in mind. Designed in a sprightly abstracted Modernist style by architect Johannes Van Tilburg of Santa Monica, the projects have densities of nearly 20 units to an acre and focus on central, communal recreation facilities.

Opened last year, Le Parc Simi Valley is the most recently completed of the Le Parc projects. It consists of 277 units in 22 clustered two-story buildings, accented by pastel colors, glass-block walls, metal pipe railings, curved patio walls, exotic plantings and both modern and rustic-styled fountains around the property. The feeling is playful: a bit of Marina del Rey northwest of the San Fernando Valley.

To keep costs down--units are priced in the $90,000 range--buildings were designed with standardized layouts of 12 units each. However, to lend the buildings character, each unit was turned this way and that, levels created, landscaping varied, and each unit was given its own exterior doorway instead of a shared interior hall. The units also were lent individuality by the varying use of interior lofts, cathedral ceilings and skylights and, on the exteriors, by alternating private patios, balconies and roof gardens.


Like Berkus, Van Tilburg believes that the challenge of design in suburbia today is to shape developments that offer residents both a sense of pride in their homes and a sense of place in their communities.

Or, as one happy Le Parc resident put it, “the price is right, the location is right, and, I think, about now the temperature of the water is about right.” She then excused herself, rose, took two steps to the edge of the pool and dived in.