Venice’s eclectic architectural landscape blends individualistic expression with community identity
By Joe Piasecki
If anything defines Venice architecture, it’s that creativity is contagious.
Like nowhere else in Southern California, homeowners color outside the lines of traditional design to fashion dwellings that reflect individual lifestyles and tastes. But rather than clash, these various styles somehow mesh together into a cohesive landscape.
Take the Superba Avenue home of architect Doug Pierson and designer Youn Hee Choi (featured on the cover) — a 1,500-square-foot structure defined by sloping trapezoidal roof lines and walls of white metal and hardwood that floats above 600 square feet of ground tucked behind a 1950s stucco bungalow.
Two doors down stands an early 1900s wooden carriage house that had once operated on Venice Boulevard, markedly different in design from the palette of high concept contemporary and more conventional homes in the immediate neighborhood.
“The nice thing about Venice is that as long as people take care — in expression and sense of place — the design of the house tends to fit in. So you can have an historic carriage house right next to a contemporary house, and it makes perfect sense,” said Pierson. “It’s much more of a vibe than a physical description [that defines Venice architecture].”
While it’s true that Los Angeles city codes dictate the size but not the architectural style of homes, what makes Venice special is that homeowners tend to be more willing to use that freedom, said architect Ron Radziner, a partner in the firm Marmol Radziner.
“Ultimately it’s the people who live in Venice, influenced by eclectic and interesting architecture, that give us the ability to visualize how homes can be unique statements,” Radziner said.
The Pierson-Choi residence, completed in 2012, is one of 30 homes on display May 3 during the 21st annual Venice Garden & Home Tour, an event benefitting the local Neighborhood Youth Association.
This tour focuses on pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods east of Abbot Kinney Boulevard and near the Venice boardwalk that feature updated Craftsman homes and beach cottages, a barn-like structure of glass and corrugated steel formerly owned by Eric Clapton, a nautically themed art deco home and a steel-beam loft with a second story lap pool, organizer Barbara Baumann said.
The event traces its roots to garden party fundraisers held by prolific Venice landscape designer Jay Griffith, whose varied work also appears on the tour.“This is the land of the laissez-faire [design] doctrine: Leave people alone and they will find their own reality. Bungalows next to stark modernism, Italianate, Greco-Roman … it’s just wildly all over the place, and that’s part of the Venice spirit. It is a breeding ground for divergence, and always has been,” Griffith said.
Griffith, who has designed hundreds of outdoor spaces in Venice since 1972, said spatial relationships within each property’s unique footprint guide his design approach. A home’s architectural style, he said, is irrelevant.
“You can plant a garden or you can plant a landscape. A landscape is a naturalistic study. It’s not dependent on flowers. It’s not pretty,” Griffith said. “I’m looking to plant big principal plants like hedges, trees and vines — gestures that will carry the day over decades.
Griffith said that with nearly every project he plants at least one street-visible tree and often plants similar trees on neighboring properties to encourage a sense of cohesiveness.
Pierson, cofounder of the Inglewood-based architecture firm (FER) Studio, said decades of Griffith’s plantings have had a cumulative effect on Venice’s neighborhood identity, which he believes is driven by heightened attention to the often narrow spaces between homes.
Radziner, who has had multiple homes featured in past Venice Garden & Home Tours, said the homes he designs are very much a response to what’s going on outside them.
“For all of the projects we do in Venice, we try to maximize outdoor space and play up the indoor-outdoor quality between home and garden. Because lot sizes are tight and small, the more you can blur that line the better. If you can stand inside your kitchen but also feel like you’re outside, that’s a success,” Radziner said.
Architect Glen Irani, who designed his family home and studio on the Venice canals, said carefully designed homes in Venice put a high importance on outdoor space and natural light despite small, constrained lots.
“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, how you make all these things fit and still have that openness,” said Irani, whose home appeared on past Venice Garden & Home Tours. “Unlike the East Coast and a lot of other parts of the world, where tradition drives design and culture and style are prescribed as an evolution of what happened historically, Venice embodies California’s free-spirited personality.”
Radziner and Irani trace the origins of Venice’s liberal take on home design back to the 1950s and ‘60s bohemians who inherited what was once a neglected part of the city and reshaped its character through an emphasis on the arts.
The economic and social diversity of those times and the creative seeds planted prior to the widespread gentrification of Venice in the late 1990s still appear relevant today.
“To me, the better work takes on some of the basic things about Venice. Materials tend to be a bit rougher and there’s a mix of materials — things that, if done properly, age well,” Radziner said.
Among Radziner’s favorite houses is architect Frank Gehry’s Spiller Duplex on Horizon Avenue.
“With its corrugated metal and exposed timbers, it’s a beautiful piece of sculpture. It really says Venice — imperfection, but also terrific proportions,” he said. “Venice is not a place for pristine perfection. It’s a place for architecture that, like the community, there’s a bit of an edge to it.”
The 21st annual Venice Garden & Home Tour is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 3 and starts from the Neighborhood Youth Association, 1016 Pleasant View Ave., Venice. Tickets are $60 to $70. For more information, call (310) 821-1857 or visit venicegardentour.org.