Los Angeles architecture
THE house that Hamid Omrani built in Elm Drive has the bulk of an iceberg and the appearance of a wedding cake. Sumptuous balconies jut out of the cream-coloured structure. Corinthian columns prop up the bulging roof. “Everybody likes columns,” explains Mr Omrani. Everybody, that is, apart from local officials, who now frown on such architectural confections, and the Los Angeles planning department, which this week opened public hearings on a plan that would bar houses like it from being built in much of the city.
Los Angeles has long been an architectural free-for-all. Until recently, just about anything could be knocked down and replaced with just about anything else. The lack of control has produced undistinguished offices but an exuberant hodge-podge of housing styles. Walking south on Palm Drive from the corner of Burton Way in Beverly Hills, for example, the first four properties you pass are an Italian villa, a Tudor house, a Spanish-style bungalow and a columned mansion. By the mid-1960s, observed Alison Lurie, a novelist, the city looked “like a stage set for some lavish comic opera”.
As the city matures, though, it is turning conservative. It began labelling districts as “historic” in 1983, and the pace of preservation has increased in recent years. There are currently 22 historic neighbourhoods, containing some 14,000 properties, where boards vet plans for demolition and ensure that new buildings do not spoil the overall look of the area. Another 16 districts are waiting to join the club.
In some places politicians have gone further. Beverly Hills and San Marino have adopted design codes that make it hard to gain permission for new houses that are not stylistically “pure”. Planners in Beverly Hills nod through English-style cottages and faux Normandy farmhouses, because houses like those were being built before the second world war. The city's style catalogue has nothing to say about the ornate “Persian palaces” created more recently by builders such as Mr Omrani, and clearly anticipates that no more will be built.
Compared with such finicky restrictions on architectural freedom, the measure proposed by the Los Angeles planning department is a wrecking ball. Following the lead of small, stylish settlements elsewhere, it wants to cut new buildings down to size. At present the owner of a 5,000 square-foot (465 square-metre) lot in a residential district is allowed to build a three-storey house with a floor area of 7,020 square feet. The planning department suggests restricting the floor area of a house on such a lot to 3,088 square feet—less than half the present size.
Increasing prosperity means the average American home is expanding (see chart). In Los Angeles, many of the big-house-builders are immigrants, who tend to have larger, more cohesive families. Yet even those who oppose restrictions believe that further limits on house size are inevitable. The fear that gardens will be shaded and privacy intruded on is simply too strong. Charlotte Laws, an estate agent who represents a district in the San Fernando Valley, says that when several options for building controls were presented to local people, they plumped for the most restrictive.
Mr Omrani, who, like many of his clients, is an Iranian Jew, is furious. “If I wanted to have mullahs telling me what to do, I wouldn't have left Iran,” he growls. Yet, like others, he is trying to adapt to the growing list of controls by reining in designs and advising clients to remodel rather than rebuild. The result of the drift to preservation, he predicts, will be a blander city, less appealing to immigrants.
Perhaps only from some angles. A house where Leonard Bernstein, the composer, once lived is being replaced by an edifice that looks, from the front, like a conventional Beaux Arts mansion. But drive round to the back and it is clear that a different aesthetic prevails. Although only half-built, the roof has already buckled and bulged into a shape characteristic of the despised Persian palace.