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Glitter Stucco

I was back home near St. Louis in May, walking with my brother to the shopping center up the street from our parents’ house. Across U.S. Highway 67, we saw a four-story storage facility under construction. It was barely more than a frame with some yellow fascia put up over it, but we could see the building’s form clearly behind the Shell station, the Ponderosa, and the Blockbuster Video next to my old junior high school: a long, blank body with irregularly staggered sockets where the windows were to go. From the sunny outdoors, the inside looked hollow and dark, like a death mask. The incomplete structure was totally banal and utilitarian, but we started joking that it looked a lot like a signature work by architect Steven Holl, the ascetic enfant terrible of New York. Indeed, in its plainness and minor-key disposition, the storage building strangely resembled a type of deadpan architecture that has become quite fashionable among a small group of obscure architects and design academics over the past few years. The only difference was one of calculation.

In architecture, “background” buildings, those countless generic and possibly prefabricated buildings we pass unconsciously every day, have moved to the foreground as objects of enormous academic concern. Critics in architecture’s couture leagues have stopped deriding these buildings (fish in a barrel) and begun, in the tradition of maverick design thinkers Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, reading whatever may or may not lie between their lines: The very lack of affect in a strip storefront or a warehouse has been retroactively labeled an idiom, its innocence turned into exotica. “There is poetry and consolation in the repetition of familiar things,” writes Deborah Berke, a New York architect and co-editor of the 1997 book Architecture of the Everyday. “Architecture should serve its purpose without apology.” These days, design theorists of both the tenured and freelance sorts are packing up the kids and cranking up the car to Jack in the Box in the discovery phase of their case for a “vernacular” in common commercial structures.

Four out of five times, it seems, their search begins and ends in Los Angeles, presumably because the city’s peculiar environment of exaltedly low architecture—burger joints, carwashes, strip boutiques, billboards, and so on—suggests a shortcut to understanding many American things. But Los Angeles is a hothouse; the finer points of the “fortunate lifestyle” to which author John Chase refers in Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving aren’t found much outside the junction of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Coast. And the salient features of the city’s unfortunate lifestyle didn’t in fact originate there—and they seem to thrive all right nearly everywhere. The idea of scattershot boulevard development can be traced to the Pentagon and the Federal Highway Administration, and it has proved hardy from California to Maine and Florida.

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Yet the theory crowd clings to the benighted notion that Los Angeles alone defines modern urban life. Faculty writers hanging around the University of Southern California, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and the University of California, Los Angeles, are hampered by their wild romanticism from recognizing that their city is not half the pacemaker of American urban form that they believe it to be. Or, as Richard Longstreth at George Washington University quietly concludes in his 1997 book on Los Angeles strip development, City Center to Regional Mall: “The extent to which the region functioned as a crucible for innovative approaches to retail development becomes clear only when placed in national perspective.” When writing about Los Angeles, as Longstreth suggests, it helps to hit the road now and again.

Chase, from his Venice address, broadly overstates the sui generis qualities of L.A.’s cityscape. He goes out on safari in the city’s savannas to document “consumerist” architecture—cheap apartments, middle-market condominiums, tract dream houses, cheekily animated retail buildings—and codify a grammar at work in their making. He opposes the discount designs of the street against those of “high-art” trophy architecture, whose partisans, he cries in his opening anti-snob salvo, have “divorced architectural form from function and social purpose.” Yet he protests only generally; throughout Glitter Stucco, we never catch anyone red-handed committing such a breach.

His taxonomy of background buildings opens engrossingly, with the genesis of “stucco boxes,” those locally ubiquitous “dingbat” apartment buildings on stilts immortalized by director Tamara Jenkins in The Slums of Beverly Hills. If design is the sum of all constraints, as Charles and Ray Eames declared, the dingbats represent pure design, compressed on every side by the forces of finance, zoning, building codes, parking quotas, and patented construction methods. With little luxuries such as aluminum sliding doors, patterned wallpapers, colorful geometric ornament, tropical plantings, and faraway names such as the Algiers, the Hong Kong, and the Telstar, the dingbats tried to grant the same wish on less than a quarter-acre as postwar houses from Levittown, N.Y., to Montgomery County to Phoenix classically have: “the illusion of space,” as Jack Chernoff, architect of some 2,000 such stucco structures, put it. They appeared to take working-class dwellers off the windy precipice of poverty and propel them toward material comfort.

Chase, who works as the urban designer for the city of West Hollywood, passionately mounts a little-guy defense of dingbats. He would have us believe that he loves these buildings for, and not in spite of, their superficial amenities and mass-produced elements. “[T]oday there is the illogical but apparently ineradicable attitude that since stucco is purely a surface material, what it covers must be unhealthy or immoral,” he writes, as if to eradicate said attitude. To the contrary, a combination of kitsch values and historicist want rehabilitated the status of stucco some years ago—as long as it’s real stucco. Discriminating tongues learned to love the genuine troweled-on stuff and to revile its sprayed-on substitute, Dryvit. And Chase undermines his position in occasional condescensions: At one point, he likens dingbats to “war, famine, and plague” in the built history of the city and calls the kind of urbanism they have wrought “downright nasty.”

We get a thorough account of the natural selection process that brought about the stucco box (starting with a typical client, “a guy in the needle trade, maybe a small manufacturer, who pulled together 10, 15, 20 thousand dollars to buy a lot”), but, in moving on to other topics, Chase barely reprises the analytical effort of the first chapter of this discursive volume. He takes a decent stab at parsing the professional impulses behind the development of MountainGate, a walled-off community in the Sepulveda Pass, including a long history of how it came to reside atop a landfill. The passage about the presence of methane gas that leaks from the compost beneath the community would seem suspenseful and scary, except that Chase brings the whole episode to a crashingly passive resolution in one sentence: “[P]reventive measures were taken by the developer to preclude the possibility of gas infiltrating the residential area.” Now, to find those teeth that I spit out.

Telling us all he knows, it seems, Chase hardly ever seizes on the sort of illuminating details that would solidify his argument for the existence of a predetermined order in the production of dumb buildings. (I once heard somewhere that Taco Bell’s explosive lighting and hard edges are meant to get ’em in and out in 20 minutes. Or was it Starbucks?) In his chapter on period-revival styles in L.A. houses, we learn, for instance, that architect John Woolf deployed caricatures of the Second Empire mansard roof on many of the custom houses he designed from the ’30s to the ’70s, and that the style became insanely popular. But we never find out why Woolf brought back the mansard: Was it personal folly? A Napoleon complex? Market research?

Likewise, Chase writes that in the ’50s, “a mania for transforming Spanish Colonial Revival mutts into French Regency pedigreed poodles swept West Hollywood,” inspired by a legion of striving interior decorators who worked in the hills above Sunset Boulevard but lived in the less opulent ZIP codes below. Where others see camp in the tacked-on revival designs, Chase finds pathos: “[T]he little buildings reflect the anxieties produced by the city’s many levels of wealth and status.” Yet we encounter no quoted evidence of having noticed such “anxieties” from the decorator claque, whom Chase writes up—or off—as a bunch of stick-figure fags.

Chase makes polemical postures in this book, as if to open our eyes to virtues we otherwise refuse to see in mean, tacky buildings (beyond their meanness and tackiness). But long before the back cover closes, Glitter Stucco reveals itself not as a coherent, deep-tissue analysis of unexamined influences on ordinary architecture, but as a self-indulgent diagram of things Chase contemplates as he travels down the 405. Oh, he goes to Las Vegas, too, but I could barely stay awake through that oddly placed chapter, having gotten my fill from Venturi, Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s 1972 Learning From Las Vegas, the first and, if necessity dictates, last word on that cartoon environment. And Chase’s pseudo-Vollmannesque maunderings on the riffraff in L.A.’s Silverlake section and on the metropolitan ecology of garbage are nearly insufferable: Yes, one man’s trash is another man’s…trash, in L.A. as anywhere else.

Most galling about this book are Chase’s claims throughout that historians and theorists ignore low-rent architecture’s unprepossessing virtues. When they do pay attention, he scoffs, “it is often in a trivializing or patronizing fashion.” Why, on one small shelf I have titles such as Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic, Ozark Vernacular Houses, American Country Building Design, and the excellent Field Guide to American Houses—studies of overlooked architecture that are rendered with utmost seriousness and sincerity. Which is more than can be said of Chase, who has been inhaling too much academic ether. For, near the end of his book, he assembles criteria for entry into his own anti-canon of commercial “vernacular” buildings, the first of which reads: “[The buildings] bend shape and meld the conventional rules in ways that give a pleasant frisson of violation and naughtiness to those observers who have cultivated an awareness of these rules.”

Here I had been thinking we were looking for strictly conventional rules, not their bending and melding. But the word “cultivated” gives Chase away. I have long distrusted the highfalutin mind that fawns over folk art, and in this instance, it sounds as if we would need to belong to the design world in-crowd to appreciate even the simplest things on the street. As much as the author, in his oblique rants, claims to hate aestheticism in “high-art” architecture, it serves as his book’s faulty compass: We, the educated, write the manifestoes for the illiterate, to whom “high-art” architecture means little beyond noting, “That’s a cool building!” and to whom ordinary architecture retains the utilitarian purity that scholars try to ascribe to it. The great appeal of background architecture is its essential aloofness toward aesthetics, which vanishes under the scrutiny of a “cultivated” eye. CP