The Dingbat Artistically Reconsidered
Last week, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design announced the winner of its Dingbat 2.0 competition. Not only did I used to live in a dingbat in L.A., but I was one of the co-founders of the Forum, so I was intrigued by this news. I was also a bit disappointed, I have to admit, mainly for nostalgic reasons, that the winner and many of the other finalists saw the solution to this particular L.A. form as replacing that much-derided building block of Southern California urbanism. They were right, I guess, but I would still miss the dingbat.
Photo: Toby Begalke
The dingbat’s logic is simple: three stories of stud construction covered with stucco accommodates somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen units, each with either their own exterior entrance or, at most, one shared with one or two other apartments. Parking slips partially under and partially behind the structures. The basic box is simple and unadorned, except for the front, where a variety of moldings, colors and script try to evoke everything from French chateaux to Jetson futurism—the planner and critic John Chase called it “exterior decoration,” by analogy to the riots of styles on display in L.A.’s tonier interiors. Occasionally, there will be other benefits, like a bit of landscaping in the side walkways, a balcony here and there, and even, where owners have taken great pride, embellishments like enclosed patios.
What makes the dingbat great is its generic quality, which allows for different strokes of living for different folks (culturally, economically, age-wise) while creating a unified appearance and set of spaces. The problem is that the dingbat can get mighty repetitive, is by its nature thinly and cheaply built, leaves virtually no open space, and is completely dependent on car culture for its logic.
During my period in Los Angeles, in the mid-eighties through the mid-nineties, I watched the replacement of this venerable building type by the massive apartment blocks, twice as tall, much more massive, and indescribably ugly, that amalgamated several lots and pressed countless inhabitants into smaller, dimmer, and more air-conditioned spaces. I also watched the flight into “town homes” in the suburbs, which took the basic idea of the semi-individual unit as part of a larger structure and stretched it to obscene proportions. The dingbat is a disappearing type.
Dingbat 2.0 proposes that the type is salvageable, especially given recent zoning and cultural changes in L.A. The simplest solutions propose letting the type become larger, stacking it up into higher structures and using the resulting free space as shared open courtyards or greenswards. In this sense I especially liked the design by the student winner, Ryan Lovett.
Ryan Lovett's Design
The winner of the “professional’ category, a team called Footprint
consisting of Carmen C. Cham, James Black, and Tyler Goss, suggested
using zoning changes to do away with the dingbat altogether, breaking it
up into smaller units. “Microparcelization” is now possible because
L.A. allows the breakup of lots (so that you can build the infamous
granny flat in the back), and Footprint suggests that this could be an
opportunity for a new kind of case study program in which current
technology and inventive design could come together to create not just
individual micro-homes (or, to use real estate speak, “starter homes”),
but ones that could be constructed using standardized components while
letting each have its own character.
This seems quite reasonable, though you wonder whether the economic logic is clear: Who will pay for this degree of design, and who will give families the chance to buy such structures? Nonetheless, the winning proposal reaches back to that other great American tradition, that of the small, individual home built with quasi-mass production. Whether it is a salt box, a bungalow, or a Levittown Colonial, this is, for better or worse, the preferred American way of living. In Footprint’s version, at least there is the potential for some shared space, but I will continue to miss that other tradition, one which developed out of the bungalow courts and Spanish Colonial courtyard buildings of Southern California’s 1920s utopian dreams, and of which the dingbat is only the faintest echo. Someday we can hope to use architecture to build not just home sweet home, but community sweet community.