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.


  1. What's disconcerting is that so much of the rest of Los Angeles, a lot of it dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, truly is banal and far, far worse than development similar to Playa Visa.

    Countless thousands of tract houses built on the cheap, aimed at blue-collar types, including frazzled GIs returning from military service. Properties with cheap asphalt shingle roofs, electrical wiring strung over the backyard, clunky double-hung windows, flimsy eaves and even flimsier front-porch-roof posts. The architectural style, if there is one, might best be labeled "Sun Belt Hardscrabble."

    Truth be told, and more than anything else, Los Angeles has long inspired a cold shoulder from many observers due to that type of peculiarly primitive, depressing and noticeably unsophisticated environment.

    Short of a massive earthquake that pulverizes structures which are all too typical of the mid-point of the 20th century (so much of it built on a shoestring budget, and looking like it), the city may never live down its overly humble past.

  2. I've driven by it many times, but I had no idea one could actually go into this forbidden city and look around. Thanks for the tour!

  3. I think it will look different in 40 years. It's like those pictures of old hollywoodland development in the hills. When the subdivisions are first laid out they look very stark but over time the landscaping and general wear and tear give it a better look. It's not (or shouldn't) win any awards, but then every other architect/designer you meet graduated in the bottom half of their class.

  4. In the original "Mildred Pierce" movie, Mildred laments living in a 1930s neighborhood of "look-alike" houses. Today, we call those neighborhoods charming!

  5. In the original "Mildred Pierce" movie, Mildred laments living in a 1930s neighborhood of "look-alike" houses. Today, we call those neighborhoods charming!

  6. In the original "Mildred Pierce" movie, Mildred laments living in a 1930s neighborhood of "look-alike" houses. Today, we call those neighborhoods charming!

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