Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quakers and Dingbats

Since moving to Whittier I have re-read one of my most favorite books; Los Angeles:The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham. Banham was an English Architectural Historian who wrote one of the most important appreciations of Los Angeles as a great city. I discovered the book while a student at Cal Poly, Pomona. A great deal of the curriculum is L.A. based as it should being one of a handfull of Architecture schools in the greater Los Angeles area. What is so unique about Banham's book is it takes what most people see as the negatives of a place like Los Angeles and uses them as a way of defining why L.A. is such a remarkable place. The book breaks down L.A. as a place formed by it's ecology, broken into Surfurbia, the Foothills, the Plains, and the Freeways. It examines the idea of L.A. as a region formed not by an increasingly growing city stemming from a vital urban core but by a vast network of communities born out of an extensive linear transportation network first, the railroads, to have been replaced by the boulevards and eventually the freeways. It was a unique idea in that it established L.A. as a series of settlements that grew together.

Our new home is in a city laid out not so much as a suburb of a booming metropolis but as a neighboring community; at first an agricultural colony by Quaker settlers. The city was named for the noted Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, you'll find reminders in the street names "Greenleaf" "Whittier" (duh), "Philadelphia". "Penn", etc. At the heart of the town was a Quaker College bearing the name of the town. Eventually the Quakers left and now the college is a charming liberal arts school. It would not be unlike the Colleges established in nearby La Verne, Claremont, and further east in Redlands. Even the old hometown of Rialto was suposed to have a methodist college at it's heart. This was a established pattern of settlement in Southern California. Among the legacies of this are fantastic mature trees and landscaping and a rich Architectural traditon with all styles Victorian, Craftsman, and given the quaker connection a descent dose of east coast styles: Georgian/colonial/neo-classicism, which you don't usually find in Southern California.

"Dingbat" is a typographical term for the asterisk-sputnik like device you'd see in publications from the 1950's. it also shared the form with a type of lightfixture often found on the simply shaped box-like modernistic apartments that sprang up in Southern California in the sort of leftover spaces as the freeways and subdivisions filled in the space between the various towns and cities that make up L.A.. They are mentioned in the Architecture of Four Ecologies as a step toward densification in the leftover and older areas as the single family house propigated. They are largely simple structures with a designed front facade that might be highly articulated and adorned up front while presenting simple stucco boxes often on stilts above car ports at the sides and rear. As such they are a watered down version of the type of designs promoted by the great modernists, le Corbusier, Gropius, Vanderohe, as well as the Viennese emmigrants Schindler, and Neutra which are very much at the foundaton of Los Angeles contributions to modern architecture.

The complex we live in largely follows the conventions of the dingbat apartment ,and it was built on the remnants of a much older estate with a main house designed in a neo-classical style. The old house once crowned a hill with a spectacular view of the Los Angeles basin and commanded an ocean view. But by the 60's was being hemmed in by increasing development, as the newer ranch house subdivisions drew people away fron the old townsite. So the result here is an interesting mishmash of Victorian houses, Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival Bungalows, both freestanding and in "courts", scattered among these are the dingbat apartments built in the 40's-50's and 60's. Here the old estate was carved into several landscaped atriums lined wih Dingbat flats and townhomes. The main house was cut up into San Francisco like apartments and the stucco wings followed. The streetside facade is made up of brick facades with simple Tuscan columns, white trim and surrounds to recall the neo-classical detailing of the main house with it's brick walls, whitewashed colums, dentils, and cornices. I hope to detail the complex in a future post.

The result I think Is a unique and pleasant composition that relates in a simple apartment complex to both the rich local history as well as the spirit of the greater region.

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