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World Class City of the Self-Deluded

By Frank Gruber

"That the plan for the proposed project ... contributes to the image of Santa Monica as a place of beauty, creativity and individuality." -- The key finding the Architectural Review Board must make to approve a project.

"What a dump." -- Bette Davis's character Rosa Moline, in "Beyond the Forest" (1949)

The key word in the above quotation from the Santa Monica Municipal Code is not beauty, creativity, or individuality, but image.

The key word in the quotation from "Beyond the Forest," as one might apply it to Santa Monica's built environment, is dump.

As has been well-reported, the Planning Commission is heading toward approval of Howard Jacobs' north Main Street apartment projects. ("Back to the Drawing Board for Main St. Project," August 22) A five vote majority of the Commission, which was sitting as the Architectural Review Board on appeal of an ARB denial, did a credible job in the context of an awkward situation -- the fact that the City Council, when it approved the project a few months ago, decided the crucial design issues.

The Commission gave Jacobs and his architect, Howard Laks, reason to believe their three-year journey through the Santa Monica planning process might soon be over. I can't argue with the justice of that, nor would I.

Instead, at the moment I am fascinated by the commissioners' rhetoric. Whether they grudgingly supported the project or railed against it, the commissioners love to talk about how "special" Santa Monica is, and about how any architecture that is less than "world class" is unworthy of our little town.

One hears this line at all levels of development and design review in Santa Monica, from the ARB, the Planning Commission, City Council, and the public, expressed with typical Santa Monica condescension as "this is good enough for Glendale, or Newport Beach, or the Marina, but not for Santa Monica."

Why it is that the Santa Monicans who go on about how "world class" our architecture needs to be are the same Santa Monicans who go on and on and on about how horrible it is that Santa Monica is no longer a (i) beach town, (ii) suburb, (iii) crumbly slum where the "debris meets the sea," (iv) blue collar arsenal of democracy, (v) patrician redoubt, (vi) glamorous hideaway for Hollywood, or (vii) fill in the blank with your own simplistic fantasy of the golden age, but it's customary to employ the adjective "sleepy" wherever possible.

The French have a word for this: nostalgie de boue, literally, "nostalgia for mud," figuratively, what a bourgeois does when romanticizing the poverty of earlier days. Nostalgie de boue is the defining characteristic of Santa Monicans fearful of change ("SMFC's").

There was a good example of this at the meeting Wednesday night, when Planning Commissioner and SMFC supreme Geraldine Moyle, a UCLA professor, in despair that someone might actually build a new apartment house, exclaimed (in plummy English tones), "Dogtown dies."

Okay, I like the past, too. In fact, let's rebuild Pacific Ocean Park, or reopen the Boulangerie. But can you imagine what the EIR would say about the traffic?

Santa Monica has its charms, but they aren't architectural. Look around. What do you see?

(i) Awful public architecture. A civic auditorium that on at least three sides is the worst of mid century junk architecture. A court house of Soviet drabness. A main library so undistinguished that, thankfully, no one is trying to save it. A city hall that is -- may I say it -- charming, quaint, interesting even as an example of a minor period and style, but hardly great architecture.

(ii) Bad private homes that range from the routine work of hack society architects, to form-book genre architecture, to the recent truly monstrous hybrids.

(iii) Horrendous apartments, the worst in stucco boxes on stilts or other slapdash construction, half of which look ready to fall down. Mansard roofs garnished with shake shingles, decorative brick garnished with Mexican tile. Cars behind bars. Accidental post-modernism.

(iv) Depressing commercial buildings that, with a few exceptions, reflect the worst of every cheap business park style of the past four decades.

(v) Lincoln Boulevard.

Each week our colleagues over at The Mirror try to find a good building to feature above the fold of their second section. I admire the effort, but the minor delights they manage to drag up are exceptions that merely remind one of the rule.

Take this week's choice, the Central Tower on Fourth Street. Aside from the fact that, as is typical in Santa Monica, some benighted owner ruined the ground floor facade, for every Central Tower here, you can find ten buildings just as good in the same style in Hollywood. The same goes for our few good apartments -- for every Sovereign or Charmont, there must two dozen better examples in Hollywood, or in mid-Wilshire, or Pasadena.

Take a look in some guidebooks if you still believe our architecture makes us "special." In Los Angeles: The City Observed, published by our own Hennessey + Ingalls, noted architect Charles Moore devoted only six of 396 pages to Santa Monica, and one of those was about the Pier. Pasadena has a whole chapter -- 42 pages.

All right, forget architecture. What about beauty, creativity, and individuality? In the Getty Trust's Discover Los Angeles: An Informed Guide to L.A.'s Rich and Varied Cultural Life, out of 283 pages, only five concern Santa Monica, and one of them is about our just departed Museum of Flying.

When it comes to art and culture, besides a cluster of private art galleries, Santa Monica contributes about nothing to the region. No important museums or public art, no concert halls, few venues for live music, no significant stage theaters, not much beyond a decent library and a two-year college.

So where do we get off with looking down our noses at the poor slobs elsewhere who would tolerate anything less than world class apartment buildings?

Of course, even if the town is a dump, that's no reason not to want the best. I happen to like the best myself. I also like the good. If you want the best, or even the good, and you don't have much of either, the question is how to get it.

So what's my point? SMFC's have their nostalgie de boue and their delusions of grandeur for a reason. There is, to continue the French theme, a politique of self-delusion, a politics of negation that enables people who fear change to romanticize the past to damn the present as well as the future.

It's all in the image.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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