Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do SoCal Cities Need to Invent their History?

Historical building in Westminster. Picture by Myriam Mahiques
My native city, Buenos Aires, has more than 400 years. Not too much, compared to medieval cities, but enough to have a history of colonization and European eclectic influences imprinted in its architecture and urban morphology. Architects are free to design buildings accordingly to history –depending on the urban context- or oppose to it. If the neighborhood has a strong historical background, most probably there will be an Association to defend it, and beyond, we have the Architects’ Board. In Historic Preservation, we first learn not to copy, but to analyze the building to be respected and find some abstract design lines (heights, direction of cornices, textures). It is an intellectualization of history, respect but do not offer a poor imitation.

My concern in Southern California, is that cities do not have a long historical record, for example, Huntington Beach is proud to be100 years old, with origins based on Petroleum excavations. Santa Barbara is proud to have a beautiful Mission, same for San Juan Capistrano, and so on.

Newland House in Huntington Beach. Picture by Mike Stankewich.

Mission Style for houses. Sotheby’s International Realty, Los Angeles. Built 2005
Then, what is left for a model of history is, for instance, the Mission and a couple of adobe houses. Not too much, so planners –who are not architects, but experts of the Zoning and Planning regulations- decided to recur to some European styles to “invent” history. And it has to be strictly respected under the “Design Guide Lines”. So, in Huntington Beach, downtown area, the styles MUST be Mediterranean, Tuscan Italian, Spanish (colonial) or a combination of them. The result, a quantity of quasi identical Post modern houses that reinforce their uniformity with the palette of stucco colors. Main problem are the public buildings. A pharmacy is similar to a house, that is similar to a pet shop, that is similar to the Theatres, and infinitely so on. Talking about these procedures with a colleague friend, she said “well, at last it is a nice composition”. I would say it is a neat composition, you have the pieces and then compose them. That is not a real design process, we are far away from the composition rules of SXVI.

¨Tuscan Village¨ close to Downtown H. Beach. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

H. Beach Downtown houses. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

More Downtown H. Beach houses. Picture by Myriam Mahiques
In Santa Barbara, the extreme to copy the Mission style, is reflected in public parkings, where you can see domestic pots (!) with geraniums in wrought iron balconies closing the parking openings, in a clear reminiscence of Andaluz patios. But transposed to public parking…(By the way, I wonder who waters the geraniums). Another “aesthetic” solution, that I’ve seen in Alhambra, is to have niches as arches in solid facades, with a wrought iron guardrail, to protect, of course, a piece of solid wall. In desperation to look for history, some important concepts are left aside: a Roman Villa is located atop of a hill, surrounded by green landscape, here, the “Villa” is separated 5’ from the property line and cannot exceed the maximum height (ex. Newport Beach waterfront= 14’); masonry massiveness is very difficult to achieve when the wall framing is 4 inches plus stucco assembly, and windows that align with the exterior finish (Well, it “never” rains in SoCal). The building is not an excavated mass but a combination of planes with a stucco rough finish. Cornices, columns, you can buy them anywhere from a catalogue; heavy timber, is not “that” heavy timber, because it is not justified for balloon frame. The final product, is a scenography of simil European buildings.
For readers who think balloon frame is the only response to earthquakes, I will answer no. Concrete and brick, with special shapes and footings is also good to support earthquakes. There is no special need for the wood technology in California. William Deverell, in his book “Whitewashed Adobe”, chapter 4, has a version that involves some political issues with old Simons Brick factory in Montebello.
“Montebello took off in part because Simons had been so successful and could be pointed to as evidence of the region’s industrial promise…..But as the one community began to grow and expand, the brickyard faltered. Late 1920s price wars between competing brick manufacturers, greater use of masonry block building materials, and the 1933 Long Beach earthquake all combined to hurt the brick business in Southern California, as did, of course the arrival of the Great Depression. Tougher post –Long Beach building codes hurt the brick trade perhaps the most. As Los Angeles County planner William Fox remembered, the new codes (subsequently amended) did not sit well with Walter Simons. “ The new code outlawed all brick construction,“ Fox told an interviewer, “and Mr. Simons of the Simons Brick Company –great big fat guy, practically the head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce- just blasted me and the department and the board and everyone else….The Simons Brick Company was out near Montebello, where it did all the brick work in Los Angeles County. Now it was obsolete.” (Deverell, p. 166, 2004).
I think Culver city shows some signs of style freedom. Some public buildings depict intellectual interesting design from architects. The other extreme, you can see a ranch style house, with an addition at the back following dubious design concepts from Frank Gehry, except that Frank was not hired …….
My conclusion, let the technology express itself. A wooden house is a wooden house, not a masonry house. Ranch style, Victorian, it could be, any real Californian style derived from the climatic conditions and the available technology. And please let the Architects Board supervise, at least the public buildings design.

Mouldings in an empty a wall; the circles are simulating windows. Huntington Beach, picture by Myriam Mahiques

Same treatment for garages in alley. Picture by Myriam Mahiques

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