Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Come see for yourself."

So reads the slogan for Playa Vista, the planned community on L.A.'s far Westside.

I decided to spend a Sunday afternoon taking them up on the offer. I began where I begin my tour of any city: downtown.

Downtown Playa Vista.

The town doesn't gradually emerge out of the fabric of the surrounding urban landscape, the way, say, Venice does (to take another planned community as an example). Rather, it simply appears: distinctly set off—not hermetically, but emotionally and architecturally—from its environs, just like a movie set. Might it be argued that this makes it a quintessentially Los Angeles phenomenon?

At first glance, downtown is not an unappealing place, with vaguely Spanish Revival and Mediterranean architecture and a clean and genteel, if not particularly refined or polished, air. Like a little chunk of the O.C. hauled north.

Not unappealing at first glance.

But long views down several of Playa Vista's streets show the places where the town—and its movie-set reality—abruptly end.

A place where the town simply ends.

At Playa Vista's center is Concert Park, the town commons (one of several thoughtfully planned parks), where, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a community that, per the official website, boasts "more than 6500 residents," I counted a grand total of 19 humans. Many of the strolling denizens seemed to exude the overly conscious self-importance of those who have committed their lives, and their children's, to founding the first settlement on Mars.

Just as I was wondering whether I had wandered into a sequel to
The Truman Show, to my relief I ran across a group of six or seven unkempt, woolly-looking cigar smokers (screenwriters, surely) who had colonized one set of benches on Pacific Promenade and were having what seemed like a ritual Sunday puff-fest. They, too, were self-conscious, but in that good, old-fashioned L.A. way. Perhaps Playa Vista is not so hermetically sealed after all.

But as far as I could tell, the town has only one restaurant (Piknic), one coffeeshop (a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, rival Starbucks perhaps being unwilling to commit in an area where consumer footfall is sparser than my hair), one dry-cleaner's, and a food market selling purportedly wholesome and probably overpriced comestibles.

Offering dozens of different housing options from various corporate builders, ranging from rental apartments to condos to private houses, Playa Vista has no shortage of building styles to choose from, making it a diachronic theme park of Los Angeles architectural history, where Spanish Revival revival faces the soulless anemia of the late twentieth century without blinking. A few examples:

1920s: The "Villa d'Este" (with nary an apology to Davis and Davis).

1930s: handsome Mid-Wilshire Moderne.
1960s: Rat Pack Palm Springs.

1970s: King's Road condo.

1980s: industrial whimsy à la Westside Pavilion.

1990s: corrugated cool.
No matter the variety on the exterior, most the floorplans for these dwellings exhibit the same lack of imagination that has residents entering their own premises, like delivery boys, through the kitchen, or entertaining dinner guests in their foyers.

Back on the outside, many of the windows are flimsy, ill-fitting prefab units with glaringly fake muntins. If this is a planned community, why was there no planning?

Shameful builder shortcuts galore.

I moved on to another part of town: Icon, a development that includes a number of private residences. Here, the architecture takes a definite turn for the better, and the interior "streets" (read: service alleys) are wider and better paved than most avenues in Hollywood.

A Monterey-style private residence.

The "streets" of Icon are glorified service alleys.

The landscaping is exemplary throughout Playa Vista and is maintained completely with recycled water and, one would assume, battalions of cheap Hispanic labor. The plants, if not the people, seem gloriously happy here.

A nice shady street.

Playa Vista is adjacent to the state-owned Ballona Wetlands, which (to the developers' chargin) has prevented the town's further spread toward the west and (to the residents's chagrin) prohibits direct beach access. But, hey, it does have its own branch of the Los Angeles Public Library and its own ZIP code: 90094.

The Ballona Wetlands, with Playa Vista outlined in red.

I wanted to like Playa Vista better than I did.

Maybe in 50 years (if these buildings last that long), Playa Vista will be a vibrant and nicely patinated borough integrated into the rich, complex tessitura of Los Angeles. As it is now, it's a town apart, preternatually triste, and, for me at least, a bit alienating, perhaps attracting those for whom authentic Los Angeles is too dirty, too dangerous, too decrepit. A faux place in a real city.

Go see for yourself.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The lady vanishes

In the short 2 weeks of my absence from Hollywood, the former KFWB radio building at 6226-6230 Yucca Street was demolished, leaving a dirt lot and an improved view from the northeast of the Capitol Records building.

Gone without a trace.

The building, although it had a few perfunctory Art Déco touches, especially in the tower (its best only feature), was an unlovable bunker in its most recent incarnation. I was in the former KFWB studios on several occasions on business and it was as unglamorous within as without. I'm afraid it will be very little missed.

Unlovable and unmissed.

A former grocery store (one assumes it had windows at that time, a feature which would have vastly improved its appearance), the 1934 building was later home to
Sound Recorders Studio, scene of the controversial remastering of The Beatles' White Album at the insistence of George Harrison, as reported here by Beatles maven Bruce Spizer.

The White Album, remastered at this location.

Surely its connection with the Fab Four would have qualified this stucco-sheathed masterpiece for historic preservation status, no? Where oh where was the L.A. Conservancy in our hour of need? Alas, too late.

Followers of the ongoing reality soap opera called Hollywood Development will remember this parcel as the site of Second Street Ventures' proposed (and not unattractive) "6230" project, which, after some legal tussles with Capitol Records owner EMI, fell into the black hole of the Great Recession, along with several other ambitious projects in the immediate neighborhood.

The "6230" mixed use project as proposed in 2007.

The prognosis for a turnaround of the economy is, I'm afraid, not optimistic. But a dirt lot is a start.