DIANE KEATON and D.J. Waldie are uncertain where to begin. It’s an awkward moment at the end of an easy hour-and-a-half conversation about architecture, romance and modernism. She’s self-conscious, and he’s busy trying to set her at ease. Scattered across a large conference table in an equally large conference room in Lakewood are copies of photographs from the book they have spent nearly two years working on.
“I really don’t want to do this,” she says. A digital recorder sits conspicuously on the table in front of them, ready to capture their thoughts for the online feature that accompanies this story.
“Here’s Leo Carrillo’s rancho,” Waldie points out. Before the “play” button is hit, he shuffles through the pages trying to find just the right series of images to inspire them. Before them drift bright stucco walls, craggy oaks, spindly yucca, cobalt-blue tile and long iron balustrades. Like friends meeting old friends, they greet each photograph with excited, if tentative, familiarity.
Their recently published book, “California Romantica,” is the culmination of a lifelong obsession for Keaton and nearly two years of study for Waldie. Their collaboration is a love affair -- in words and in pictures -- with Spanish Revival architecture in Southern California.
If the partnership between this actor and this author seems a little unlikely -- she with her Hollywood credits, her “Annie Hall” accolades and long association with mansions such as these, and he with his job as public information officer with Lakewood, his memoir “Holy Land” and his modest life in the 957-square-foot home his parents purchased more than 50 years ago -- just get them talking, and the differences disappear.
The recorder is now on. “I wonder how this house . . . “ Waldie muses over the photographs of Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, home to writers and intellectuals since the 1940s, “ . . . on the edge of the Pacific felt to the emigres, like Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann and others who visited here as part of the emigre community in Southern California.” His voice trails off. “I’m not sure.”
Keaton picks up the thread. “One of the things that we focused on in this house is the surface. . . . In this one photograph, the stucco has a curved and also a kind of ladder effect with shadow underneath. It’s a very abstract image. It’s like a painting by Mondrian.”
Waldie waits for her to finish. “A lot of what the book is about is about pattern,” he adds. “That is a lot about what the interior design of these homes was about. Patterns of tiles. Patterns of brick work. Patterns of stucco. The patterns play with light that flows across it during the day. The patterns play with shadows. The shadows of trees and the landscaping.”
“Time of day,” she adds, “right, D.J.? Time of day.”
Their duet continues breathlessly and is surprisingly well honed. She speaks with raw appreciation about the artistry and the details, and he takes a more philosophical approach that explores the meaning of these places in the lives of their owners.
Both of them, however, accept without irony or dissent the fact that this architecture, so emblematic of Southern California’s storied past, is as relevant today as it ever was -- and more futuristic than its appearance suggests.
LIKE all good California stories, this one begins behind the wheel of a car. Keaton was 11. It was the 1950s, and her father had piled the family in a Ford station wagon headed for Death Valley. At the northern end of that wind-scoured expanse, she discovered the first Spanish Revival -- aside from the family home in Santa Ana -- to steal her heart. It was Scotty’s Castle, and that sprawling white dove sitting amid the sere cliffs began a lifetime of exploration.
Waldie’s affection developed when a friend and he would set out in the 1970s in a Ford Pinto, later a Chevy Nova, with the goal of discovering architectural styles that no one else had yet found in places that were remarkable for being so ignored.
For both the hunt was as thrilling as the discovery, and the neighborhoods of Southern California were always fair game. Discovering the region’s architectural heritage, however, is not always simple. It lies invisible on this flood plain, obscured by other more conspicuous objects of design and by trees and landscaping. Seeking it out can mean driving great distances or merely parting the bushes.
“California Romantica” is the result of Keaton’s self-proclaimed obsession with Spanish Revival. After selecting 19 homes from San Diego to Santa Barbara, she worked with photographers Lisa Hardaway and Paul Hester to capture the essence of this style.
Known under a variety of names -- Mission, Andalusian, Monterey, Hacienda, land grant, Estancia, Rancho or Spanish -- Spanish Revival had its heyday in the early decades of the last century, but not all of the homes she selected are that old.
Two feature contemporary interpretations, and each taps into the “Ramona”-like, Hispanic-infused mystery of this region to create a unique vernacular that is both antiquarian and contemporary.
Enlisting Waldie in her project was an easy decision. She raves about “Holy Land” and finds certain niceties between his prose and the spare lines of these houses. And the same skill that Waldie used to reinvigorate the reputation of the so-sung ticky-tacky tract house -- a willingness to consider the intimacies between home and homeowner -- is brought into play in his essays.
“All houses have a shaping power over our dreams of a moral life,” he writes in his introduction to “California Romantica.” “The world is hard to live in, it seems to me, and we need allies. Your house can be a hero, too. And how else could it ever be home, if you did not fall in love with it?”
To spend time inside the pages of “California Romantica” is not only to take a guided tour through some of Southern California’s most dream-like homes, but it is also an invitation, even a provocation, to imagine the role that residential architecture can play in fostering an aesthetic and a behavioral sensibility, for serving as a template for the kind of life to which the owner aspires.
WHEN Keaton first arrived at Lakewood City Hall in the fall of 2005, Waldie didn’t recognize the woman who approached him from across the parking lot. She wore tinted glasses and long sleeves. Surely, he thought, this was an assistant or the book designer.
But Keaton is as independent of manner as she is of mind. She had driven herself and carried black binders filled with photos, magazine articles, essays and glossy brochures from real estate firms. The two of them quickly got to work. Soon she was sending him stacks of prints that allowed him to wander photographically through the homes and come to a deeper understanding of the project.
Turn the pages of their book, and you will find darkened interiors with bright splashes of tile, stucco and wood detailing. Light and shadow compose most of the shots and lead the eye down empty corridors, up curving staircases and through distant windows. These are moody, expressionistic presentations that you might expect from someone versed in the rhetoric of film.
Keaton will admit without reservation that some of the photographs were electronically altered -- a bush, a shadow, a table removed -- to highlight the architecture, and the cumulative effect is less a book about Spanish Revival homes than a book about the idea of the Spanish Revival home.
“I wanted to focus on the romance of an empty room,” Keaton writes in her introduction. “I wanted to focus on details, a fountain, a staircase, a doorway. I wanted to highlight the genre’s disjointed symmetry, and informal abstract appeal. I wanted the drama of light to reveal secrets that lay hidden beyond the facades.”
Keaton’s ambition to explore what is hidden inside of these homes strikes at the heart of her notions of romance. “I always go back to shadow and light,” she explains, “and in that is also shadow and light within your own life. It’s also a myth, it’s a fantasy . . . loss and longing.”
Which gives “California Romantica” the air of an elegy trying to be less elegiac. The message is complicated: Although it is easy to look at these homes, see their colonial lines and puzzle over their presumptions of the past, it is more difficult to see beyond the ancient lines and understand that these homes were designed to be forward-looking and modern.
Yet to walk into these photographs is to walk into the minds of their owners and to understand what their dreams of the future might have been, dreams that embodied “themes of leisure, order, and retreat from a rudely industrializing America,” according to Waldie. To help make that leap, he humanizes in these essays the aspirations of the architects -- George Washington Smith and Wallace Neff, to name only two -- and their clients who wished to create a life in Southern California at a time when the aesthetic possibilities were wide open, and in the process, address the questions that face anyone who chooses to settle here.
“The men and women who built these houses . . . were struggling with a very contemporary problem: how to make a home here,” Waldie explains. “What’s home supposed to look like? How does it work physically as a place? What emotions am I supposed to feel when I enter it? What story does the building tell me? How much of a template for my life is this building?”
THE photograph is stunning. With the lathe and plaster torn away, the bare studs frame a view down a long empty hall. Electrical conduits dangle from the ceiling. The floor is covered with dirt.
Beyond the perfected images of Ravenscroft, Villa Aurora and Casa del Herrero, is Isla Mar, the last home pictured in “California Romantica.” Here Keaton and Waldie offer a glimpse of both ruin and beauty to conclude their tour. Designed by George Washington Smith in 1925 for Santa Barbara’s Hope Ranch, this spectral beauty, which had declined into a state of gentle decay, is caught in a moment of transition as new owners attempt to recapture its classical lines.
The sad fact of Spanish Revival architecture is that, as grand as it is and as much as it happily defies the popular conception of Californians forever trying to escape the past, it is easily overlooked and often dismissed for merely looking old. Familiarity too breeds neglect. When Keaton purchased her Wallace Neff home in Beverly Hills in the mid-1990s, she was told that it was a tear-down. She proved her doubters wrong with a faithful renovation, but other homes have not fared so well.
The Danziger Mansion, the Donald Parkinson residence, the Frances Marion residence, the Culver Mansion, the Rindge Castle are a few of the homes that have been destroyed by fire, torn down for subdivisions or demolished for mega mansions. As one dream of the future trumps another, architecture in Southern Californian has always paid the price.
But Spanish Revival seems to have been particularly cursed for having developed at the time when Modernist designs were sweeping clean the world and, according to Waldie, conditioning us to disdain overt historical references and dismiss derivations of other styles such as Spanish, North African, Italian. The past, embodied by Spanish Revival, “contained all kinds of memories and obligations and unhappy associations, whereas the brand-new present with no connection to the past was liberating, expansive.”
While both Spanish Revival and the Modernist movement captured the essence of the California dream -- the freedom to be whatever you wished -- one took its clues from history, and the other from some imagined future. Ultimately, though, glass-walled and steel-framed homes of R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, among others, proved more seductive and provided Southern Californians with a template for living that seemed less anachronistic, more relevant and cutting-edge than anything Andalusian.
In time, the architects of the old -- and their vision of the future -- were forgotten, and their attempts to create “a perfect confluence of place and dwelling that would . . . redeem modern life from its addictions to speed and anxiety” gone (Waldie’s words). Holding onto that dream is the subtext of “California Romantica,” and perhaps now, as Modernist designs are viewed less as creed and more as a style, tethered like any other to the vagaries of culture, the time is right -- but not to the point of being unduly nostalgic.
“We shouldn’t transform Southern California back to the 1920s,” argues Waldie, “but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that who we are as people, who we are as Californians, is colored by that moment in history with those values. We should poke at those values and question them. Look at them. Find out how they work.”
We must be “an audience to what’s around us and what is beauty,” Keaton says, “to take time to appreciate a significant symbol of what California life once was.”
“California Romantica” is their homage to that life, a book about the act of seeing, and if it has an elegiac air, it comes only from its authors’ longing, a “longing for people to see these homes in a different light,” Keaton says.
“We want to encounter Southern California differently,” Waldie adds, concluding this duet, “and one way we can encounter Southern California differently is taking ourselves by the lapels and shaking ourselves. These houses are complicated conversations with the present and the past about what it means to live here.”
Hear the discussion
To hear excerpts of Diane Keaton and D.J. Waldie’s discussion of homes featured in “California Romantica,” look for the expanded photo gallery with audio narration posted with this story at latimes.com/home.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.