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By Frank Gruber

"The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines." --Frank Lloyd Wright (1953).

When I'm not writing columns, I practice entertainment law, and years ago I produced an art film that was shown in about twelve of the country's smallest, oops, I mean most exclusive, theaters. As the family's "expert" on the movie business, I am often asked by relatives to explain why Hollywood makes so many turkeys.

I usually shrug and if pressed further, say, "You know, it's hard to make a good movie."

If I am pressed even further, I become indignant on behalf of film makers everywhere, and I make an analogy that they all seem to get.

The analogy I make is that the percentage of movies that are good is about the same as the percentage of buildings that are good -- somewhere between one out of ten and one out of 100, depending on whom you are talking to.

It's hard to make a good movie, and it's hard to build a good building.

Another thing my relatives outside the studio zone want to know is what a movie producer does. To answer this question I often compare producers with real estate developers, as real estate development is a business that is well-understood in other parts of the country.

Producers and developers do similar things. They find properties (real properties, or books or screenplays), hire creative people (architects, or writers and directors) to develop the property, arrange financing, and then hire more people (contractors, technicians, actors) to produce things (buildings, movies, TV shows) that sometimes rise to the level of art but which exist to make money.

In the past few decades it's become the norm for municipalities to require that developers preview building designs before design review boards, at public hearings. The idea is that buildings will be better architecturally if the public and the municipality's experts have a chance to give input.

Interestingly, movie producers have been previewing rough cuts of films before "locking picture" since nearly the dawn of the industry -- to wonderful effect.

Like I said, it's hard to make a good movie or to build a good building.

Recently, the City Council, on the occasion of filling two vacancies on the Santa Monica Architectural Review Board, had a spirited discussion about the board's role and who should be on it. The council ultimately elected another architect to the board, which gives the professionals a majority. The argument against electing a fourth professional was that what the ARB should do is reflect residents' concerns about their neighborhoods, and that was a job best left to residents. ("Council Gives Architects Majority," Sept. 13)

This argument about the purpose of design review is fundamental. The City's design guidelines reflect this dichotomy by trying to promote, all at once, creativity, beauty and neighborhood compatibility. Generally, wherever public design review takes place, and design reviewers try to reconcile these inherent conflicts, the result is that the worst projects are usually prevented.

But the need to satisfy a multitude of "clients" with differing ideas about "what they want the community to be" (to quote from Council Member Ken Genser's argument against adding another professional architect to the board), generally results in, at best, a homogenized aesthetic and, at worst, a degraded one.

While I expect that Council's choice of well-respected architect Bill Adams was a good one, just because an ARB member is an architect does not mean that he or she will do a good job. A few years ago, I attended, as Planning Commission liaison to the ARB, a lot of ARB meetings, and the absolute worst member of the board was an architect named Janet Spinks.

My favorite Janet Spinks story involves, coincidentally, developer Howard Jacobs. It was Jacobs' Main Street apartments, which received their final approvals last week after years of development, environmental and design review, that got me writing these columns about design review in the first place.

Four or five years ago, when Jacobs was planning to renovate the apartment building across from Casa del Mar and turn it into the Citrus Suites, he took a trip to Italy. According to testimony he later gave the ARB, he was impressed by the painted wooden shutters with open slats that Italians use to keep heat out and breezes flowing. These shutters not only look great, but they help keep Italian buildings cool without air conditioning.

Inspired by bella Italia, Jacobs had his architect specify operable shutters in his design for Citrus Suites. But at the ARB, these real shutters created a crisis for then board member Spinks. She said that if the shutters could open and close, then sometimes some would be open while others would be closed -- and wouldn't that be terrible!

One of the worst things about design review is that it usually operates by consensus. No one wants to disagree with anyone else and all criticisms are considered equally valid, no matter how ignorant. Even though some other ARB members could see the inherent beauty of shutters that opened and closed and fulfilled the purpose shutters have existed for since the beginning of shutters, no one would stand up to Spinks and her remarkable fear of the irregularity of authenticity.

To gain the consensus he needed for approval, Jacobs agreed to make the shutters inoperable -- to make them fake, and on your next trip to the beach, you can swing by Citrus Suites and see the fake shutters stuck on the walls. Not only are they fake, but the widths of the fake shutters don't match the widths of the windows they are theoretically protecting from the elements. The effect is ridiculous.

But perhaps Spinks, even with her technical training, truly understood "the feeling of the soul, the gestalt ... of what Santa Monica should be," to quote Genser further, because let's face it, Santa Monica loves fake. Or "faux" as they call it in polite company.

Judging from what gets built around town, the easiest way to get a building through the ARB or the Planning Commission is make it either faux Pasadena bungalow or faux Paris bordello.

Fee fi faux fum. The new fire house on Hollister has fake brick siding. Imagine that -- a red brick fire house made of fake bricks.

We don't just have faux. We have world class faux.

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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