“Little Boxes” and Big Ideas

Art Werger
Art Werger

One night about five years ago, I was out in Westwood, California, home to UCLA and its Armand Hammer museum, among other things. We were at a sanitized burger joint, one of those establishments that makes me start humming "Little Boxes" as soon as I step in. A girl I didn’t know well, not from L.A. but attending UCLA, told me she was disappointed with the city, my hometown, of which I’m admittedly protective.

“There’s no architecture here," she said simply. “No architecture!" I sputtered. “No architecture!" I screeched, flouncing around in the garishly colored booth we were sitting in.

She’d hit a nerve.

The L.A. I knew and the L.A. she knew were clearly two different places. And though L.A. can be derided for many things, its architectural history is not one of them. Love them or hate them, the Taj Mahoney (Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral), the J. Paul Getty Museum and Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall are just the latest examples of what the city is willing to try, and L.A.’s architectural legacy is not linked to public buildings alone. Ironically, “Little Boxes" describes plenty of L.A. area neighborhoods perfectly, but there are some great residences in L.A. on the architectural and design forefronts.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, Sam Watters, at least, agrees with me. Though, according to the article, L.A. can be derided for the obliviousness it displays toward its architectural history. “ ‘That's the thing about L.A., compared to the East Coast: We don't just tear down our treasures. We toss out all written records about them as well,’ he says. ‘In the East, they kept bills for every seed, awning or doorknob ever purchased.’ "

L.A. originals have been gutted or torn down for years, and Watters has attempted to stanch the bleeding by publishing the two-volume history, Houses of Los Angeles.

The Times describes Watters as chafing at the notion that “everything was just a copy of what had been built before somewhere else. ‘Untrue,’ says Watters." I heard in his tone the echo of my indignant foot stamping from five years ago, and thanks to him, now I have the books to back it up.

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