Los Angeles Dingbat

Los Angeles Dingbat – expatriate Australians design mixed use building in Santa Monica, California

Margaret Crawford

In Santa Monica, expatriate Melburnians Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg have designed and developed an ecology-sensitive commercial and residential loft building, now partly occupied by their practice. Their architecture displays new levels of subtlety.

In Santa Monica, Broadway passes through a typical cross-section of Southern Californian urbanism. A mish-mash of unrelated buildings line the street; one-storey shopfronts and corporate office buildings next to parking lots and car dealerships. Like most of Los Angeles’ commercial strips, it is only one building deep. Turn north on 25th Street and you are immediately surrounded by a residential landscape, completely different but equally typical — a mixture of small cottages and the long, boxy, stucco apartment buildings locally known as dingbats. Located in the juncture between these two realms, Koning Eizenberg’s mixed use building takes its context seriously, acknowledging and elevating mundane surroundings that many architects might ignore or dismiss. Driving by, you can easily miss it. It occupies its lot much like the surrounding stucco structures, If you stop for a look, however, the metal-clad walls and warped hyperbolic paraboloid roof signal that there is much more going on than is evident at firs t glance. Generic but innovative, it is the first appearance of what might become a new local building type — the dingbat loft.

The program mixes office and residential uses: the architects divided 5600 square feet into a 1500 square foot ground floor, leased to a film production company; a 3000 square foot second floor occupied by Koning Eizenberg and a 750 square foot third floor loft that can be used as a live-work studio. Maintaining the dingbat format, the three-storey front facade presents a flat, almost classically composed face to the street while the rear, facing the alley, is more informal. A huge window wall opens onto a balcony with on-grade parking underneath. Hidden from the front, the primary formal gesture is an enormous warped roof swooping down from the third to the second floor. On the interior, this defines an enormous single work space, Windows on all four sides open up to light and views. In low-rise Santa Monica, going up a single storey provides unexpected vantage points. The architects elaborate on this, using a broad range of different windows, doors and vents, including the classic dingbat sliding glass door s, Cowdroy sashless sliding windows and small rectangular windows. These frame views near and far — the car lot next door and the Getty Museum in the distance — and small and large — the orange trees in an adjacent backyard and the Santa Monica skyline. Like Los Angeles itself, these different views don’t add up to a single image but remain fragments representing different aspects of the city.

Koning Eizenberg’s guiding philosophy has been to creatively engage with the building process. Committed to using the demands imposed by clients, budgets, codes and regulations as spurs rather than obstacles to good design, the architects continually manipulate apparent restrictions to their advantage. In this case, Koning Eizenberg developed, designed, built and are occupying the building themselves; an unusual circumstance that gave them real control over the project, maximising their freedom to experiment and improvise, At the same time, developing the project themselves with a loan from the Small Business Administration, imposed other cost and time constraints. Building in strictly regulated Santa Monica instead of lax Los Angeles restricted them further. As in previous buildings, the architects cleverly traded off these restrictions for design opportunities. In Southern California, requirements for large amounts of covered parking often act as an important but unacknowledged design determinant. Koning Ei zenberg’s mandate to build quickly and cheaply immediately precluded the usual solution — expensive underground parking. Taking advantage of local regulations, they built an artist’s live-work space to reduce the amount of mandated parking. To accommodate the remaining cars, they designed a dramatic clear-span parking area underneath the building. While clearly functional, the studio floats above it, reinforcing the architects’ image of a lightweight building. A spectacular monitor window in the third floor loft began as a way around code-mandated height limits. Even the dramatically curving roof served a practical purpose, allowing rainwater to collect in a single spot, thus eliminating the need for gutters. Difficult and time-consuming, this hands-on process not only saved money but attuned the architects to the nuances of costs, materials and the local building trades.

This situation also forced the architects to clarify their priorities. One important goal was to experiment with low-tech environmental features. To minimise energy consumption, they used natural light as much as possible, placing windows on all four sides of the building, balanced by small skylights placed over the working areas. In a mild climate like Santa Monica’s, the temperature can be controlled by opening and closing windows and doors, so that the heating/cooling system is used only during extremes of heat and cold. To bring down energy costs even further, the architects incorporated trombe walls, a passive solar control-vented wall systems that siphons hot air through a one inch air gap between the heat-absorbing metal siding and the drywall face of the building. This vents hot air outside in the summer and into the building in the winter. Photo-voltaic panels were prohibitively expensive so connection points were installed in anticipation of future use. At ground level, rather than pave the parking lot with asphalt — the usual practice — they used a decomposed granite, a permeable surface that allows water to percolate down to the water table: an important issue in a seaside city where the polluted run-off from over-paved streets regularly forces the city to close its beaches. Finally, in a gesture that is both environmentally appropriate and symbolic, they planted a landscape of drought-resistant plants native to Australia.

Materials were another trade-off. Costs dictated the raw industrial building materials that have become a trademark of ‘serious’ Los Angeles architecture. But the architects wanted to avoid the usual aggressive and brutal juxtapositions in favour of more subtle and understated effects. The exterior maintains a consistently monochromatic light grey, unifying materials as varied as corrugated metal, cement boards laid flush (rather than simulating clapboard siding), chain link fencing and weathered wood decking. The studio space is intentionally unpretentious; its stylistic neutrality reflecting the architects’ desire to show clients what they can do without imposing excessively strong or fixed statements. The interior is pale, with sanded homosote walls, high density fibreboard floors and sisal carpet. The ceiling is fibreglass insulation covered with a white plastic vapor barrier attached with white wood battens. These mark the progress of the parabolic roof in an almost vemacular mode. Exposed ducts and maso nite and pegboard details suggest a work still in progress. Light-filled and lightweight, the studio comes across as casual and improvised, belying its careful design and execution. The architects saw this unfinished, open-ended quality as a way of resisting closure and generating energy — a non-verbal way to tell clients that design is a continual process.

This building signals a new level of assurance and mastery for Koning Eizenberg. Calm, relaxed and expansive, it is more subtle and less self-conscious than their previous work. Although it looks easy, it is not as easy as it looks. Paradoxically, acquiring greater control allowed the architects to resist a too-heavy hand and release the building to its users. By not forcing you to notice it, they allow you to discover it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Mixed Use Building, Santa Monica, California

Architect and Builder Koning Eizenberg-project team Hank Koning, Julie Elzenberg, Dason Whitesett, Carol Chun. Developer Hank Koning, Julie Eizenberg. Structural Engineer Parker Resnick Structural Engineers. Lighting Consultant Tim Thomas & Associates.

Margaret Crawford, an architectural historian, was the Chair of History, Theory and Humanities at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles and is the author of books and articles on 20th century American built environments.

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