The most controversial word in our local dialect is density. Let a politician say it too loud and homeowners from Pomona to the Palisades start sharpening their knives. Los Angeles County suffers from an acute shortage of affordable housing, but proposals for a denser urban fabric invariably evoke the nightmare image of "Blade Runner."
This fear of urbanization stems partly from racial intolerance, partly from tract-home parochialism. But, increasingly, it arises from a shared pessimism about the city's future that transcends class and ethnic divides. Just look around.
In Hollywood and the Miracle Mile, an invasion of unaffordable, four-story "super-cubes" are quadrupling lot densities and devouring whole neighborhoods of elegant Deco apartment buildings. In the rest of the inner city, as well as in older parts of the valleys, single-family residential streets continue to be blasted apart by poorly-built stucco tenements. Everywhere, except perhaps the beach, rising density means a degraded environment and a declining quality of life.
Most architects, however, will argue this is faulty reasoning. In their view, the real issue is not density, but bad design run amok. If the Land of Sunshine is imperiled by any dark force, it is the current glut of shoddy structures erected without any respect for neighborhood history or sensibility. Good design, sensitive in its context, should make greater density nutritious to the soul.
So what went wrong? What has prevented "design" from bringing about a new consensus for a more urbanized and better housed Los Angeles?
Forget, for now, the obvious sins of developers (the scourge of homeowners) and planners (the bete noire of developers) and consider two other groups.
First, mortgage bankers and other real-estate financiers are the real arbiters of urban design. To an extent that few outside the building industry appreciate, they curtail the product range available to the public--they can censor innovation in favor of standardized designs with proven rates of return. More than the other major players in the land development process, they can perpetuate mediocrity and worse--if only through inertia.
But the other villains are architects themselves, especially the elite stratum who shape monumental complexes and entire residential communities. They are largely responsible for the prevalent conceit that Los Angeles is an architectural free-fire zone, without consequent natural or given history, where it is permissible to impose any personal or corporate fetish.
Fortunately, there is an emerging movement of younger architects who disown these megalomaniac pretensions in the hope of reestablishing a dialogue with their much abused polis. They share the simple, but decisive, insight that Los Angeles possesses a rich, if neglected, thesaurus of design solutions to its problems. In particular, they are rediscovering the wonderful qualities of the California bungalow--not just as cheap shelter, but as the building block of attractive, variable-density neighborhoods.
Indeed, the bungalow may be Southern California's most underestimated invention. Melding "multicultural" influences as diverse as Japan, Switzerland and Sikkim, the bungalow was the first mass housing form to celebrate the casual outdoor culture of Southern California. Patios and sleeping porches opened the home to the sensuous Mediterranean climate; indigenous materials, such as arroyo cobblestone, harmonized it with the landscape.
The Southern California bungalow also radically democratized the Victorian house. It replaced Gothic hierarchy with an open floor plan and supplanted gingerbread with functional wood craftsmanship. Unlike the monotonous postwar ranch house, the bungalow, circa 1900-1925, came in an astonishing range of sizes (from mansion to shack), lot configurations (from estate to court) and designs (no one has succeeded in counting them all).
After adjusting for 60 years of inflation and rising land values, the bungalow remains the best housing bargain ever. In the decade after World War I, the leading Los Angeles bungalow manufacturer, Pacific Ready-Cut Homes (it compared its Vernon plant to a Ford assembly line) sold almost 50,000 prefabricated home kits--complete with furniture, nails and paint--for under $2,000 each. While Ford's Model-T may be extinct, neighborhoods of Pacific's owner-customized bungalows--buyers could choose from scores of designs--still flourish.
In Pasadena--a city gang-raped between 1950 and 1985 by the worst of architectural modernism--a trio of young architects, Chris Alexander, Daniel Solomon and Phoebe Wall, have revived the bungalow aesthetic. Hired by the city to study alternatives to the "dingbat" apartment--half parking structure, half dumb box--that blights so many streets, they realized, "The problem wasn't density, it was building type." Their solution, incorporated into Pasadena's groundbreaking "City of Gardens" ordinance, is to require builders to conform to the street-enhancing design of the city's older bungalow courts, with an obligatory front garden given primacy over parking.
Across town, meanwhile, the team of architects and planners led by Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides has tried to apply the best of Los Angeles on a heroic scale in their design for the huge Playa Vista project. Rejecting the traditional polarized options of the housing market (dingbats or detached homes) as "equally pathological," they have, instead, created a new neighborhood fabric, heterogenous in form and social composition, based on the bungalow and Spanish colonial courtyard apartment complexes popular in the 1920s.
Seeking to define Playa Vista's playful experimentation with continuity within innovation (or vice versa), Polyzoides speaks in one context about creating "an unmonumental garden city without nostalgia," and, in another, about "reurbanizing badly urbanized land." But whatever the catch phrase, the design's merit, like Pasadena's City of Gardens, is that it has used history, not as nostalgia or kitsch (as in so much postmodernism), but to replenish a vision of community.
Of course, neither the bungalow redux nor socially responsible architecture can solve major urban problems. But if partisans of affordable housing want to escape the conceptual trap of debating density in the abstract, they must forge an alliance with progressive architects sensitive to the city's history. Los Angeles desperately needs the challenge of a practical utopia: Social justice embodied in viable urban designs.