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Landmark Inflation

By Frank Gruber

“In accommodating new uses on historic properties, we must take great care not to impose contemporary didacticism onto the design, but to retain as many features as possible for a future time when tastes and circumstances change again.” -- Santa Monica Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco, in a letter to the Planning Commission last week.

June 13, 2011 -- Personal digression. I got started in Santa Monica politics in 1993 when I learned about the City’s plans to remake the Civic Center and wrote a memo to the Planning Department with my ideas about what the City should do there. Because my organizing principle was that Santa Monica should be as ambitious in trying to create an “urban heart” as Venice was when it built Piazza San Marco, the memo became known as the “Piazza Santa Monica” memo. (If you’re interested, you can find the memo at this link.

Not that my memo had anything to do with it, but 18 years later, when I look at the plans for Palisades Garden Walk I’m thrilled that somewhere along the line the City decided to get ambitious.

Back to my digression. When I met Boris Dramov, the urban designer who was most responsible for the original 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, he had read my memo, but he told me that given the layout of the Civic Center and its context, a more appropriate model for what might go in front of City Hall than an Italian civic piazza might be the central place of a French town, which would have more formal garden elements than a piazza.

Mr. Dramov’s point was a good one. I bring this up because as I criticize the takeover by the Landmarks Commission of the design process for the “Town Square” now being designed for the site, personally I don’t have strong opinions about what should be built there. Of course I am confident that the range of choices will be a good one, given the designers involved and the input they have received from all the boards and commissions involved, city staff, and, last but certainly not least, the public.

To digress from the digression, it is worth noting that the final design that the City’s designers, James Corner Field Operations, produced out of this process (a design dated Dec. 13, 2010) before staff met informally with three members of the Landmarks Commission who objected to the direction the plan was going, was a well-balanced amalgam of piazza and place. The design utilized piazza-like hardscape and a fountain directly in front of City Hall, but broke up the hardscape with planters, and flanked the whole thing with trees planted in two formal arrays of rows -- so French that the designers called the groupings of trees bosques.

But it wouldn’t bother me if the design had grass in it, like the Landmarks Commission wants more of, even if I don’t believe there are preservation reasons for keeping the grass there. In fact I am pleased that the commission has had input, if that is what it took to preserve the memorial rose garden, although as I argued last week, its preservation should have nothing to do with whether it is an ornament for City Hall, but because of its own merits.

No, what I object to is for historic preservation, which should be only one of many factors taken into consideration when planning the future development of public space, to take preeminence, especially when decisions to preserve purportedly historic aspects of a site are based upon ever-declining standards for what is worthy of preservation. As a result of the Landmarks Commission taking over the process, the bosques of trees have become vestigial, the designers have scrapped an exciting plan to illuminate the square at night (a terrific idea), and except for the fountain bordering the rose garden the new design looks to be as unappealing as what’s there now.

Last week the Planning Commission held a hearing on the designs for the new park and the Town Square. ("Planning Commisioners Unhappy with Changes to Town Square Project," June 10, 2011). Landmarks Commissioner Nina Fresco sent the commission a letter (on her own behalf as the Landmarks Commission had not had an opportunity to approve it) defending her commission’s taking over of the design process for the site.

The quotation above is from the letter; I’ve quoted it for the irony -- Ms. Fresco wants us to avoid “contemporary didacticism,” but today in the field of urban planning the most powerful “contemporary didacticism” is historic preservation, a contemporary movement if there ever was one.

Ms. Fresco is a dedicated volunteer and public-spirited resident, and I mean no disrespect to say that her letter is itself evidence for how landmarking in Santa Monica has gone off the tracks. Nor do I have nything but respect for all the commissioners -- the fact is that when it comes to expanding the commission’s authority, they can’t help it. They’re part of a preservation industry that needs more landmarks to preserve itself. It’s the nature of anything -- once you start lowering the bar, each inch it descends makes it easier to lower it another inch.

For example, with respect to the lawn in front of City Hall, to support the commission’s finding that the lawn is “a dominant character-defining feature of” City Hall, Ms. Fresco referred to a series of photographs of civic buildings from around the country built in the same era as our City Hall, all with lawns in front of them, that the commission’s consultants had compiled as evidence that the City Hall lawn is character-defining for the era.

All of these photographs, however, are of civic buildings and grounds that are much more grand than our City Hall; what you realize when looking at them, and then looking at our City Hall’s front yard, is that what was built in front of our City Hall was a derivative (and chintzy) knock-off of what people were building in places that at the time had more money and ambition than Santa Monica.

It’s like saying that Gerry and the Pacemakers deserve to be the in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they played rock and roll and came from Liverpool when the Beatles did.

Which reminds me of something that an architect friend told me once on the subject of historic architecture in Santa Monica. He was dismissive; according to him, for every building in Santa Monica that someone wanted to landmark for architectural reasons, there were 10 better buildings of the same era and style in Hollywood.

What we’ve got is landmarks inflation, and as someone with a healthy respect for history, this pains me because it means that landmarks lose their value.

In 1975 the Rapp Saloon became Santa Monica’s first designated landmark under the then new landmarks ordinance. During the next ten years, the City designated all of 18 landmarks. In the past ten years, when after 25 years of landmarking you might think the supply of un-landmarked buildings would be getting low, 56 landmarks have been designated. In the space of two recent years, 2008 and 2009, the City designated 13 landmarks.

Now, not then, Santa Monica is a happening place for architecture, design and urbanism, but we have a Landmarks Commission dedicated to the importance of its role that wants to thwart the possibility for great design in a public place because of misplaced reverence for second-rate designs of Santa Monica’s past.

* * *

As if on cue, at its monthly meeting tonight the Landmarks Commission will consider landmarking an old and nice but basically cookie-cutter example of Spanish Colonial Revival residential architecture, another knock-off of better examples elsewhere. The house is at 316 Adelaide Drive and it has been so modified over the years that even planning staff is only recommending that the commission landmark one wing of it (although also recommending that the commission designate the whole parcel as a landmark).

The kicker in this case is that the commission is looking at this property because Santa Monica resident and most-famous-architect-in-the-world Frank Gehry wants to demolish some of it, apparently preserving the most historic elements, to build a new home for his family, undoubtedly a house that in 40 years the Landmarks Commission will want to designate as a landmark.

Should be interesting.

316 Adelaide: future Santa Monica landmark? (Photo by Frank Gruber)

* * *

Kudos to the American Civil Liberties Union, and Santa Monica City Council Member Bobby Shriver who worked with the ACLU, for suing the Veterans Administration to use the Westwood V.A. grounds to house homeless veterans. ("Lawsuit Filed Against Local VA," June 10, 2011)

This is an important story, and I hope in the future to write about it.

Public Lecture Notice:

If you can resist attending the Landmarks Commission meeting tonight, you might want to check out a public lecture that Civic Center parks designer James Corner is giving at the main library. The topic of Mr. Corner’s talk will be the importance of parks to urban settings and the intersection between urbanism and landscape design.

According to the Department of Community and Cultural Services, which is sponsoring the talk, the event is already booked to capacity, but there may be no-shows. For more information, click here.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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