Stucco: the marble of suburbia

Special to The Times

Stucco. It's one of the oldest construction materials we know, one of the easiest ways to cover a building, used on everything from chi-chi mansions to rude mud huts and yet -- stucco. Just the sound of it. Root word: stuck. Rhymes with yucko. Rhythmically similar to uh-oh. Where's the respect?

Everywhere, if you know where to look.

Revered modern architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry used stucco on some of their most famous houses. Father Junipero Serra's missions are covered in a historic version of the stuff. And if you've ever marveled at the smooth, satiny finish on many of the ruins in Rome or Greece, that was an ancient form of stucco that you were admiring.

Stucco got a bad rap during the post-World War II building boom. In the West and Southwest, where brick and stone were too scarce and too pricey to use as building materials, stucco became the siding of choice.

Hundreds of thousands of affordable homes were slathered with the stuff. Shot from a pressurized spray gun in a limited range of timid colors, mass-produced stucco had a cheap and, some felt, tacky look.

During the building boom of the last 15 years, however, architects and designers have taken a new look at the ancient siding material. By playing with depth and texture, form and color, they have rescued stucco from its cookie-cutter oblivion and turned it back into a building material with heart and soul.

"When it's done well, stucco is a beautiful building material," said Mark Billy, an architect in South Pasadena. "You can do a super-heavy texture which changes with the light and gives you a sense of sun and shadow, or you can have a smooth finish with a sheen on the plaster and a kind of translucence. In the hands of the right designer, it's never going to go away."

So what is stucco? Until the late 1800s it was primarily a lime-based coating used mostly on homes and small commercial buildings, according to historians with the National Park Service.

The popularization of Portland cement at the turn of the century revolutionized stucco, making it stronger and easier to use. The increased versatility was a turning point. Not only did stucco become a popular choice of siding material, but it also gave American architects a new design direction.

Instead of imitating European buildings, they began to experiment and, as the use of stucco became more widespread, an American vernacular was born.

In seismically active California, stucco proved to be a perfect sheath for the light, flexible wood-frame houses that were best at withstanding the torque and tumult of even the smallest earthquakes. Add in the relatively low cost and it's no wonder it became ubiquitous.

"Stucco is the suburban Carrera marble," wrote author D.J. Waldie, in whose first book, "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir," stucco covers Southern California like a skin. "All you need is sand, water, cement and a strong arm and you can turn a stack of sticks and chicken wire into a home."

A safe home.

"The best place to be in an earthquake is cheaply built, wood-frame stucco houses because if they fall apart around you, you're not being buried in a lot of brick and mortar," Waldie said. "Plus, it ties into the mythology of L.A. as an insubstantial place. Its very qualities fit the character of our landscape."

Modern-day stucco, most often a cement-based exterior plaster, is applied as a multipart coating. With masonry -- brick, stone or cement block -- you can apply stucco directly onto the building. Wood or log structures, however, require a framework of wood or metal lath for the stucco to adhere to.

How this coat is applied makes all the difference, architects say. Future trends tend toward a bolder use of color, with deep, earthy tones of red, yellow and brown increasing in popularity.

In high-end homes, stucco is often applied by hand so the texture and trowel marks become an intrinsic part of the design. It's a far cry from the lumpy, bumpy sprayed-on version of stucco that gave it such a bad name.

"Stucco gets a bad image because it's common," said Santa Monica-based architect Hank Koning, who, with his partner, Julie Eizenberg, has designed award-winning affordable housing that is swathed in, yes, stucco.

"Cottage cheesy -- that's the yucko stuff," Koning said. "It's done that way because they can spray the stucco on and walk away. But in three weeks, it's dirty. You can see buildings on commercial corridors in the city, with buses rumbling past, blasting diesel fumes that get stuck in the little crevices and makes it all look really nasty."

Stucco applied by hand, however, can be sublime.

"Trowel it on with a steel trowel and it becomes very smooth, very beautiful," Koning said.

"The great Spanish adobe buildings are gorgeous, smooth, with not a lot of texturing and with the trowel marks that you can still see."

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