The Bold & the Brute-iful

Much like a soap opera star, brutalist buildings demand attention.

Brutalism has presence: its forms are massive, hulking and monumental. The aesthetic is often misunderstood as brutal in some way, when in fact the name is derived from the French béton brut -- raw, rough or unfinished concrete. 

When we caught a glimpse from afar of the hefty, inverted pyramid looming over Jarvis Street in Toronto, we immediately thought of the brutalist icon, Boston City Hall. At a distance the building looks like it could be concrete, but upon closer inspection it is clad in a warm purple-bronze brick, rigorously detailed, and finely textured when the sun hits it on a wintery afternoon.  Take a look at the upper story and marvel at how the brick volume is cleverly pulled away from the window wall -- delightful! 

The 9-story building was originally the head office for Sears Canada. Their in-house architect, Maxwell Miller designed it in the 70s. Like many brutalist buildings, it’s honest, confident, and confrontational. What makes it unique from the style is its unexpected level of detail and warm materiality. The adjacent neighborhood, Regent’s Park, is quickly becoming gentrified by developers intent on building self-similar condominiums. This brutalist beauty is a refreshing antidote to the repetitive and prosaic condo architecture that proliferates the city.

Utility

Utility is the city’s bloodline: power, water and gas are all infrastructural needs required to sustain a city’s pulse. The architecture of utility is equally critical to this vitality. Power plants, oil refineries, sewage treatment, transformers, power poles, and the like, all must find a home within our streets. Often these are relegated to the periphery, blighted outliers mapping the suburban-urban divide. Another topic entirely.

However, at times these find a place within the city center. And — in an all-too-polite act to blend in with their context — transformers, telecommunication hubs, vent structures, etc, sit like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Disengaged, windowless, and fortified, this programmatic cloak is nothing but a ruse gone wrong. 

We often pass the the LA Power & Water building at Pico and Spaulding with a mixture of disappointment and delight. At once this is an amusing building, playfully dipped in a cream-colored batter to void itself of scale and program. A monochromatic gem! However, beyond this cloak sits a form far less intriguing: office building. Maybe it was an office building at one time? Doubtful. While beautiful it its mid-century plinth-and-tower parti, it teases the city-dweller. A formal bait-and-switch through the sign of “office building”, it creates glass entries, chained; gardens, fenced; perimeters, placarded. 

From this we’ve made two observations. First, architecture of utility has the potential to free itself of the human scale, to take on a unique and divergent programmatic engagement with the city, not only in the way its foot meets the city fabric, but also in the way its silhouette meets the sky: stripped of many typical architectural constraints it has more flexibility to experiment with formal beauty and shear monumentality. Second, if the architecture of utility requires fortification — in which we all take a bit of comfort — what then is the contemporary architecture of fortification? Certainly we can do better than chains, fences and placards.

Camouflaged Communication

Cellular infrastructure can often be a source of anxiety for the public, both as a perceived threat to the health of the community, or as a technological eyesore obscuring the landscape. In response to a growing demand for greater cellular coverage, telecommunication networks attempt to dodge public censure by camouflaging their infrastructure. 

Stealthy cellular towers come in a variety of strange and whimsical forms, as nostalgic architectural objects (such as clock towers or steeples) or landscape elements (like cypress or evergreen trees). We recently came across an incongruously placed cell tower dressed up like a palm tree in the Arts District of Los Angeles. Rather than blending in, this stark juxtaposition between an industrial environment and the palm tree replica makes the tower glaringly obvious.  

When a city’s infrastructure is exposed, we are reminded of our dependence on a highly engineered environment. We should accept cell towers as integral to the built environment. A new formal language should be developed for this infrastructure, one that can be better integrated into the city without dependence on clichéd vernacular forms to conceal it.

Sliver

In LA there’s nothing we like more than an easy-access parking spot. Jump in, jump out, and be on our way. But, that often comes at a cost to our urban fabric: its scale, character and walkability are all sacrificed in order to accommodate this basic demand. It’s not the car that has shaped our sprawling landscape, it's convenience. 

Sliver

And so it is. This is the fabric we inherited. Short of tearing it down to rebuild a smarter, denser solution — much of which is occurring along major boulevards like Santa Monica, Sunset, and Wilshire — we now must retrofit a remedy to redefine our streets from the parking lots and mini-malls that pattern our city … without sacrificing the convenience we all cherish.

sliver

On the corner of Pico and Robertson sits a clever solution no deeper than a parking spot itself. Occupying the territory typically owned by fencing or foliage sits an exemplary kiosk. Unlike its ordinary counterparts, this bright blue Spanish-style kiosk has broadened its shoulders to occupy the length of the lot, opening its face to passersby — both pedestrian and vehicular alike — to define the street-edge, and grant a new sense of scale and place.

This suture of sorts highlights an underutilized opportunity: the slivers that line our lots. Not only does this rare typology have the potential to reshape our streets, but also to provide added revenue to its landowners through retail. It accepts the mini-mall, the drug-store parking lot, the program we’ve all come to know and love, but steps in to invert its very nature to give scale and place back to us, its users, the pedestrian. 

No Man's Land

Cities often suffer from a lack of green space. Which is why it was so baffling to encounter a small park at the intersection of Bundy, Ohio Ave and Santa Monica Blvd that is completely gated off and closed to the public. 

The City closed the park in the 90s because it was seen as unsafe. 25 years on, the park is still surrounded by a 6-foot high fence, effectively making it an inanimate, oversized terrarium. Peer through the steel bars, and you’ll see walnut trees and empty stone benches.

Recently, community members have petitioned to reopen it. One evening, we spotted a local karate school instructing students in the park. Perhaps they hopped the fence? At the same time that they were practicing martial arts, they were also participating in an ad hoc form of reverse eminent domain. 

This triangular park is a missed opportunity that highlights the conflict between safety and practicality, what constitutes public and private, and how function can so easily succumb to symbol. The space has been reduced to an icon: park. It no longer participates in the life of the city and should be reimagined as a space that not only generates a notion of health and clean air, but also promotes culture and civic interaction. 

Signs & Sheds

Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there. But to gain insight from the commonplace is nothing new: Fine art often follows folk art…Modern architecture has not so much excluded the commercial vernacular as it has tried to take it over by inventing and enforcing a vernacular of its own, improved and universal. It has rejected the combination of fine art and crude art.

- Excerpts from Learning From Las Vegas. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972

 Vitruvius, known for his classical treatise De Architectura, wrote that architecture should provide firmitas, utilitas and venustas (firmness, commodity and delight). If Vitruvius were driving around Los Angeles today, he’d probably struggle to find much delight in the ‘universal’ architecture of strip malls that dot the landscape of Los Angeles.

Out of economic or aesthetic necessity, or both, a building’s signage is often tasked with providing ‘delight’ for the eye. Los Angeles has a strong tradition of hand painted signs, particularly on the shop fronts of small businesses. Through paint and typography, these signs overlay a unique identity over an otherwise anonymous and prosaic structure.  

Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour coined the term decorated shed in Learning From Las Vegas. They defined it as a purely utilitarian structure with a purpose communicated only by its decorated frontage. The decoration is intended to distract the viewer from the structure and to overcompensate for its failings. In Los Angeles, the decorated shed makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective. There is a continuous cycle of businesses opening, closing and relocating, which requires the mobility and adaptability that a generic structure can offer.

The shed can also be a blank canvas for a multitude of unexpected interventions, both formal and graphic. For example, the sign can be scaled to the size of the building or it can project from it to transform the building’s silhouette against the sky. From hand-painted ‘folk art’ signs to the haphazard assemblage of projecting signs -- a unique mixture of graphic economy, and whimsy, can transform and personalize an otherwise nondescript architectural space. 

Culver, Simulated.

Culver City is playing tricks on us. Or at least it’s trying to. 

Nestled along the busy vehicular and pedestrian intersection of Washington and Culver Boulevards sits a playful and unapologetic superimposition of film set and urban space. Here the real and the imitated — the original and its representation — sit side by side to tell a story of simulacra in its most analogue and endearing form. 

Defined simply by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a material image, made as a representation of some deity, person, or thing;” or, “something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities,” simulacrum seems nothing more than degraded mimicry. However, unpacked by a slew of media theory darlings — most prominently Baudrillard and Deleuze — it’s meaning is slightly more encompassing. To them, it has become the world in which we live: a mediated presence of hyperreality comprised by a system of representations, void of original meaning. The duplicate usurps the original, the copy has become the real.

To Baudrillard, Culver City and the rest of LA are already one big simulacrum, and the hyperreality of places like Disneyland exist solely “to make us feel that the rest of the city is real.” The playful juxtaposition surrounding The Culver Hotel parodies this notion with stunning amusement and intriguing results. Created out of the practical necessity to “disguise” street utilities from what is a commonly used backdrop for film and television sets, the simulated environments are merely camouflaged cloaks privy to the subject’s gaze. From one (brief) vantage point, the utilities tuck into their environment – like the eyes of the Cheshire Cat they hint only a trace that they lurk beneath the bristled landscape. However, a quick step to the right or left — or an approach from an un-assumed direction — reveals a unique and contrasting blend of reality and life-imitated. Perspectives misalign, idyllic blue skies contrast with grey overtones, and lush vegetation is flattened. 

These exposed simulations become self-reflexive vignettes of life on the corner of Culver and Washington, of what urban LA is supposed to look like to the controlled eye: our television- and film-viewing counter-parts. To the culver pedestrian, however, these utilities have created new meaning — they have turned into unexpected follies in the landscape, fragments of their environment preserved and presented as a pokey reminder that their environment is entirely simulated to begin with – according to Baudrillard at least. Whether one believes this or not, the boxes have created a new type of street furniture that speaks to an LA vernacular, created for the screen, but inhabited by the real.