Civic Blueprints

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Fifty years ago, Gregory Ain completed one of Los Angeles' most intriguing social experiments in his design for a bucolic housing development in Mar Vista that was meant to provide an affordable alternative to the vastly dispiriting postwar housing then spreading across the country. A half-century later, it seems opportune to revisit not only the career of one of Southern California's most accomplished, if least celebrated, Modernist architects, but also to look again at a time when architecture sought to actively shape the social landscape.

Originally planned as a development of 102 houses on a 60-acre tract southeast of Santa Monica, the Mar Vista development was reduced nearly by half because the Federal Housing Administration would not guarantee the necessary loans for the project's second phase. Yet the 52 houses that were completed encompass all of Ain's ambitions as a social planner. Ain believed in architecture's potential to shape a more egalitarian world. The Mar Vista housing project was an opportunity to expand those beliefs beyond architecture to an entire community. It remains one of his great successes.

Ain (1908-1988) was part of the so-called "second generation" of Modernists that flourished in postwar Los Angeles. Weaned in the offices of both Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra--the European ex-patriots who transformed Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s into a hotbed of Modernist architecture--Ain never abandoned his faith in Modernist doctrine.

For him that faith was coupled with firsthand experience in failed utopias. The son of a Russian Menshevik who migrated to the United States in 1906 after a spell in a Siberian prison, Ain lived briefly in Llano del Rio--the short-lived utopian desert commune founded by a group of disenchanted Los Angeles Socialists in 1914. His later architectural career paralleled the years of the Great Depression and the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, his leftist leanings were tempered by a desire to find practical solutions to the problems of everyday life.

At Mar Vista, Ain hoped to build a community that would both simplify the workload of the beleaguered middle-class housewife and encourage social interaction. The Mar Vista houses--which occupy one block each of Beethoven, Moore and Meier streets between Marco Place and Palms Boulevard--sold for about $11,000 each, a bit pricey for the area at the time.

Their design was deceptively simple: Long rectangular boxes with flat roofs and a mere 1,050 square feet of living space. Inside, however, life was ordered with the efficiency of a ship's cabin. Using sliding partitions, a family could reconfigure the house to fit its shifting needs. Close off the den to one side and open up the kitchen, and mothers can cook while calmly surveying a mischievous toddler in the cozy little living room or the garden beyond. Need to escape? Slide a wall shut and a den becomes a master bedroom, or one bedroom becomes two. The idea was to create a flexibility and flow that allowed for both family interaction and solitude.

The delicate balance--between public and private, between individual and community--extended beyond the house's interiors to inform the urban plan as well. In designing the subdivision, Ain used the placement of the houses and attached garages to enclose some exterior spaces, open up others. The landscaping--designed by California landscape architect Garrett Eckbo--was woven through the lots to give unity to the development and create a sort of communal park along the street.

Designs for Streets With Public Sharing

In a typical plan, for example, pairs of L-shaped houses--their plans flipped--frame a shared front lawn, encouraging communal interaction along the street, while in back, gardens were more privately segregated. The effect creates a subtle range of public and private spaces, a sophisticated antidote to the intentional isolation of the typical suburban lot.

Ain altered the pattern slightly from street to street, and the effect of such seemingly subtle shifts is telling. On Moore Street, front lawns are narrower and the internal life of the family seems to spill out onto the street. By setting some of the garages along a back alleyway instead of alongside the houses, children can zip by on bikes without the fear of cars turning across the sidewalk. On Meier Street, houses are set farther back, creating a more park-like atmosphere. Yet that openness is marked by a surprising stillness. The houses are less visible, more secluded. Deep front lawns keep visitors at a distance.

Most of these houses have, of course, been radically altered since their completion. Some early owners cringed at the streamlined Modernist aesthetic. They added fake stone facades. Glass brick windows. Overgrown vegetable gardens. Others missed the point of the place and built thick hedges to keep out prying eyes and then a second line of defense such as iron gates. At moments like these, the obsessive individuality of suburbia crept in.

Outside Suburbia Begins to Creep In

From the beginning, residents of the development--feeling cramped by Ain's Minimalist idea of living--converted the two-car garages into spacious master bedrooms, and then went on to add other rooms in back. Others moved the exterior wall out four feet to the edge of the overhang, widening the claustrophobic, 11-foot-deep living room. More recently, younger homeowners, intent on owning their own "architectural gem"--the latest status symbol for the culturally ambitious--have bought up many of the lots, intent on restoring them.

It is a familiar pattern. In a brilliant study published in 1969, French theoretician Philippe Boudon revisited Le Corbusier's legendary experiment in low-cost housing, the Quartiers Modernes Fruges, in Pessac, on the outskirts of Bordeaux, France, more than 40 years after its completion. There, tenants had completely altered the original vision, adding picture windows, pitched roofs and enclosing the rooftop terraces. Stroll down Boulevard Le Corbusier today, however, and young French urbanites are stripping these divine little monuments back down to their original glory.

Nonetheless, those earlier changes to Ain's and to Corbusier's work do not necessarily reflect failures in the architecture so much as an adaptability to changing social needs. In that sense, the recent efforts of the aesthetically conscious homeowners to painstakingly restore these structures misses the point. Modernism was about change. It sought to charge forward to a new future, to never look back. And domestic life, in particular, is messy. It is also, happily, full of conflict and confusion.

Challenges for Today's Working Architects

Society, believe it or not, continues to change. If Ain's concerns centered on dishwashing and child care, that definition of the nuclear family is equally outdated. Single mothers and fathers. Gay couples with children. Families who work at home. Parents who commute cross-country. Such shifting societal patterns have obvious implications for architecture.

But nowhere has the current architectural imagination failed more than in addressing our increasingly flexible social boundaries. For now, contemporary architects are often more bent on tinkering with new aesthetic formulas than struggling with changing social needs, however much that could lead to a more elevated form of architecture. What a shame! Anyone who has worked long hours at a kitchen table with children underfoot, or longed for a minute of peace away from a loved one, has probably imagined a more complex sort of house, one that celebrates the increasing openness of our changing culture.

What if architects began to celebrate that freedom too? Maybe common man would find their work more relevant. But that's asking a lot.

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