While Los Angeles represents one of the most diverse collections of 19th, 20th and 21st Century architecture extant on the planet, not every structure combines those Palladian ideals of beauty, proportion, functionality and whatever else it is you believe that the Ideal Building should possess.
In fact, friends, Los Angeles is home to some of the world’s ugliest architecture. It’s immediately obvious to anyone who drives into the city from north, east or south (if you drive in from the west, that’s called “sailing”) or who flies into LAX, Long Beach, Ontario, Burbank, Van Nuys, Santa Monica, Hawthorne or any other local airport in the light of day. Large swaths of this town have truly been struck by the ugly stick. I don’t mean buildings that are poorly maintained or are painted in odd, discordant colors: such flaws can be corrected. I am talking about inherent ugliness of the deepest and most pernicious kind.
Probably no other type of structure is so universally acknowledged as the avatar of architectural opprobrium: the dingbat.
Dingbats are ubiquitous, and cover the mountains and the plains from the far north of the San Fernando Valley to the southernmost reaches of the metropolis. There must be tens of thousands of them. An overt program to eradicate and replace them would probably stand less chance of success than our efforts to cure cancer, the common cold and eliminate reality TV.
A dingbat is a boxy two-story apartment building, usually flat-roofed and covered in (almost always brown) stucco. Technically, the living floors sit on top of ground-level garage spaces, because they’ve been squeezed onto lots, and occupy the entire expanse of the lot, so the only place for parking is under the living space.
I’m not going to write a great deal about dingbats, because they’ve been documented, vilified and excoriated at great length elsewhere. You have only to search the Web or online booksellers and you’ll find a lot about them. Here’s an article in Wikipedia to get you started.
I have only two points to make, and then I’ll send you on your way to equip yourself with further information about this blight on Los Angeles.
The first point is simply to inform you about this bit of LA trivia, because when you come here to visit — with perhaps some time to drive around the town — you’re going to see them, and you’ll have a better appreciation for context.
Here’s one example, in Lomita, a couple of miles from my house. You’ll find many more online:
Flat roof. Brown Stucco. Boxy shape filling the lot. Dingbat. This one actually has the parking worked into a different part of the structure. It displays one important element that the Wikipedia article fails to clearly illustrate: the origin of the name, “dingbat.” Note the detail:
THAT is where the buildings get that name: many thousands of them had these spiffy little ornamental touches, though, as time passes, more of them are removed as the buildings are restuccoed or repainted and not replaced, or they fall off, or they’re stolen. The best examples have backlighting that silhouettes the shape against a glow on the stucco in the southern California night. Some of them disguise emergency alarms or vents. If I made a practice of stopping to photograph all of these I encounter, I would never arrive at any destination. Besides, many chroniclers of The Scene have already done so, and you’ll encounter their work out there on the Web.
Why that word? A “dingbat” is a typographical term, indicating fonts that are full of these odd semi-geometric shapes. If you’re not familiar with them, open up your word processor and go to the “font” listing and scroll down: you’ll find either “dingbats” or “wingdings” listed there, almost certainly. So these architectural details on otherwise unremarkable buildings were named after the font, and then the name transferred to the buildings themselves. It’s an interesting bit of background to carry with you the next time you fly into town to have a meeting with Tom Hanks or Cate Blanchett. As you’re on your way to Ivy or Musso and Frank, you can casually toss off what you know about LA’s dingbats, and score major points.
When you do, tell Cate I say hi and that I’m sorry she never returns my calls.
© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017