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American Dream House: New Reality

Times Staff Writer

Television’s No. 1 couple for 14 years--the nuclear-family Nelsons, with two kids, a dog and a cat--may be gone. But they continue to create a major obstacle to the future because builders keep turning out houses for folks like them.

“We have institutionalized Ozzie and Harriet right into our housing codes,” urban designer Michael Pittas declares.

Although nuclear families have dwindled to 16% of the U.S. population and are “likely to disappear entirely tomorrow,” he says, designers and builders still are churning out American dream homes with “360 degrees of space around it and the set of amenities that go along with that.” This, declares Pittas, a former New York City planning director, is one of his major quarrels with his profession: “We always seem to be dealing with yesterday’s problems.”

That was the theme he set as the recent keynote speaker for the third Future Now conference in West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center, where a sold-out audience of 250 planners from Los Angeles and Orange counties heard Pittas’ exhortation to “stop designing for the past and start designing for the future.”

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That, he says, means looking at the present and the demographic reality of growing waves of single-parent families, retired people and single-person households and extended family households.

It means experimenting with the array of housing alternatives now thwarted by “Ozzie and Harriet” housing codes--congregate housing, co-op housing and mixed-used buildings that combine work spaces and residences.

Pittas, who has an extensive background in urban design, headed the National Endowment for the Arts Design Arts Program for six years and now runs his own Design/Development Service in Los Feliz with clients around the world.

He also is active in local design projects, and observes that in Los Angeles, “I think we are just ‘making do’ in almost every sector. But we can do a lot better. Los Angeles is retrievable--there is so much potential here that has not been tapped.”

At the West Hollywood event, he acted as a consciousness-raiser to rally enthusiasm for tapping potential. Explained Mark Winogrond, West Hollywood’s development director and the forum’s planner: “This is the only conference symposium we know of devoted exclusively to urban design issues. Our focus is different every year and this year we wanted to look at the future form of the Los Angeles Basin. We are talking about the next decade and into the first decade of the next century.”

The conference attracts more attention every year, he noted, adding, “There is a growing interest in the general public on the increasing pain of living in a place where life is so dramatically dictated by growth. I think it’s very comforting to know there are people addressing these problems and if there are solutions that might enhance livability.”

Familiar Litany of Data

The conference program documented that concern, with discussions of statistics that have become a familiar litany at any gathering where Los Angeles’ future is analyzed: The projection that the six-county metropolitan area’s 12.8 million population will grow to 18.3 million by 2010 and be accompanied by equal increases in traffic, smog and skyrocketing housing prices. Such figures, Pittas notes, persuade the public that the future is “something terrible that is about to happen to us . . . expanding populations, decaying cities, uncontrollable economic and social forces, dehumanizing technology and terrorism.”

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That apocalyptic view, he says, may sell books but it will not suffice as a philosophy for confronting the third millennium. “Furthermore, it isn’t true, unless we want it to be true,” he argues.

Perhaps, because the future looks so threatening, planners and builders keep looking back, wistfully designing homes for the mythical nuclear family. But that is equally unhelpful, he says, adding, “I fear that too many of us in the design and planning fields at our worst deal with ‘yesterday’s problems,’ and, at our best, with such shortsightedness that we cannot seem to extend our ideas into futures which contain any degree of uncertainty, of risk or change for failure.”

His challenge to architects, planners and designers is to take risks and not follow the easy route of blaming rule makers--lawyers, bankers, insurers and politicians responsible for housing laws--for today’s housing problems.

Though their laws reflect an “erroneous view of society,” he urges his colleagues to ask: “Why don’t city planners and urban designers have any real say in how a city is planned? Why can’t architects influence the building codes and property standards which inhibit their work? Why are most parks and plazas designed more by maintenance departments and litigious lawyers than by landscape architects?”

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The answer? He says it “lies in withdrawal, retreat, fatigue with social causes. I think that as a profession we have copped out of participating in the big issues.”

He wants his colleagues to attack their constraints.

“We have contented ourselves with finding more and more beautiful answers to smaller and smaller problems,” he says. “We have lost contact with politicians, economists, social scientists--with decision-makers. We speak and write and design for each other.

“We have boxed ourselves in to the point where we do not really count and we do not have any real power or influence. We must get out of that box and find again that power to influence events.”

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