Once a catalyst for experimentation, Venice is letting its architecture get big, boxy and stale
By Oren Safdie
Venice Beach has always had the reputation of being on the cutting edge of design and fashion. Numerous architects either live or work in the area, and the shmorgasbourg of styles one encounters from street to street, or even from house to house, turns Venice into a walk-through architectural museum showcasing an eclectic mix of styles that makes Venice — well, Venice.
The Argonaut extolled these virtues last year in a feature article in which several avant-garde houses appeared alongside commentary from their architects. Unanimously, they extolled the freedom they felt designing in a neighborhood that had no historical or stylistic norm to tie them down, a relatively lax building code and a sense that Venice inspired them to experiment.
But look a little closer, and a spat of new single-house dwellings and triplexes popping up along Brooks Avenue (and the rest of the Oakwood section of Venice, for that matter) suggest a much less exciting future.
The Oakwood area has the most potential for growth, as many of the dwellings are prime targets for tear downs. Rising property values and a resurgence of commercial growth along Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Rose Avenue have also made this part of Venice the hip place to live.
But signs of innovative architecture? Not anymore.
Part of the problem has its roots in the most recent housing recession and the tightening of loan credit. Many of the 5,000-square-foot lots became attractive targets for newbie developers who had cash on hand and were able to close without risk. Other buyers included young families who wanted to stay on the Westside but couldn’t afford Santa Monica. With a lot of gang activity having been pushed out, Oakwood offered a viable alternative.
For developers, the main concern was to fill up every viable square foot of the property, usually amassing three two-floor units in order to maximize profits. These were then either leased or put up for sale to families looking for three-bedroom, two-bathroom units. And for the families who were able to buy directly, there seems to have been little money left over to hire a decent architect, with owners sometimes resorting to relying on their own sketches for building contractors to execute. Landscaping was usually shoe-horned into wherever it could fit.
If this were just one or two units per block, it might not be so disparaging. But on Brooks Avenue (between 7th Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard), almost every house is starting to look like a cheap knockoff of the one next to it.
By the best measure, the overriding influence can best be described as a cheap amalgamation of the houses you might find in Dwell. The façades consist of a play between stucco or concrete and shellacked decorative wood-paneling to give the appearance of being environmentally friendly. The iron ship railings give a shout-out to Le Corbusier, and there’s sometimes a small twist in floor plan or an angled window to pay homage to the Deconstructivists.
There has been some push-back from people in the Venice community, coming in the form of opposition to “mega-mansions” or triplexes that eat up all the green space, but any sort of restrictions would also drive down property values — so let’s just say there aren’t that many people pushing too hard.
Given Venice’s status as an innovator of housing design and a bellwether of what might be coming down the pike, there’s a larger question at hand. Is this one block an isolated case, or are we on the cusp of a new style of architecture: the Dwellification of America?
Oren Safdie is a playwright who has lived in Venice for three years. He recently published “False Solution,” the third in a series of plays set in the world of architecture. Safdie studied architecture at Columbia University and currently teaches playwriting at the University of Miami.