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More Architecture, More French

"ARCHITECTS. All idiots: they always forget to put in the stairs." -- Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

For a confirmed Italophile, I sure have been putting on the French dog. De Toqueville two weeks ago, some French phrases last week, now Flaubert. Oy, such pretension. (Or should I say "Sacré bleu!")

The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas is one of those books just perfect for columnists, like Bartlett's Quotations. Flaubert satirized the conventional wisdom of his time and place, which turns out to be similar to the conventional wisdom of every other time and place, assuming we are talking about times and places like 19th century France, where people thought theirs was the best civilization yet.

This is a great convenience for a columnist. For instance, since Santa Monicans know we live at the apex of civilization, I can substitute "articulation" for "stairs" in the quotation above, and summarize most of the deliberations that occur at the Architectural Review Board.

Architects don't get much respect in Santa Monica, which is strange in a city whose officials routinely say they want "world class" architecture and where every building subject to design review is expected to contribute "to the image of Santa Monica as a place of beauty, creativity and individuality."

Usually when an architect appears before the ARB, or before the Planning Commission if someone has appealed an ARB-approval, he or she is met with suspicion, along the lines of "What are you trying to get away with," rather than with helpful interest, along the lines of, perhaps, "Let's see what you've got here, oh, yes, that looks interesting, now how can we help you achieve our goals of beauty, creativity and individuality?"

In fairness to our design arbiters, some of the criteria the ARB is supposed to follow contradict themselves. For instance, the City has charged the ARB not only to find that a project is beautiful, creative and individualistic, but also that it is "compatible with the development on and in the general area."

Since most of the built environment in Santa Monica is at best undistinguished, it's hard to say how a new building could be beautiful, creative and individualistic and also neighborhood compatible.

Architecture is important. It's one of those elitist art forms, like orchestral music, that notwithstanding their rarefied natures, tend to tell the future what people were thinking.

For us stuck in the present, architecture can be elevating. For instance, the twentieth century was a nightmare when civilization almost destroyed itself several times, but I'll never forget my thinking, when I first had the privilege of seeing Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, that maybe we were living in a great age nonetheless.

I doubt that anyone can point to great architecture that is a tribute to Santa Monica's design review process. A building more than 10,000 square feet, for instance, that not only looks good today but, assuming it was built to last, will be worth looking at in the future.

Perhaps great architecture is not the point. Perhaps the overall quality of buildings has improved since the implementation of design review. This does seem to happen in specific contexts; for instance, the ongoing dialogue over several years between the ARB and downtown apartment developers has led to a general increase in quality.

Yet, even though, when they finally approve buildings, the ARB and the Planning Commission like to say that they have improved them, most of the time this improvement is merely substitution of one subjective aesthetic ("more articulation") for another.

Of course, it's ridiculous to expect that everything built in Santa Monica can be "world class," or even should be. In ten years no one will say that the apartments in downtown Santa Monica constitute "world class" architecture, but the neighborhood will be a world class neighborhood.

The beauty of Santa Monica -- aside from the physical setting -- is the casual and cacophonous residue of thirteen decades of varied development. What's lovable about Santa Monica's built environment, what's delightful, what's ineffable even, is the handiwork of many. Santa Monica is not a static thing, not a city stuck in its first generation of development, nor a city like Santa Barbara that cloaks its history in conformity.

Perhaps it is a positive indication of the urban jumble that defines Santa Monica's look, but the worst aspect of design review here is that no one can agree on what to tell the architects. As a result, developers opt for the safest designs to try to please everyone, leaving the architects to make the best of bad situations. In the end, no one is happy.

Consider Howard Jacobs' Main Street apartments. The Planning Commission and then City Council told him and his architect, ARB member Howard Laks, to "break up" the block long building into different styles. Then the ARB told them they didn't like this tableau of faux (there he goes again), and when Jacobs and Laks appeared back at the Planning Commission two weeks ago, they had removed some of the decoration. The Planning Commission told them to put some back.

Or consider the continuing discussion over the new apartment buildings downtown. Those critics who don't like the apartments divide into two mutually-exclusive camps, those who think the buildings are ugly because they are all the same -- "cookie-cutter" is their adjective of choice -- and those who think they are ugly because they are a mishmash of different styles.

What's an architect to do?

What's a city to do?

A city that sits in an especially beautiful spot that cries out for good architecture.

I'll be making some specific suggestions in future columns, but as a first step, I recommend that the City start treating architects with respect. Not reverence, just respect. As in not nit-picking. As in saying something more useful than, "it needs more articulation." As in not suggesting, as one ARB member did a few weeks ago, that an architect give a building a "marine theme." (This in a city where "Disneyesque" is a vile epithet.)

Most important, as in showing respect by being willing to take risks. By saying, "why not?" instead of "go away."

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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