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.

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?

The Pariah

IMG_9899

Suppose you found a lot on a good block in a nice, family neighborhood in the Valley. You consult an architect. He hits ALT F3 on his keyboard, and out pops a house in the modern Los Angeles bento box style.  Nothing too vulgar, mind you. In square footage, it would fit right in Palmdale. But in single-storey mid-century Van Nuys…

IMG_9901 (1)

…you look out the window in the morning, and this is what greets you.

IMG_9927

All over the neighborhood, the welcome wagon rolls out for you, the first homeowner to go vertical. To go big. To rub everyone’s nose in it. Sensible of your shame, you plant a second wall of ficus and wait out the scorn. The Stop McMansions signs stay put.  You’re the Hester Prynne of Van Nuys.

The Once and Future Bento Box

IMG_3039

There’s a lot of this housing going up all over Los Angeles. Boxy, modular, poured concrete or stucco with some kind of horizontal wood feature set against a tiled entranceway.

This looked sharp and fresh half a dozen years ago but is entirely predictable now.  I’m not saying it doesn’t look good. I’m wondering how it will look 30 years hence. Will we look upon this housing stock the way we look at 70’s kitsch today? As an eyesore?

IMG_3009

Or will it fall into some oddball historical cul-de-sac like the once-modernist work of Richard Neutra, admired by preservationists, but neglected by owners?

Is Craftsman and Mission style architecture the only native California form which will stand the scrutiny of the ages? Which will be both loved and lived in?