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Friday, May 27, 2022

ARCHITECTURE—Boxed In



The dingbat, those rectangular houses built on stilts, are hideous to some but beautiful to others who want to preserve that post-war slice of L.A. life and architecture

Some architecture creates beauty, expresses deep emotion and inspires. Not the Dingbat. The boxy two-story structures built on narrow stilts with ground-level stalls for parking pop up all over Los Angeles. They’re also loathed all over Los Angeles.

The brunt of jokes, dingbats also known as “dumb boxes,” “shoeboxes” and “stucco boxes” are considered to be a blemish on the landscape. But a growing number of architects and art historians say it’s time to awaken interest in what is one of the city’s most distinctive architectural styles. They also say dingbats are an example of modernist architecture and worthy of preservation.

Not to worry. No self-respecting preservationist will stoop so low as to mention dingbat in the same sentence as architects Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler or even Googies the roadside coffee shops and restaurants like Bob’s Big Boy that have become treasured examples of the city’s modernist past.

While buildings done in those more popular styles are disappearing, dingbat numbers remain strong from beach to mountain to valley. So they’re not a preservationist’s priority.

At least not yet.

Once maligned as cold and distant, modernist architecture with its clean lines, large glass walls and steel-frame construction is suddenly hip. There has been a recent surge in interest in post-World War II architecture and a new appreciation for the simplicity and elegance of post-war modernism, according to Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “The challenge with dingbats is to sort out which of them are truly distinctive, distinguished, pioneering and worth saving,” he said.


Mid-century monuments

That’s tricky because of the dingbat’s pervasiveness in Los Angeles. Thousands of the inexpensive dingbats were built in the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate the population explosion in Southern California.

Zoned out of existence when their signature back-out parking was banned by city ordinance, the buildings were built on small lots and, usually, miniscule budgets. With square, uninspired interior floor plans (often with no consideration to the placement of windows or other architectural elements), the developers needed to compensate to entice tenants.

That’s where dingbats came in. Stuck with a fairly humdrum box crammed on a treeless, shade-less lot, developers began to ornament their buildings with small square tiles, multiple colors of paint, quirky names carved out of plywood, dramatic foliage, colorful floodlights and other peculiar fixtures.

“The whole point was to lather on excitement,” said John Chase, urban planner for the city of West Hollywood and one of the city’s few dingbat authorities. An architect and historian, Chase has chronicled dingbats in his book, “Glitter, Stucco and Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City.”

“It was almost like branding,” he said. “The developers were maxing out the lot. You weren’t just getting a box, you were getting a little style.”

Dingbats, a term that printers use to refer to decorative marks that appear in text, became a fitting name for the ornamented buildings. The name was probably coined by architecture historian Reyner Banham, who wrote a sweeping book in the late 1960s about the city’s culture and its dingbats, called “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”


Pervasiveness limits urgency

Because Los Angeles is teeming with dingbats, the Conservancy hasn’t exactly waged a battle to save them. But, Bernstein acknowledged, “it may move up on the preservation agenda as the styles are lost.”

That’s already happening. As Chase pointed out, “you can take the personality off stucco in a weekend,” and many developers who don’t care about their buildings are letting them deteriorate. Other developers are gentrifying and replacing dingbats with swankier, high-rent condominiums with underground parking.

That troubles no one more than Los Angeles artist Lesley Siegel. In her Beverly Hills apartment not a dingbat Siegel has amassed a massive photographic archive of dingbats. Siegel’s interest lies not in dingbat architecture but in the often peculiar names that adorn them: “Flower Drum,” “Glenlari Tiki,” “Ultra Encino,” “Hollywood Cherokee,” “Friar Tuck.”

She has been photographing the monikers for the past 10 years, capturing more than 2,000 structures, most of them dingbats. In a warehouse and in her apartment’s living room, she also has a collection of ornaments that once adorned dingbats. “It’s like my own private, secret language that I’ve found and can give back through my eyes,” said the passionate collector, who is hoping to publish her collection in an upcoming book.

Siegel and other dingbat devotees can rest easy though. The leading dingbat preservationists today are probably architects, many of whom approach dingbats as potential raw material for their designs.

“A lot of architects I know are looking for dingbats because you can do things with them,” said Brook Hodge, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “They’re like a blank slate. They give you a shell with which to do something.”

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