Listen as the city of West Hollywood's staff urban designer John Chase describes the effect of having graceful, willowy Chinese elms on either side of a sidewalk.
"It's the symmetry of the double row of trees that's powerful. Two rows of trees create a better, fuller, more complete canopy than a single row does, so the space is contained overhead, as well as on either side." Chase personally fought for the double rows in the elaborate and long-awaited face lift of Santa Monica Boulevard. The street's redesign, which will be dedicated later this summer, collected a major design award last month as it inched toward completion.
Having trees frame a walkway evokes the ease of strolling on a country lane, hardly the reality of West Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard. The revamped three-mile stretch is a portion of U.S. Route 66 that also happens to be a bustling business district, marked with a distinct mix of Russian markets, sidewalk cafes and gay nightclubs. Chase's attention to details, and his simple articulation of their effect, illustrate why he's now in the spotlight as a designer working to soften West Hollywood's street-scapes. An architect by training, Chase is also gaining long-overdue accolades as a historian, critic and often very funny writer. His fourth collection of essays, "Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City" (Verso, 2000), has just him won the second place 2001 PEN Architectural Digest Award.
Chase's perspective on the urban landscape is at times visceral and personal but also philosophical. "You pick the music you want to listen to, you pick which television shows you want to watch, but everyone, as a citizen of the world, has to deal with the as-found environment," he said recently in his soft, steady voice. "I'm always interested in the existential puzzle of how you live in the world around you and how you relate yourself to the physical environment."
He accepted the PEN award on his 48th birthday last month in New York. It was a milestone for him, since he has struggled financially for years while writing analytically about what many architectural critics find beneath notice: boxy stucco apartment buildings of the 1950s, a shop in the shape of a giant doughnut and cheaply renovated stucco cottages.
As idiosyncratic as such writing may be, Chase is also a ready collaborator. The design of Santa Monica Boulevard, whose award last month came from the American Institute of Architects, must be credited to many parties, including to the city of West Hollywood, Portland, Ore.,-based architects Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership (who also have offices here) and L.A. landscape architect Patricia Smith. It also was the result of a very long and inclusive process in which Chase played a subtle but essential part as a staff member. The city assembled a 42-member steering committee and held widely attended public meetings, including one with Russian translation. They learned that the city's two largest constituencies--hip gay men and aging Russian immigrants--both wanted the same thing: a grand urban boulevard with trees and places to sit, wide sidewalks and landscaping. They wanted a place to stroll, meet and greet; they wanted a public living room.
Chase attended every meeting, and of the hundreds of improvements included in the project--landscaped medians, wider sidewalks where possible, seating, gardens at bus stops, lighted street gateways at the entrances to West Hollywood--he feels most proud of helping push for the double row of trees. But his influence may be much greater, in the uncredited ideas and alternatives he suggested along the way. West Hollywood City Planner Hassan Haghani, Chase's boss, describes him as his partner on the project, and Suzanne Dvells, who worked for Selbert Perkins Designs, the firm that created signs and street gateways for the project, says Chase's contributions were crucial. "He was just very hands-on," Dvells says. "He was a wonderful contributor and critic, which made it all the better."
The results of this collective process realize Chase's grand idea of urban design principles--the softening and humanizing of public space--is not just an academic concept but an echo of the public soul's desire.
"That was the really rewarding thing," he says. "The choices that were made were, by my own lights, good choices, so I was happy that they came out of public process. They asked for these things at every step."
It hasn't been all smooth sailing, however. The project, which includes unglamorous additions such as new storm drains, is $7 million over budget and has irritated drivers and merchants for months. Before it even began, a woman chained her mother to a ficus tree to save it from being replaced by one of the Chinese elms.
Growing Demand for Staff Urban Designers
Only the most design-conscious municipalities have a staff urban designer--someone whose job it is to create inviting public spaces and encourage developers to do the same. Los Angeles, for example, does not have one in its 272-member planning department, although various city departments hire urban designers as consultants on specific projects. The demand for such specialists has grown nationwide in the past decade, as cities have added parks, landscaping and have enhanced other design elements, partly because such improvements make good economic sense.
Asked what other cities appeal to him, Chase cites three: "Paris, for its grand boulevards and great monuments," he says. "And both San Francisco and New Orleans for their scale and the rich character of their urban fabric."
His view of Los Angeles is influenced by the contrast between his childhood spent in the pretty, suburban atmosphere of South Pasadena and an adult life in grittier, urban Silver Lake and Venice. Chase now lives in an 800-square-foot duplex apartment a few blocks from Venice Beach, the renovation of which he describes in detail in an essay in "Glitter Stucco," along with many funny tales of his late partner, Lance, and a colorful set of neighbors and friends. He says he finds it impossible to judge the overall success of L.A.'s patchwork of contrasting neighborhoods.
"There's been an attempt to create a real cultural center on Grand Avenue that still has a way to go in terms of cohesiveness, and the garment district has achieved a great deal of liveliness in its public shopping areas. It's almost like a bazaar," he says.
"The Sunset Strip is one of the best examples in the city of an automobile- and pedestrian-oriented boulevard where the scale can be apprehended both at the speed of a moving automobile or on foot."
When Chase failed parts of the architectural licensing exam 20 years ago, he couldn't face the grueling 12-hour test again. His feel for urban design principles are intuitive, absorbed through a lifelong fascination with architecture, history and the way the two interact. Even though he has only worked in West Hollywood for the last five years, evidence of his soft touch is all over the city. Chase examines every blueprint unrolled on the planning office counter. Some colleagues think that because of the influence and literary quality of his writing, he actually elevates the stature of the small but growing profession of urban design.
"We definitely notice a difference in the quality of design here today, as opposed to five years ago. It's very cutting edge," says boss Haghani. "I would like to give all the credit to John Chase. He is setting a precedent in Southern California that just didn't exist." Haghani points specifically to Chase's help revising the city's zoning ordinance, a hefty tome the size of a phone book.
Codes detailed within emphasize the way buildings interact with public space without dictating style. Chase explains how it works through the example of one recent decision: "At the corner of Beverly and Robertson there are four buildings with corner entrances. An applicant wanted to move his entrance to one side of his building. But we said, 'These four buildings are having a conversation. This is a common design feature. They have a frontal relationship, so we'd like you to keep the corner entrance.' That's an urban design relationship. It's not about the style of the building. It's about the relationship of the building to its surroundings."
Looking at Places on a Small Scale
With his still blue eyes, cropped rust hair, straight-stick sideburns and a neat but unfussy beard, John Chase looks so honest and unvarnished that in a stiff, black felt hat, he could pass for an Amish farmer. He speaks quietly but isn't soft-spoken, and he has the impeccable manners of a man with a proper upbringing.
South Pasadena's rich architectural heritage and leafy canopy left a deep impression on him. In "Glitter Stucco," he refers to its "order and safety," as well as the tranquillity of the home he shared with his late parents--Rachel, a homemaker, and Alfred, a food broker downtown, and his sister Laura, a county planner now living in England. Their home was situated between houses designed by famous architects, on one side the early Modernist Irving Gill, on the other the Arts and Crafts firm of Greene and Greene. Chase remembers examining each of these closely as a child.
"He has a remarkable ability to look at the different places in the city on a very small scale," says Margaret Crawford, professor of urban design at Harvard University. "It's a very unusual trait to find." As an art history student at UC Santa Cruz, he matched his interest in cityscapes with a desire to write by covering city planning meetings for the school newspaper. He became friends with preservationists in town, and shortly after graduating he self-published his first book, "The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture." It sold a few thousand copies and was reissued by Paper Vision Press in 1979.
"What I wanted to do was re-create the town over the whole period of time it had been there," Chase says over lunch one day in a Santa Monica Boulevard cafe. "So, when you still have a spot on the main commercial boulevard, you knew what were the three buildings that had been there previously."
This interest in the historical evolution of the cityscape is a theme throughout Chase's writing and his life. After earning a master's degree in architecture from UCLA in 1980, he wrote his second book, "Exterior Decoration: Hollywood's Inside Out Houses" (Hennessey & Ingalls Inc., 1982). It explores the funky stucco cottages in West Hollywood that interior designers of the 1960s and '70s aggrandized with fake mansard roofs, over-tall front doors and Ionic columns.
"I just thought that the people were sincerely trying to make something beautiful, and your own house is not something you joke around with," Chase says.
For 20 years, Chase struggled with what he calls "the problem of making a living." He taught classes in local architecture and preservation at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, SCI-Arc. He had a stint as architecture critic for the San Francisco Examiner but was fired after three months over what he says was a personality conflict with his editor. He bought, fixed up and resold houses, worked on secret Disney designs as an Imagineer and had his own design firm.
His projects varied in size and design, and he says no one architectural style has ever laid claim to his creative imagination. "I'm always persuaded by what's in front of me at the time, if that building's well worked out. It's hard for me to say whether a Wallace Neff building is better than Frank Gehry's Disney Hall," he says, contrasting two dramatically different L.A. architects--Neff is known for period revival homes built in the 1920s; Gehry's concert hall, a public monument, will display the architect's signature dramatically curved metal surfaces.
"I'm drawn to the architecture of the past because of the richness of its vocabulary and the wealth of elaboration it often had," Chase says. He continued to write while designing various projects--from the vivid brick and yellow paint scheme of Leela Thai Restaurant in Silver Lake to a stately Spanish Colonial Revival home in Eagle Rock.
Chase loves the security of his current job and says he'll stay with it no matter what happens with his writing career. In recent years, two books containing his essays were published in quick succession: "Las Vegas: The Success of Excess" (Konemann, 1997), written with Frances Anderton and "Everyday Urbanism" (Monacelli Press, 1999), written and edited with Crawford and architect John Kaliski.
"Glitter Stucco" is a collection drawn from 20 years of his published essays. The personal pieces, recounting his struggle to be enlightened rather than annoyed by the close proximity of urban living, are his funniest. When describing his neighbors, he often gives them funny one-name monikers. "Tenant 2: Sparky. Habitually prances around naked while doing his laundry in the laundry room. He deliberately, not accidentally, sets fire to his apartment twice before being arrested for arson," Chase wrote in the essay "A Curmudgeon's Guide to Urban Living."
Friends, and Chase has many, think his writing is the most distinctive aspect of his substantial output. Says Teresa Gianos, associate planner for the city of Redondo Beach: "By continuing to publish and continuing to fight for these little things and big things, he brings more distinction to the field."