CRITIQUE : Santa Monica’s Edgemar Improves Upon the Mini-Mall

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

The new Edgemar development on Santa Monica’s Main Street is more than merely a mini-mall with class. Edgemar is the flagship for a new armada of sophisticated and urbane neighborhood shopping complexes sailing onto the streets of Los Angeles.

In the early 1980s, the deluge of poorly planned and crudely designed mini-malls that flooded the city gave the type a bad name. Traffic problems, front-apron parking, garish signage and cheap materials created instant eyesores. Neighboring residents were provoked to lobby City Hall for anti-mini-mall zoning restrictions and building moratoriums.

The two-story, $3-million Edgemar development improves upon the typical mini-mall configuration by setting the obligatory parking to one side and continuing the facade of the sidewalk frontage common to Main Street.


Edgemar’s architect is Santa Monica-based Frank O. Gehry, who last week won the 1989 Pritzker Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel for architecture. He also recently won the competition to design the new Disney Concert Hall on Bunker Hill.

Having affirmed the continuity of Edgemar’s street front, Gehry is free to penetrate it with subtle curves and angles that lead the eye into the mall’s internal courtyard.

The court is intended for use as an outdoor cafe for a planned restaurant, as a stage for performances by local art and theater groups and as a display space for the Santa Monica Museum of Art that occupies the old Edgemar Dairy egg processing plant at the rear of the lot.

This outdoor room is the heart of Edgemar. Its skyline is animated by three distinctive towers.

One tower is a skylight “greenhouse” that brightens the retail space below. Another reveals its bare steel skeleton, like a bombed-out bell spire. A third tower, housing the elevator that serves the second floor offices at the north end of the site, is draped with a mesh of dangling chain link that resembles medieval chain-mail armor.

“In Edgemar I was creating a miniature historic small town, a kind of dolls’ house San Gimignano,” Gehry said, referring to the medieval Italian city famous for its collection of hilltop spires. “The courtyard is a piazzetta connected to, yet sheltered from, the busy world beyond its walls.”

Clues From Old Dairy

Gehry is fond of creating miniature towns. His plan for the 1984 Loyola Law School on Olympic Boulevard assembled the various small college buildings into an intimate and playful urban campus.

Loyola, like Edgemar, achieves a strong sense of identity by drawing its design clues from the style of the buildings in the surrounding area. The clues in Edgemar were provided by the remnants of the old dairy on the site and by the character of Main Street.

The section of Main Street north of Ocean Park Boulevard, though rapidly catching up with the fashionable district to the south, is still a jumble of graceful 1930s Streamline Moderne buildings mixed helter-skelter with the trashy storefronts typical of any Los Angeles commercial strip.

Streamline Moderne, the name given to 1930s L.A. Art Deco, is epitomized in Edgemar’s neighbor, the Galleria di Maio shopping arcade. The Galleria’s sleek style sets the tone for Edgemar’s white stucco, copper-and-green tile, played off against Gehry’s trademark galvanized sheet-metal walls.

The original Edgemar building, constructed in 1908 for the Imperial Ice Co., was converted to egg processing and storage in 1928. Developer Abby Sher bought the property a few years after the dairy ceased operations in 1979.

Reminders of Past

The old egg processing plant’s interior has not been prettied up for its new incarnation as a neighborhood art gallery, or Kunsthalle, as these local cultural centers are called in the art world. Its wooden bow trusses and rough brickwork remain as reminders of a workaday past.

Paul Lubowicki and Sue Lanier, former associates of Gehry, have designed a basic office mezzanine and small video and theater cubicles within the museum’s space.

Museum director Tom Rhoads praised this architectural simplicity. “The raw, unintimidating space allows us to display experimental work, that would never find a home in a more formal museum,” he said.

Sher explained that “the museum and the courtyard aren’t simply mini-mall frills. They’re an intrinsic part of my hope to create a home for a wide range of local life. I always envisaged Edgemar as a mix of commercial, cultural and communal activities.”

Mixing community, culture and commerce is a growing trend. Architects and developers all over the United States have begun to exploit the fact that shopping malls are one of the few public arenas where people gather and mingle every day.

From the “festival marketplaces” of Boston and Baltimore to San Diego’s Horton Plaza and L.A.'s Westside Pavilion, the mall is becoming more than simply a busy bazaar where people come just to shop. The newer malls, of all sizes, are being designed as attractive places to meet friends, watch people and maybe enjoy a concert or an art show.

Resentment About Traffic

Sher’s desire to serve the community as well as her own interests has not met with universal approval in the neighborhood. As a first-time developer, Sher did not seem to grasp the depth of local residents’ resentment about the tremendous increase in traffic and parking problems created by the frantic pace of Main Street’s recent development.

Edgemar neighbors’ comments on Sher’s motives range from “well-meaning but naive” to “downright manipulative and tricky.” She has also had her problems with the local authorities.

In January, Santa Monica city officials filed several misdemeanor charges against the developer for violations of the city code for failing to obtain occupancy and fire permits before allowing the Edgemar museum to be used for public events. Sher paid a $250 fine on one charge; the rest were dismissed.

Sher feels “sadly misunderstood but still basically hopeful that Edgemar will be seen as a great asset to the area.”

Despite these non-architectural confusions, Edgemar is a graceful and imaginative building that greatly enhances the character of a conventional stretch of street. And it is the leader of the fresh fleet of upscale mini-malls that are replacing the tacky commercial strips anchored along our streets and boulevards.

Level of Originality

Some recent examples of this sophisticated street architecture include mini-malls designed by Kanner Associates on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. John Aleksich’s series of small stores on Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills is another design that manages to be both typical, yet highly individual in character.

These buildings are well designed; but Edgemar’s originality raises it above the level of these excellent developments.

Gehry’s unique gift is for compressing vivid visual images that are simultaneously utterly mundane and so extraordinary that they set up many ripples in the mind. He can use crude modern materials like chain link or galvanized metal sheeting as if they were luxurious and ancient.

Gehry’s “dolls’ house San Gimignano” is a mini-masterpiece that conjures up a host of architectural memories while remaining unmistakably boutique Santa Monica.