Two books on Los Angeles' splendid bestiary of houses could hardly differ more.
"The Los Angeles House," by photographer Tim Street-Porter, is sumptuously illustrated with four-color, full-bleed photographs that document--almost anthropologically--the interiors, exteriors and gardens of Southern California houses--including two from Orange County. It is a bath of gorgeousness (although the texts are sidelined and serve really as captions).
This is the classic coffee-table book, suitable for Christmas giving, shot by an Englishman with an expatriate's eye for exotica abroad. Even for the initiate, there are many pictorial finds in this generous anthology of life among the area's visual intelligentsia.
Merry Ovnick's "Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow" is driven by text rather than photograph--a scholarly, well-researched book of broad and ambitious scope based on a thesis pursued by a social historian studying material culture.
A faculty member at Cal State Northridge, Ovnick says Los Angeles traditionally is a city of houses. Single-family houses not only prove the city's cultural history but also have long acted as agents of attraction, drawing people to Southern California by their seductive imagery: "Each era's building created the picture of Los Angeles that attracted and channeled the following wave of immigrants there."
The volume falls within the tradition of a doctoral thesis turned into a book and reverses "The Los Angeles House's" relationship of text to photograph: Here, the small black-and-white photographs have the status of visual captions.
But the two efforts are really much more similar than their respective literary types would imply: Both authors interpret Los Angeles' domestic architecture in terms of image. Street-Porter simply delivers the image to the page.
Ovnick chronicles how imported house types and styles supersede each other, usually absorbing aspects of earlier buildings in designs that result in a local architecture of mixed character:
"The architectural fusion of the accepted images of the new culture with the values brought from home [the East or Midwest] became the new visible image for the next wave of immigrants. We have called this layering."
Ovnick always relates the houses to the broader cultural history of Los Angeles, from the Native American period to Spanish, Mexican and finally Yankee rule; from the mission, ranchero and railroad economies to one fueled by oil, aircraft and movies.
Synoptic and thorough, the book takes domestic architecture beyond the unique single-family house into postwar tract developments, public housing and condos--and beyond feel-good issues of style into the problematical areas of architecture as it relates to urban poverty.
The tenacious privacy of Los Angeles and its corresponding lack of a robust public realm is largely a function of the fact that the single-family house and its attendant yard is the city's basic unit of planning. Street-Porter invites the viewer into many of the residential secrets tucked away in the hills and along obscure streets.
Unlike Ovnick, Street-Porter--a well-established photographer who often works for shelter magazines--does not stop at the facade but enters Los Angeles' private sanctums with his large-format camera to capture interiors dressed to perfection.
Here we see Los Angeles in detail: the magically luminous blue front wall of the Greenberg House by Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, the witty herds of chandeliers corralled by Santa Monica designer Brian Murphy in the Walker/Sheffield House, and the rock outcroppings in the living room of John Lautner's Beyer Beach House, heroically poised on a rugged headland in Malibu.
Madonna's polychromatic Italian aerie overlooking Lake Hollywood is gloriously extroverted with its alternating cream and oxblood stripes, and the Malibu house of collector Tony Duquette presents an intensely introverted world that freely mixes folk art, objets trouves and Asiana.
The flaw of so many drop-dead glamour shots is that even designs structured by a strict philosophy are obscured by a glossiness that overwhelms their content. Also, equal photographic time elevates minor but attractive interiors to levels earned by works of genius. The photographs and book format make no distinction between style and substance.
Although hardly as engaging visually, Ovnick's book is, as a work of sustained and detailed analysis, far more complex.
This, in many ways, is the missing book on Los Angeles that explains it in terms of the primary unit of urban and architectural growth: It treats home ownership as a social force and a basis for city building. More cultural than architectural historian, Ovnick opens the standard architectural canon in sometimes unexpected ways precisely because she looks at architecture as an outsider.
For example, she enlarges the usual cast of textbook greats by giving weight to Lloyd Wright, who is usually overshadowed by his father, Frank, and by the Austrian expatriate modernists R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra.
Although Ovnick discusses individual talents and the brilliant architectural exception, she deals most convincingly with the story of vernacular house types. She devotes a long chapter to the bungalow, situating it in the context of progressive thinking before World War I.
She relates the stylistic revivalism of the 1920s to the golden age of filmmaking. Curiously, the narrative is at its most engaging when she steps outside the loop of her thesis about images to discuss the housing of the poor, including the work camps of migrant Mexican laborers in the '20s and the Hoovervilles and Little Oklahoma of the '30s.
Still outside the loop of image but within the phenomenology of the Los Angeles house, she notes that houses themselves became instruments of social and racial prejudice with restrictive deeds intended to protect resale values.
Her approach to analyzing houses in terms of the big social picture sometimes proves a weakness. Ovnick's thesis about the imagery of houses leads her to an over-dependence on Hollywood.
The "great flowering of Los Angeles imagery" she ascribes to Hollywood in the 1920s does not in fact occur only in Los Angeles, but throughout the United States in the same period, and can just as well be ascribed to the lavish books of oversize photographs produced after World War I that gave each architect photographically correct visualizations of great historic styles.
Movies, certainly, flickered in the national imagination, but for architects across the country, including those in Los Angeles, these books were direct sources of information to be used at the desk.
This myopia about Hollywood leads Ovnick sometimes to simplistic conclusions that verge on cliche:
"Dream-drenched escapees from sobriety and responsibility looked to Los Angeles for their own happily-ever-after denouements. They would come here and build storybook houses that expressed their childlike credulity, lively imaginations and irrepressible gaiety. The result was the transformation of Los Angeles into Wonderland in one decade. The city took on the appearance of a huge movie lot. . . ."
A major problem of reducing architecture--and Los Angeles itself--to the notion of a projected image is that the approach overlooks the basic house plan, an extremely rich document that chronicles social history.
We can understand in the organization of the house the nature of prevailing family relationships, the reciprocity of the inside and outside, the attitude toward servants and their disappearance after World War II, the advent of central heating and appliances (which does much to open the plan of the house), and the inventiveness of designers following philosophies largely independent of Los Angeles itself.
But in treating Los Angeles as a drive-by movie set, Ovnick oversimplifies the city and misses an inner architectural logic that responds both to cultural change and to the evolution of the field.
When she says that Frank Gehry's house in Santa Monica and other designs represent "outrageous protests against regularity and rationalization"--against "urban anomie" and suburban homogenization (some coming out of the standardizations of World War II)--she is wide of the mark: The design evolved more directly out of dialogues with Los Angeles artists who were altering their studios to their own drumbeat.
To interpret Gehry's design as a form of social protest distorts the artifact to conform to the thesis.
"Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow" may at times be loosely focused, the text uneven and the prose a little workmanlike, but Ovnick has gathered a great deal of information around a subject that goes a long way in explaining Los Angeles materially.
Homes in Los Angeles may not neatly lend themselves to a grand unification theory based on the projected and layered images she proposes, but her narrative is one of the most embracing efforts to date in explaining the phenomenon of the Los Angeles house.
In many ways, Ovnick's book actually complements "The Los Angeles House" by providing a full story behind the pictures--and vice versa: Street-Porter's photographs substantiate Ovnick's thesis by their sheer photographic aplomb. The two apparently dissimilar books very unexpectedly form conjugal volumes.