The Case Study of Case Studies

What if someone suspended a cluster of Case Study houses in the airspace above a working-class community in the Valley?   Improbable though it may sound, this is coming soon to a ghost building not far from me.

Who would buy there and how would you market it?  I can’t improve upon this pithy analysis from a noted New Urbanist:

“Soooooo. Let’s say you are a reasonably solvent individual who wants 1) a mint condition glass box home that 2) hovers above the Blade Runner view of LA and 3) is a manageable Lyft to the perks of civilization. But you also 4) fancy yourself a bit of an iconoclast who 5) savors the grittiness of said landscape – so long as you personally never have to touch it. What better location than the White Favela of Panorama?”

“You get convenience, street cred, and an ironic address all at once. Two options. Each apartment will be huge and very expensive, designed to appeal to empty nester Boomers who don’t want to mow the lawn anymore. Or, these will be tiny personal cubbies and large common areas to facilitate Millennial bonding. There’s more than one way to cash flow a dead office tower.”

The Stahl House above (Case Study House#22, Pierre Koenig) was built in 1960,  Panorama Tower, a modernist filing cabinet of offices, in 1962. Neither structure served its purpose for very long. The tower was designed by none other than Welton Becket, the king of jet age Los Angeles architecture: Capitol Records, the Cinerama Dome,  Pauley Pavilion, to name a few.

Stahl, the most iconic private residence in the city has been unoccupied for years (also, has only two bedrooms). You could fit four on each floor of this building, and every window would a have a comparable view to the horizon, making the re-imagined Panorama Tower the case study of Case Studies: a luxury Bento Box embedded in the exoskeleton of a mid-century icon, the only one its kind in the Valley.

Takacs Architecture is handling the adaptation. Izek Shomof is the developer. A little sleuthing reveals he has chosen the Millennial option: 194 live/work units. Fifteen per floor, with ground floor retail extending into the adjoining lot.

Towers of Panorama

Tower Records is no more but when it was around it meant something if your town or neighborhood had one. The Valley had four and one of them was rumored to be in Panorama City of all places. I was so skeptical of this I had to double check on Google Streetview:

If this seems like a rather sad and stark neighborhood declension, note within a five block radius of this location The Broadway became WalMart, Robinsons became El Super, and Ohrbach’s became the Valley Swap Meet.

General Motors became Home Depot, setting things into motion, which is as concise a summation of post-industrial Los Angeles one can make in five words.

This was the Panorama Tower, 1962. Mid-century sleek, but empty since the Northridge earthquake, nearly half its lifespan.

After a quarter century, it is being redeveloped not as offices, but as lofts.  Live/Work (read: GrubHub and YouTube Whoring) has come to downmarket Panorama, just in time for the rebuilding of the trolley line.  There are plenty of people in the neighborhood who already clean floors and do windows, making it a green and holistic proposition by New Urbanist standards, even if that was never the intention.

Our official industry now in Los Angeles is lifestyle porn. We don’t build muscle cars on Van Nuys Blvd. anymore, but we will soon have Wayfair couches and quartz countertops.

The tents are with us forever .

On Billionaire Beach

Come to Malibu, said Johnny, we have a house this weekend. 
By house, he meant an AirBnB on Carbon Beach.
As a friend of friends, I was able to slipstream past the access point at Geffen’s house and park in a driveway.
Being a peasant from the Valley, I arrived overdressed.

It’s hard to think of Malibu and not think of James Mason walking into the sea.  Or Joan Didion composing despair on her balcony with a scarf around her head, or this painting by Alex Colville:

Which you might recognize in cinematic form, from the movie Heat.

There’s something about an empty house, the horizon line and eternity.  Self-destruction must be near at hand.

Malibu did not always reference glass box ostentation and social isolation.  It once meant simple cottages by the sea.  Single story. Wood shingle.  Mid-market.

Roddy McDowall maintained an open house policy at his bungalow in 1965 and the weekends were filled with Hollywood royalty eating hot dogs and drinking beer like, well, like people would in Van Nuys.  His home movies of the stars rusticating on his veranda are a window not only into timeless Pucci dress Marlboro-on-the-fingertips glamour but an era when the social contract worked for more people.  No maids.  No people living in cars. No lavish landscaping.  No security systems. No “coastal access points”.  Hollywood people may have been prettier than everyone else but were not appropriating public spaces for themselves.

To walk the beach Saturday was to stare at a row of uninhabited fortresses, propped up on stilts, in defiance of nature. Look at me! they demand, but don’t touch.  I am a show horse, here to signify the social pecking order. My utility is my expense.

The bigger the house, the less people use them.   (A corollary: the fancier the kitchen, the less people cook.)  Larry Ellison of Oracle owns ten, right here, within a mile of each other.  I don’t think he has a mistress stashed away in each one.  He’s hoarding, not from the little people, but from other mega-wealthy.

When you peek underneath the decks, things get a bit interesting.  The ravages of nature are everywhere.  In rough weather, the surf splashes up against the pilings, and into the wood framing and all things metallic.

If you believe in sea level rise due to anthropogenic global warming, why would you ever sink money into these structures?

Yet the prices only keep going up.  The AirBnB, which was only three bedrooms, sold this year for $18 million.  Despite their prolific funding of environmental causes, I suspect they don’t really believe in AGW on Carbon Beach.  Or maybe they half-do but are to content to rent the sand from Mother Nature for a few years before flipping it to the person who sells the tungsten rights to Uzbekistan under the table and needs a place to park the cash.

They decry the idea of a Mexican border wall, but they love their gates and cameras.  Just like they oppose all development west of La Cienega but expect crisply folded linens.  They love regulating plastic straws but there is never a limit on the carbon footprint of donors to the DNC.

As we had cocktails at sunset, living as billionaires for an afternoon, a dozen people lounging on the deck…clever, pretty and kind we may have been but not a child we had between us.

Two thoughts arose: If it’s good to be rich, perhaps it’s better to be a friend to the wealthy.

We may need a new vocabulary for what we are doing in California. Someone needs to translate for future historians of our Instagram feeds how we blew through so many civilizational stop signs.   How we committed suicide by other names.

Take the Copper, Leave the Drywall

Tweaker…picking the remains, Van Nuys.

The timbers, I notice, are well-preserved, straight-grained and true.  Old growth, probably. You can’t get it anymore, at any price.

Anything hockable has been stripped, hauled off in shopping carts and bartered at the scrapyard, then converted to crack cocaine and exhaled,  unsatiated, in a fit of tachycardia in a tent by the Orange Line.  The metals will journey onward via container to Long Beach, then China, which will melt it down and sell it back to us as a consumer good.

In a couple days, perhaps tomorrow, the carcass will be demolished along with the other homes and taken to the landfill, save the fireplace masonry, with will be salvaged by the specialist, and retailed for a buck a piece at Balboa Brick.


Bamboo flooring! Oh, the hopes someone once had for the place.

…and a swimming pool, even though the backyard abutted the 405. The concrete will be broken down into aggregate and live again, as some sort of structural underlayment, perhaps as a breakwater.

In six months the lots will be consolidated and a six story Bento Box apartment building will sprout in their place.

I think of the Moroccan tile we installed over the summer.    How satisfying it felt as the back butter grabbed the floor and the corners met precisely, within 1/32 an inch of tolerance.  How permanent.

The Town Los Angeles Forgot

To walk the sidestreets of downtown Van Nuys on a weekend afternoon is to not understand what decade one is living in.

Part noirish, part Western, part mid-century time capsule, part zombie movie. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been put to cinematic service more often.

We don’t deal with weeds, but we’ll damn well tow your car. We don’t care what decade it is.

A Two-Hearted Billboard

Facing West…

…and facing East.

The trendlines of America are decidedly Eastward.    Only ten percent of Millennials mention faith when describing what provides them with a sense of meaning.  The desire for a betta butt™ is higher on the Maslow scale by an order of magnitude.

But in Catholic/Pentecostal Van Nuys, perhaps not so much.  Here is where desire for salvation and booty-molding denim overlap, frequently within the same woman.

Whether there was a conscious wit in mounting the two appeals on the same stick or happenstance, I was put in mind of the painting at the dramatic center of Six Degrees of Separation: 

“Oh, this is a Kandinsky!”
“A double – one painted on either side.”
“May I see?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Extraordinary.”
“What makes it exceptional is that Kandinsky painted on either side of the canvas in two radically different styles. One wild and vivid, the other somber and geometric.”
“My God!”
“We flip it around for variety.”
“Chaos, control. Chaos, control.”
“You like? You like?” 

The double-sided Kandinsky was an invention of the writer John Guare. In real life, the paintings exist as separate works. Putting them together was his own comment on the degradation of the arts into signifiers of social status, but also a reflection of the chaotic entry of the con-artist Paul into the Kittridge apartment.

What would the Apostle Paul make of the YMI sign?  If the Devil offered a proposition: “I will put a message of your choosing at every crossroads in the world, but in exchange…the other side of the sign will belong to me,”  would he accept the terms?

Brother Michael

Sunday morning I woke from melatonin dreams about a very specific black and white photograph I had once seen of a street urchin sitting in front of a gas station on Van Nuys Blvd in 1972.  Why that photo? No idea. Perhaps it was the meaning I projected on to it, but who understands the muddy river of the subconscious?

Later, in the afternoon, we took the dogs to Mt. Washington for a hike of the secret staircases. Descending a canyon, we ran into Michael doing concrete work in front of his bungalow, which was cantilevered into the hillside, obscured by shrubbery which enclosed it like a kindling pile.

Much of Mt. Washington is Small House Maximalist.  As the terrain limits expansion of existing bungalows an ethos of idiosyncratic beautification prevails in favor of square footage.   (*not Michael’s house)

In this spirit, Michael was engaged in his decades long labor of love, turning his parcel into as he put it, the Watts Towers of Landscaping.

Like Simon Rodia, he used only found materials. His work spilled down into the recesses of the hillside, embedded within the shrubbery, out of view, making any public recognition a bit of a long shot.

He bought his house in 1968, for $16,000.  He was 22.

In the fifty years of his residency he’d had three wives. On Saturday he walked his daughter down the aisle to Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel, an anthem of the year of her birth.

There was a message he wished to convey.  He asked us if our parents were “still in their bodies”. They are. He wanted us to call them immediately to thank them for sharing that moment in space and time when they created us, without which neither of us would be here to grace Michael’s day.

He wanted us to know our meeting was a Buddhist gift.

Michael was a product of a high trust society: 50 years perched in the same canyon amongst the artistic set, a delightful aerie obtained with little effort, had given him a benevolent disposition toward his fellow man.

Also, he and his neighbors were but a careless tiki torch and a Santa Ana breeze from disaster.

This was the photo I remembered. In my dream the boy in the picture, with the Sears catalog pants and sack of belongings at his feet, came to a fatherless and unfortunate end.

I hope his life turned out like Michael’s. My Sunday wish was he didn’t fall through the seams.

Pride of the Piedadenses

In 1993, Club de Fútbol Reboceros de La Piedad won the Liga Mexico championship, which was rather a big deal at the time if you were a) Mexican; b) a soccer enthusiast.

Rebeceros means plasterer. The team was founded in 1951 by tradesmen.  La Piedad, a medium-sized city in Michoacan, was once known for its pork production,  but now for decapitationes narcotrafficantes.   Its chief export is American labor.

Somehow…in a chain of custody worthy of a novel I will never get a chance to read…the trophy made its way to an apartment in Panorama City.   This weekend it was put out on the sidewalk, peeling and chipped, along with a fold-out bed and linens.   If you’re aspiring to be the next Don Delillo, here’s your plotline.

In 2013 the Rebeceros’ sixty-year history ended when the new owners decided to liquidate the club to free the license for another team in Veracruz, making it a faith which no longer has a church.

La Piedad means mercy. Referentially, one mercy in particular.  There is a basilica in La Piedad older than the United States, the dome among the tallest in Latin America.   Beneath the plaster, the walls are pocked with bullets and cannon perforations from the Mexican revolution.

The peasants keep kneeling, over centuries. Given the world enough and time, the elites will mock everything.

NoHo, Alexanderplatz

In the beginning of the Valley portion of our lives, we almost bought a house on this street in NoHo, a few blocks from here, but we hesitated because the neighborhood was zoned for apartment buildings, which until recently meant 1960’s dingbat courtyards, two story, eight units. A cluster of tapia palms growing where the pool used to be.  A metal gate in the front.

There were maybe two buildings like that on the block.  That was too much for me. Think of all the people we’d have coming and going!  It wouldn’t be…neighborly.   So, Van Nuys for us.   Little did we know.

Now, NoHo is Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Extruded mid-rise transit oriented development, built to curb,  ground floor retail, six floors of windows and balconies, design schemes running from Bento Box to discount Art Moderne, varied enough to disguise the monotony of identical rooflines.    Low installation cost, high return on rent. Hundreds of people per lot, instead of dozens.

In Los Angeles the height limit on wood framing is four stories, so in the first years coming out of the recession, that’s what you saw in most places. Then the money got so good…the human tide of urban enthusiasts willing to drop the the annual salary of a midwesterner on a two-bedroom apartment so profligate,  the land values so overheated, it made more sense to drop the popsicle stick skeleton onto a two-story concrete podium and fatten the profit margins.  Two plus four is six, and a 50% markup.

An Instagrammable Life is the sales point. Live here, feel Adjacent to Something.    You know you must be part of something because there’s yoga downstairs and a pokè bowl at the corner. Everyone is pretty, near-pretty or pretty good at faking it and busy shedding the skin of their former lives.

People who live in these buildings don’t actually ride public transit. The people who pull shifts at the pokè bowl? They ride the Orange Line and live in squalorous dhimmitude behind metal bars at the Canoga Palms with telenovelas and Call Of Duty blaring from every window, box fans twirling six months a year, hot diapers and curry wafting through the courtyard.  The Valley primitive, loud and intimate.

NoHo Alexanderplatz is Disneyland for millennials. Few millennials can afford it, yet here they are. Someone’s paying their freight, because the math never adds up.   Another civic truth we don’t say out loud.

The most successful actor I knew, a guy who appeared on network television consistently, six figure income, an actual face on a billboard, he lived in NoHo, but it wasn’t in a building like this. He lived -for years- like a mouse on a ground floor unit without A/C, tin foil on the windows to reflect the sun, and saved his per diem until he could buy a condo. He knew how quickly it could end.

Lifestyle Porn may now be LA’s primary industry, since nobody pays for actual porn any more. What happens to NoHo when people stop subsidizing the pretty ones?