Sunday, February 28, 2010

The coming of the freeways

Photographer Richard C. Miller, now 97, moved to Sherman Oaks when most San Fernando Valley streets were still unpaved.

He documented the expansion of "America's suburb" and, from 1948 to 1953, the coming of L.A. "awe-inspiring" freeway system, which Miller compared to the cathedrals of Europe. He was also one of the first to photograph sweater girl Norma Jean Baker, later known as Marilyn Monroe.

Hollywood Freeway under construction in the Cahuenga Pass.

An exhibit of Miller's work entitled "Richard C. Miller: Over the Long Run" just opened at Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station.

Canoga Park circa 1950.

A story in last Friday's edition of the L.A. Daily News offers an online gallery of the photographer's work. Miller's own website is here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A jazz legacy in Beverly Hills

The Ella Fitzgerald estate on North Whitter Drive has just been listed at $14.995 million.

908 N. Whittier Drive, Beverly Hills.

Expect higher quality photos of the 5-bedroom 1929 Spanish revival house when the agent, Westside Estate Agency, adds the listing to its website.

After spending an afternoon in the backyard listening to birds, the First Lady of Jazz passed away here on June 15, 1996, at the age of 78.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Americana thoughts

Let the naysayers bemoan the inauthenticity of The Americana at Brand—the place works.

New England Village Green.

I know this is old news, but I spent an hour wandering around (and taking illicit photos) at Rick Caruso's 15-acre, $400-million new-faux-ngled "city within a city" last weekend. This was my severalth trip to The Americana and, like the previous outings, it was not undertaken with shopping in mind (although there's plenty of that to be had), but rather just to soak up the ambiance.

Meet Me in St. Louis Sur la Table.

Simply hanging out seems to be the primary motivation of the majority of people who congregate here for a dose of walkable urbanity. If Disneyland is The Happiest Place on Earth®, then The Americana is at the very least The Gladest Place in Los Angeles (not yet ®), having stolen that crown a couple of years ago from Caruso's previous fantasyland, The Grove.

A corner of Georgian London.

Caruso says that the inspiration for the architecture comes from various European cities—a touch of London's Bloomsbury here, a dash of Nice and Marseille there, a sliver of Budapest, and an elevator tower that pays homage to Gustave Eiffel's Paris by way of the Bradbury Building or Terry Gilliam.

La Côte d'Azur in Glendale.

But the place seems just an indebted to American models. The canvas-covered entries of the The Excelsior, the condo building, and The Continental, one of The Americana's four rental residential buildings, are channeled from New York's Upper East Side (perhaps by way of Chicago's Gold Coast); Caruso's signature "trolley to nowhere" is right out of
Meet Me in St. Louis; and there's a healthy dose of 30's-style American Art Déco; while at the heart of the layout is a good old-fashioned New England village green.

Gustave Eiffel channeled by Terry Gilliam.

Let's face it: people love it, and a great deal of the appeal is the doing, not of Caruso, but of his architecture firm, Boston's
Elkus Manfredi, who also worked on The Grove. Howard Elkus and David Manfredi have a wonderful sense of architecture as nostalgia, but they never resort to cliché. (For some of their best work, check their stunning Peninsula Chicago, which acknowledges the rich precedent of Chicago architecture without pastiche or irony.) And apart from the questionable windows in some of the rental residential units, the build quality is high and made to last.

Upper East Side chic.


Not be a snob, but I seriously doubt that most visitors to The Americana realize that a significant part of their attraction to the place lies in the architecture; they simply sense that it offers something that most other shopping or strolling venues in Los Angeles do not. You can purchase $85 shirts across the street at the Glendale Galleria, but you don't get a whiff of Union Square or Greenwich Village in the process.

Complexity and contradition.

. . . and palm trees. Always palm trees.

One quibble: I do question the incessant Frank Sinatra. Not that I have anything against Ol' Blue Eyes, but how would one feel if Paris were wired citywide to spout Edith Piaf? Then again, without Frank, would The Americana be quite The Americana?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Crime of the Week

Let me tell you about the nouveaux riches. They are different from you and me.

811 N. Linden Drive, Beverly Hills

I've driven by this 1988 "Tuscan-style" house in Beverly Hills many times and, admittedly, admired its commanding situation, on the raised triangular intersection of Linden and Whittier Drives.

Commanding position: the knoll at Linden and Whittier Drives.

But now that it's on the market (for $6.495 million—the listing is here), I've had a chance to see how its affluent owners (or tenants?) have been living. It's not pretty.

For starters, the entry hall is a crude, disproportionate affair that, with its tawdry furnishings, immediately sets an amateur, DIY tone and makes me suspect that the owners designed the place themselves with no input from a trained architect, much less any real knowledge of architectural precedent.

The carpeted staircase is fit for a suburban townhouse condo, and the cheap white glazed tile continues throughout major sections of the ground floor.

Drama-less DIY.

The downstairs space is confusingly laid out and contains rooms of dubious utility, not to mention appalling ugliness.

Bookless library? Knick-knack storage area? Stand-by-the-fireplace room?

Sooner or later, we run into this mysterious timber-ceilinged lair, the purpose of which can only be to further vex and annoy anyone with a love of architecture or interior design:

Office? Art studio? Torture chamber?

Continuing upstairs, the master bedroom is a vacant, ill-proportioned shell of a room with oppressively high ceilings made worse by the lack of crown molding
perhaps the most uncozy sleeping quarters I've ever seen. (I will spare you the several children's chambers.)

Wha happunnn?

And the façade, for all its imposing symmetry, is hardly more than an anemic affectation of a Tuscan villa.

Villa Pretensiosa.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The world of Tony Ashai

This current listing on Redfin introduced me to an architect I didn't know before.

11025 Anzio Road, Bel-Air.

A proper motor court, minus the Bentley.

The 19,000-square-foot Palladian-style villa, at 11025 Anzio Road in Bel-Air, is new . . . so new, in fact, that it was nothing but a construction site on the last Google Earth flyover.

The site before construction began.

But more fascinating that the impressive house (of which, let's face it, there are scads in L.A.), is the architect himself.

Thinking big: Tony Ashai.

Tony Ashai left his native Kashmir at the age of 16 to study at that unlikely outpost of Le Corbusian modernism, the Chandigarh College of Architecture in northern India. He moved to the U.S. after graduation.

In a Schwab's-drugstore-meets-Frank-Lloyd-Wright scenario, the wunderkind was "discovered" drawing a monument in downtown Buffalo, NY, by the dead of the architecture school at SUNY, who arranged a scholarship for Ashai in university's program.

M.A. in hand, Ashai decamped to New York City to work with James Barclay on the renovation of the Chrysler Building. In 1989, Ashai migrated to Southern California and joined the firm of Edward Carson Beall. Ashai opened his own firm in 1993.

Although he lives in Southern California and has an office in Torrance, Ashai seems to spend most of his time these days developing extravagant projects in the United Arab Emirates from his office in Dubai. How many of these dreams will actually be built depends on factors beyond any architect's control. But you can't blame a guy for dreaming, can you?

Ashai Towers, Jumireh Village, Dubai

This YouTube video (one of several available) shows something of Ashai's energy and visionary mindset.

I can't say I love the house on Anzio Road, especially with those dinky ridge-toppers right behind peering down on it. But, from what I know now of Tony Ashai, I do admire the man.