Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis
On November 15, 2016, MAS Context organized the Chicago book launch of Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis (DoppelHouse Press, 2016). Editors Thurman Grant and Joshua G. Stein discussed the dingbat and architect Kelly Bair considered its relevance for Chicago. This panel discussion took place at the historic Charnley Persky-House, headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians.
Dingbat 2.0 is the first critical study of the most ubiquitous and mundane building type in Los Angeles: the dingbat apartment. For more than half a century the idiosyncratic dingbat has been largely anonymous, occasionally fetishized, and often misunderstood. Praised and vilified in equal measure, dingbat apartments were a critical enabler of Los Angeles’ rapid postwar urban expansion.
Dingbat 2.0 is published by Doppelhouse Press in cooperation with The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.
Today Thurman Grant and I are going to give an overview of what the dingbat is and where it comes from, talk about its impact on architecture and on the city of Los Angeles, and we’ll look ahead to discuss what the dingbat has to offer us right now. We are lucky to have Kelly Bair to frame the dingbat in relationship to Chicago. It is also great to talk about the dingbat in a city other than Los Angeles as it generates a different discussion than we might have on its home turf.
Let’s start with the basics. The dingbat is everywhere in Los Angeles. It is an apartment building that is usually a two-story walk-up. It is built inexpensively. It is our cheap version of a two-flat or three-flat in Chicago, the brownstone in Brooklyn, or the shotgun house in New Orleans. In a certain way, dingbats make up the fabric of the city of Los Angeles. One of the most recognizable things that people always immediately think of when they talk about dingbats is their tuck-under parking.
And then, of course, there is the dingbat identity. Besides the tuck-under parking, the dingbat has become famous as a simple stucco box that screams at you through a variety of different facades. The name dingbat sometimes is thought to refer to something like Zapf Dingbats, the typographic characters that include the atomic starburst symbols that do in fact appear on a lot of these buildings. However, this is not necessarily the way the term was originally coined. The term “dingbat” was first popularized by the architectural historian Reyner Banham in 1971. The term had existed before that and originally referred to the unsightly buildings that undermined the quality of the single-family residential neighborhood where all of a sudden nice craftsmen houses were torn down and cheaply constructed dingbats were constructed.
In Banham’s book, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, he describes the dingbat over the course of maybe three pages. This is one of the first instances we can identify as a critical, if brief, discussion of the dingbat. Here he makes evident the power of the dingbat. It is not only a simple description of the dingbat as a two-story walk-up, but instead the dingbat becomes a stand-in for the American Dream, into which Los Angeles epitomizes: everybody is moving to the West Coast, reinventing themselves, and starting anew. However, there is only so much room for everyone to live out that dream in their own single-family house.
So to offer the American dream of a single-family home to everybody moving to California, you have to pack them into these very efficient boxes and then still give them the impression that they are living out their American dream. To do this, the dingbat offers, number one: a relationship both with the car and with the outdoors. And then, number two: it attempts to create some sense of community. Although the dingbat only barely satisfies these desires in a crass way, it is important to remember that it does, in fact, deliver on this promise.
The first, longer discussion of the dingbat appears in John Chase and John Beech’s essay, “The Stucco Box,” from 1983 (which was republished in John Chase’s book, Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving, published in 2004). This is the first occasion for the dingbat the examination it deserves. Chase identifies that this is a particular building type that owes its aesthetic to its cheapness, and that these two things cannot be separated. This is a great quote from John Chase, “The stucco box can either be classified as a 1940s garden apartment, denuded of much of its garden, or a miniature tenement that has gained a garnish of landscaping.” No matter which way you look at it, it has an aspect of cheapness to it, but also an efficiency at the same time.”
This is a sample of dingbats that you would see around Los Angeles. We have a Tahitian style here and something that is more mod there. The mod aesthetic worked nicely for the dingbat developers who were largely mom and pop developers. They were people who would just decide to buy a piece of property and see if they could turn a profit. The mod dingbat wouldn’t require them to invest a lot of energy to give it an identity. They could just slap up some numbers, slap on a name, and voila! It somehow distinguishes itself from its neighbors even if it is more or less exactly the same thing behind the façade.
With the Dingbat 2.0 book, we were interested in defining and positioning the dingbat as a building type, not simply a style. While there is certainly an aesthetic style associated with the dingbat, there is also a dingbat building type that proliferated during its golden years between 1957 and 1964. There are versions that existed prior and there are versions that exist after this short era. The later versions we would identify as post-dingbats: they might maintain stylistic visual qualities, but they changed some of the fundamentals characteristics, the most obvious would be the original dingbat’s ability to produce a density of housing and parking all within two stories. Without going underground, without sending the parking somewhere else, you have your two levels of apartments, producing a total of six to twelve units per dingbat. Almost all of the apartments are accessed either directly from the landscape, through private stairs (sometimes shared with one other unit) or along an exterior walkway, not through a double-loaded corridor. That is a fundamental change from what would exist on the East Coast or in the Midwest. Again, tuck-under parking, either in the front or in the back depending on whether or not there is an alley, keeps cars close to their owners.
We then see an emergence of sub-types, or sub-species, that begin to proliferate throughout the city. We have what we call Hillbats, which cascade down a sloped site. We have Twinbats, Conjoined Twinbats, Double-dings, and Hunchbats. These mutations are primarily driven by site variations and how parking is incorporated. You can imagine that a dingbat on a corner lot might accommodate more parking if accessed from the side than the front or back. This would be a Sidebat.
The impact of the dingbat on its neighborhood is significant. The typical lot in Los Angeles is 50 by 150 feet with five-foot set backs on the sides and a little bit more on the front and the back. Dingbats effectively max out the entire allowable building area within this envelope and then pave over much of the remaining surface for parking. This would have significant consequences on the urban fabric after the slow conversion of single-family residential neighborhoods into dingbat neighborhoods.
One thing that the dingbats become famous for was their cheap provision of some form of identity. Dingbat owners could distinguish their dingbat from their neighbor’s by employing a range of different themes. Obviously, there is the lure and appeal of the tropics and anything that somehow seems exotic: the “Bombay”, the “Calcutta”, and the “Taj Mahal”. They might also capitalize on the glamour of Hollywood: “The Casablanca” might refer to the Moroccan city, but is more likely invoking the 1942 movie.
And then we can see the impact of the dingbat on the city of Los Angeles. One of the great paradoxes of Los Angeles is that it is one of the densest urban regions in the United States. The metropolitan area of Los Angeles is denser than the metropolitan area of New York. Although Manhattan is much denser than the city of Los Angeles, when you take into account all of the suburbs, the metro region of Los Angeles is much denser than New York. In large part, this is because of apartment buildings like the dingbat, which achieves and urban density that is consistently higher than single-family residential.
In terms of the historical precedents of the dingbat, there is a great quote from Aaron Betsky’s “The Sign of Id: The Dingbat that Conquered Los Angeles” essay included in the book: “The dingbat’s simplest provenance is that it was sired by the dumbbell apartment of New York and Chicago on the Spanish Colonial courtyard apartments of Southern California. From the East Coast came the modulation of the standard stack of dwelling units placed within the confines of a defined lot. Each lot was a subdivision and manifestation of the kind of rational exploitation of land through which the whole US was parceled out for development—rendered into a shape that would let in a bit of light and air.”
To call the dingbat a form of tenement housing for Los Angeles isn’t so far off. It really did grow out of the same ruthlessly efficient stacking of human bodies that we would see in the tenement houses of New York. In the same way, it was shaped by code regulation. If you follow the history of tenement housing in New York, you can see how the building organization starts to change to allow for pockets of light and air, which ultimately created what is called the dumbbell plan. When that building type arrives in Chicago, where there is a bit more available urban space, it could be spread across two lots, but it still maintained an efficiency in packing units. The courtyard type that emerges internalizes access to light and air. In Los Angeles, we have the bungalow courtyards, and then the courtyard parking dwellings. The apartment courtyards were very common in Los Angeles up until about the 1940s. During the post-war era, the dingbat started to move in and make things much more efficient in terms of packing in apartment units. The dingbat maximizes to the utmost how many units you can condense into one lot, but they still maintain an access to the outdoors and the dream of living in a California landscape.
I am going to let Thurman talk a little bit more about the typological history of the dingbat.
As Joshua mentioned, there is a post-WW2 population boom, as people rush to the West Coast to pursue the American Dream, the California Dream. As people come to Los Angeles, they are housed in both an expanding blanket of single-family houses, as well as apartment buildings. As the population continues to grow, there is an increased need for apartments. The dingbat rushes in to fill this need. As the population increases in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, the dingbat is developed and refined, with the golden age for the dingbat typology stretching from about 1957 to 1964, when the most pure and efficient form of the dingbat is codified.  This is an image of Lakewood, a community located north of Long Beach. it shows a typical condition of many communities in Los Angeles that were originally populated with single-family dwellings, with the zoning designation of R1, creating a low-rise, horizontal residential condition that still covers much of Los Angeles. To accommodate the decade-by-decade population increase, parts of the city are up-zoned from R1 neighborhoods to R2 and then R3, leading to a proliferation of medium-sized apartment buildings, of which the dingbat develops as the most ruthlessly efficient type, in terms of providing the maximum number of units at a low cost.
By about 1956-1957, the permits for apartment buildings and construction surpass single-family dwellings as a popular form of development. In this grainy advertisement from the Los Angeles Times, you can see a dingbat apartment with the iconographic starburst dingbat symbol in front. This form of two-story building, with very efficient parking, and maxed out volume had become so popular by this point that contractors are offering to build and completely finance it. If you were a mom and pop or other small-scale developer and you had a single-family dwelling, you could tear it down and replace it with a dingbat. This contributed to an infiltration of the dingbat into single-family dwelling neighborhoods, sometimes into neighborhoods that had nice older homes, and a lot of people didn’t like that. In a neighborhood full of older Victorian or craftsman homes, as Joshua mentioned, those buildings would get replaced, often creating negative association with the dingbat.
As early as the 1930s, along with the revisions to the zoning categories, Los Angeles started introducing zoning guidelines for increased residential parking requirements that continues to increase in the ‘40s and ‘50s. This leads to the need for more efficient models of apartments, and ultimately into the creation of the dingbat. A major factor in forming the unique typology of the dingbat apartment is how it incorporates parking. In earlier 1930s garden apartments you commonly had the parking detached and covered in a backyard in the forms of detached garages or carports, as well as space dedicated to the driveway. The dingbat gets rid of or reduces these things. It takes the parking, consumes it into the body of the building as a first-floor carport, covered by upper-level apartment units, and often reduces the size of the driveway. This creates a very efficient model, allowing for more units to be incorporated into each lot.
Let’s go into a little bit more detail about the parking conditions. If you did not have a back alley, you would place parking in carports arranged along the front and you would drive straight in. Some types of dingbats had parking in the front, others accessed from alleys off the back, and some had parking in both front and back. By the 1940s apartment buildings have a requirement to have one parking space per unit. That starts growing slowly so that if you have a larger apartment, you might need one and a quarter, and then eventually one and a half parking spaces, depending on what part of Los Angeles county you were in. As parking requirements continues to increase, the dingbat becomes a little less tenable. When it was modeled to accommodate the initial increase in parking requirements, it proved to be the most maximum efficient type, but its efficiency ultimately becomes outdated by increased parking requirements.
Dingbats can be two stories and sometimes three stories, always above ground. There are no underground parking garages or half-level down sub-grade parking garages. Not much space is spent on driveways but you also see that there is hardly any space left over for yards, green space or other amenities. Looking at the urban condition created by the aggregation of dingbats, what we often get in the front yard is a continuous concrete wasteland. You have front yards completely covered in concrete, as driveways and parking spaces, and there is little or no greenery whatsoever. This is seen as undesirable, so zoning ordinances for some cities in Los Angeles county start to introduce requirements that half of the front yard be given over to greenery. So that creates a kind of pinching of zoning code requirements that make the dingbat eventually a less efficient model of apartment building. In our taxonomy of dingbat subtypes, we named the type that emerged from these zoning changes “half-bats.” This type proliferated in neighborhoods such as Palms in West Los Angeles.
Ultimately, just as it grew out of changes to the zoning code, the dingbat apartment type would later be killed off in the 1960s. You have a series of zoning code revisions—the parking requirements, the desire for more green space, that start to chip away at the dingbat as a building type. Then in around 1964 an ordinance is introduced that prohibits cars from backing out into the street directly from a carport or other parking space in the front of a lot. This applied to residential buildings larger than duplexes, as it is deemed to be too dangerous. This effectively kills the dingbat as a type, as it relied heavily on carports housing several cars placed along the front façade.
After 1964-1965 the dingbat is no longer an efficient development model. It gets replaced by increasingly larger apartment types that we call post-dingbats. A direct evolution after the dingbat is a three-story, sometimes four-story building, where the whole ground level is parking but it is still located on a fifty-foot wide lot, that we call post-bats. In this case, you drive in, walk out, and go up the stair into a double loaded corridor. Some of the taller buildings might have an internal elevator. In our minds, these are no longer dingbats and they are starting to morph into something else, but they are located on the same-sized lot. Other larger types also continue to develop, including the larger “Stucco Beasts,” still built on single lots, and the much larger “Stucco Monsters,” built over two to three combined lots. “Stucco monster” is also a generic term for a variety of these large stucco-clad apartment buildings. All of these types had been developed in the midcentury concurrent with dingbats, so you would see some of these in the 1950s and 1960s. But it is after about 1965, when dingbats are effectively outlawed, that the post-bats were the only remaining type being built. From the 1960s into the 1970s and 1980s, they take over, in direct response to the outlawing of back-out parking spaces. In Los Angeles, dingbats are often derided, but the stucco monster becomes an example of having to be careful what you wish for. People didn’t want dingbats, but these are seen as probably worse, in terms of their large ground level parking, their scale when placed into lower density residential neighborhoods and their aesthetics. Stucco monsters are constantly derided when Angelenos talk about housing, and some of the affection attributed to dingbats today can be seen as growing from the comparison to their over-sized neighbors.
One of the most interesting things about the dingbat is that it infiltrates the consciousness of the city and the art world quite quickly. If the heyday of the dingbat is between 1957 and 1964, by the early 1960s, Ed Ruscha has already started examining the crass and cheap commercialism of the city of Los Angeles and documenting it as an art project: for example, his 1966 Every Building Along the Sunset Strip and his 1965 Bronson Tropics, which is clearly a dingbat—actually a Double-ding, which is two dingbats together.
Perhaps because of his connection to the art world, Frank Gehry is one of the first architects to look at the dingbat, although he was clearly operating as an outlier in the world of architecture. His design for the 1965 Danziger Studio and Residence presents a stucco façade to the street, yet Gehry wipes it clean of any of the graphic façadism of the dingbat. This project gives a clear nod to the dingbat, almost concurrently to the construction of more typical dingbats that were being produced by small developers across the city.
In the early 1980s, Judy Fiskin looks at the dingbat as an exercise in cataloging. She documents these structures front-on, so we can start to compare them typologically, even if it is a visual typology. She starts to classify them as whether or not they have certain features, whether or not they are symmetrical or asymmetrical.
While the dingbat had made appearances as an art object, it is not until 1972 that the discussion of commercialism and “low architecture” would enter the academic architectural discourse when Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour publish Learning from Las Vegas. It asks what it means to simply take a dumb shed and put a quick façade on it. This is the moment where we finally realize that this might be a viable way of producing modernism, or in this case what we would end up calling post-modernism.
This timing sets up a clear contrast between earlier versions of modernism, which were being produced almost concurrent with that of the dingbat. The Case Study Houses program ran from 1945 to 1966 and was supposedly about bringing modernism to the masses, or at least making modern building materials such as steel, corrugated metal, and glass available to the public. However, it was more successful in producing one-off houses for the upper middle class or the wealthy, often times in the Hollywood Hills. In contrast to this, we see the swaths of dingbats throughout the city on the flatlands. We then have the literally high modernism sitting above and looking at the low modernism below.
The dingbat then becomes a champion of modernism on the front lines. In the 1998 movie Slums of Beverly Hills the dingbat is used very consciously as a way to set up the concept of Los Angeles or California as the American Dream gone awry. Once it turns into something that is beyond the American Dream, it is becomes representative of something like a global purgatory. The people who are living in dingbats are no longer the upwardly mobile, moving from the Midwest, looking to get ahead. Instead, in the case of the Slums, we see an itinerant family that moves from dingbat to dingbat, often times just before the end of the month to avoid paying for rent. Here, the dingbat becomes a place for the late capital itinerant movement of, not just the upwardly mobile, but potentially the downwardly mobile. Or, in this particular case, the laterally mobile, moving from one dingbat to another, never really moving up, never really moving down, just moving around, just circling around schools and around jobs. At this point, the dingbat starts to represent something different for Los Angeles.
The contemporary photographs of dingbats and dingbat dwellers by Paul Redmond, who produced a photo essay for the Dingbats 2.0 book, show the faces of the dingbat, not necessarily as they were intended, but as they are now inhabited. The tuck-under parking is now used as a kind of cheap space for storage, both of goods and of vehicles. It is no longer a place to display your amazingly beautiful 1960s car with pride. It is now just a place to get it off the street to avoid a parking ticket.
All of this starts to explain what has become of these neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I walked around with Paul to interview and photograph these dingbat dwellers and learned how these examples provide a view of the real populace of Los Angeles. The study of the dingbat is not only one of a popular or vernacular version of modernism, but also a statistical survey of who is living in Los Angeles at this moment. It is interesting to see the way that the spaces of the dingbat are being colonized, cultivated, and curated in a beautiful way. A woman called Eneida made a cactus garden in what used to be a parking space in the back of her dingbat. Jenni, a marriage and family therapist, and Tom, a film editor, inhabit a two-bedroom dingbat, using one of the rooms as an office.
In contemporary Los Angeles, the dingbat is also the subject of a great deal of scorn. Most notably, it has a reputation as being a death trap. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake many cheaply constructed apartments collapsed, along with other apartments like masonry buildings. There were just enough of them, probably one or two that collapsed, to give the entire category of the dingbat a bad name in the consciousness of the city. You can find diatribes for or against the dingbat online: “All of these things are gonna kill every single inhabitant in the next big earthquake” with somebody else responding, “I drove around during the last earthquake and they were all still standing. So it’s gonna be fine.”
One of the propositions of our book was to also propose visions of what a new dingbat might project for the future of Los Angeles. Thurman will show us some of the examples of the competition that was ran to examine what could come after the dingbat
In 2010, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design ran a competition from which this book emerged. At the time, dingbats were between fifty and sixty years old, so we thought it was a good time to consider an update or reconsideration of this type that is so prevalent in Los Angeles. We received about 100 competition entries and they looked at the dingbat both as an individual building type as well as the urban condition of a residential block of dingbats. We gave competition entrants the choice to remodel the type, replace the type, reprogram the type, or whatever other option they wanted to consider. Most people chose, not surprisingly in retrospect, to just replace it.
Before looking at some of the competition entries, it is important to note an important zoning code change that happened in Los Angeles around 2003 or 2004. The Small Lot Ordinance was introduced to offer options to address the need for more flexible ways to densify the housing stock of the city. It allowed you to take a standard 50 by 150 lot and divide it into two, four, six, or eight lots, etc… You could also take two or three lots and combine them in order to divide them into ten or so lots. It allowed you to do things like combine parking, share driveways, and have reduced setbacks, etc. The type of lot subdividing promoted by the Small Lot Ordinance permeated many of the competition entries.
“Microparcelization,” the winning scheme by Carmen C. Charm, James Black, and Tyler Goss, proposed to inject the Small Lot Ordinance subdivision into existing dingbat lots, after the existing structures would be removed over time, as decided by each lot’s owner. They looked at a series of smaller buildings that would come into lots that had been re-parcelized. There were a variety of proposals for the smaller building types: one was a series of repetitive boxy buildings, and then there were more individualized iconographic buildings. Here you have six or seven buildings where the symbol that used to be the starburst pattern has now grown into an entire building, creating a new sort of icon. Instead of housing only renters in these single apartment buildings, within one lot you are actually injecting opportunities for home ownership side by side with rental units.
“Variegated Mat-ScapeTM” by GP/S [Gary Paige/Studio] proposed to blanket the dingbat neighborhoods with a uniform pattern that looked like a series of pixels flowing chaotically everywhere but were, in fact, contained within the standard 50 by 150 lot. The pattern appears continuous and roaming, but it maintained the lot sizes that exist now.
“The Flip” project by Caroline Filice Smith wanted to take the existing dingbat apart into its constituent parts. They are then mashed up, amplified, and reconfigured into tower structures. The dingbats are re-imagined into a new iconography for a new century, amplifying the iconographic imagery of the original building type. It was one of the more graphically exuberant projects.
Some competition entries looked at reprogramming the dingbat, like in the case of “The Dingbat Demographic” by Liz Falletta. The proposal explores minor remodels that could accommodate emerging demographic and neighborhood demands, incorporating things such as daycare, electrical vehicle recharging stations and transit-oriented parking for the developing metro train system. The original decorative names of the buildings are also revised to work with the new programmatic reconfigurations, incorporating names such as “The Last Resort,” “This Too Shall Pass,” and “Pomp & Circumstance.” Other proposals considering programmatic revisions looked at amending the building by stacking things on top like a hat or creating a coonskin cap. They would provide a new program on the roof, such as a public garden.
Another thing that came out in the competition entrants was a reconsideration of the stylistic influences that influenced the original dingbats. If you recall the John Chase quote that Joshua mentioned earlier, he mentioned the stylistic influences on mid-century modernism coming from other design fields including automobile design, interior design, and product design. One project (by Jonathan Kleinhample) used updated automobile design aesthetics, here taking that of recent electric vehicle design and stylizing floating pod-like structures that infiltrate existing dingbats. Another project (Configurator App, by Studio Griffa: Cesare Griffa, Chiara Tournour, Federica Di Iorio, Federico Rizzo, Panagiotis Gkoliaris) took the idea of taking the graphics of iPhone skins and applying them to the new buildings. In this scheme, you could order everything on Amazon.com, have it shipped in, and then plugged into a larger structural scaffolding. So, within the overall range of aesthetics exhibited by the range of competition entries, it was an interesting thing to look at how some of the same graphic influences on dingbats were updated from midcentury to twenty-first century aesthetics.
The Dingbat 2.0 Competition proposals were from 2010, so they are still showing the effects from the bust of 2008. Since then, there has been a resurgence of development in the city along with a clear mandate for densification. We turn next to the current conditions in Los Angeles in terms of densification—because it is densifying—like most other cities in the United States.
The dingbat was probably the most successful building type in terms of densifying an already existing city fabric, which is why it still maintains its relevancy today. At the moment, city of Los Angeles is densifying both through dense tower construction and through densification of the residential sprawl. The first version looks more like the density typically associated with centralized cities, with downtown centers comprised of mid to high rise residential towers. Downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and North Hollywood would be some of the major centers of big tower developments in Los Angeles. The dingbat has little to offer in this discussion as it is simply a different urban model.
However, there is also the question of how to densify the existing urban sprawl, and here, we have much to learn from the dingbat. At the moment we see two primary modes of densification within the residential fabric (different from the new centers of tall residential towers). One is the Small Lot Ordinance that Thurman talked about, which, put simply, means taking a single-family lot and putting four or so single-family residences. In addition to that, you can couple two or three lots to maximize and share parking and common spaces, allowing even more single-family units on several lots. This trend clearly continues the American Dream model. This is about property ownership. It takes the dingbat model of density and then consumes the single-family home model back into its internal logic (beyond that of the dingbat’s façade or superficial tropes). Much of the work of the Hayden Partnership explores the potential of the Small Lot Ordinance, combining dingbat levels of density within the model of free-standing single-family units.
On the other hand, we another emerging housing type most commonly referred to as five-over-one construction. This is more like the continuation of the dingbat as an invasive species, and we see it taking over neighborhoods in not only Los Angeles, but across the United States. Like the dingbat, this species has figured out a way to conform to building codes, satisfy developer needs, and address the demand for housing in cities across the United States. It is comprised of inexpensive wood stick construction—cheap two-by-four construction just like the original dingbat—over a one or two floor concrete pedestal used for retail or parking. While the scale and density is greatly increased over that of the dingbat, it also abandons many of the goals of the dingbat, namely maintaining a connection to the landscape.
Then there are a couple of hybrids, or alternative models, within the city of Los Angeles, which I think are also interesting to discuss. These still try to maintain the identity of something that we could call the dingbat while now spanning across multiple, or much larger lots. The Formosa 1140 apartments by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) places parking underground to produce a public parklet with multiple units adjacent.
In addition, different from the Small Lot Ordinance, there is the accessory dwelling unit (ADU), an updated version of the granny flat that can be inserted into the backyard of a single-family residential unit. Unlike the Small Lot houses which night demolish one single family residence to construct up to six new ones on the same lot, the ADU maintains the original housing stock and inserts density into the backyard.
That is where we will leave things off in terms of the possible continuations of the dingbat. We will turn it over to Kelly, who can talk about what is happening in Chicago right now.
I lived in Los Angeles for about thirteen years and I spent quite a bit of time in dingbats. I never lived in one, but I was a graduate student at UCLA, so I went to many parties. My memory of them is a little bit hazy, but I do remember them. And I also remember how much Angelinos really love them, as much as they love to hate them.
I have tailored the talk in three parts, similarly to the way the book is structured. But it also makes logical sense to do so, looking at the past, present and projected. Tonight, I have been asked to frame the discussions in the book through the lens of Chicago.
We’ll begin with the past. As we know, Chicago’s architecture has long embraced housing on stilts. The go-to precedent for this is Mies’s 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments. Here, building and ground find a direct connection to one another through a setback glass enclosed lobby, a thin slab on grade, and perimeter-defining columns. There is no evidence of the car. It is tucked away and hidden. While Mies’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments were widely riffed on along the lakeshore and well beyond the city limits of Chicago, things began to shift in the early to mid-1960s when it seemed that modernism’s heyday was coming to, if not a definitive end, a rethinking. This was especially true when it came to high-minded design ideals that were being applied to multi-family housing.
For one, the increasing relevance of the car became a defining characteristic of architectural typologies, especially related to housing. A 1963 housing tower by Milton Schwartz and Associates located at 5601 North Sheridan Road is an early example of this. It shows the introduction of the car, though I would argue tentatively, in the form of a driveway which leads up to a parking garage that is one level up. It wraps the façade, ultimately becoming the façade, and does the work, along with the columns, of lifting the building off of the ground.
At the same time, Bertrand Goldberg enters with Marina City, where car becomes fully integral to the elevation of the apartment towers. I would argue that here is where we see a shift in the modernist idea of control, as nearly one third of the towers are given over to the object of desire of the inhabitants, in this case the car.
But these are buildings we know, and they are stories that we have heard in reference to Chicago’s architectural history. There are other stories in Chicago’s history, especially when it comes to residential development, that are less talked about and they may provide a bit more insight for us into the dingbat.
Around the same time, and concurrent with the proliferation of the dingbat in Los Angeles, Chicago was experimenting with its own methods of densification in rural areas. One example of this is a little-known building type specific to Chicago, or at least the term is specific to Chicago, called the four plus one. Zoning amendments allowed motels to be built in Chicago beginning in 1953, and the first four plus ones in Chicago began as motels. They were located mainly in high-density areas like the lakefront, River North, and the south vicinity of Grant Park. Later, the multi-family residential version of the four plus one moved north, mainly to residential neighborhoods like Lakeview and Lincoln Park. These oddly proportioned buildings offered high-density living in the form of four stories of housing above a lobby and parking, essentially the same typology as the dingbat. Curbed discredits the Chicago four plus one as a “charmingly hideous style of apartment building that proliferated in Lincoln Park and Lakeview in the early 1960s.”
More descriptively, the building type is four stories of masonry and wood framed apartment units built on top of a concrete platform no more than seven feet above the street level. They were incredibly compressed at that level, similar to the dingbat. They were square and blocky in form, and featured a 1960 styling, which was not universally beloved. They were reviled by nearly everyone, and yet, they are still standing and fully occupied with satisfied residents. They always occupied one or two single lots in the city. Essentially, what determined the shape organization of the four plus one is whether they were sited on one or two lots. On a single lot they were in the shape of an I in plan. On two lots they were in the shape of an H, with a bridge connection between the two bars.
It is worth noting that dingbats are identical to four plus ones in nearly every way except one, which is their height. While four plus ones occur primarily in dense areas with fairly high property value, dingbats are spread at a lower density across the entire Los Angeles area, though there are concentrations, as Joshua and Thurman mentioned. For Chicago, the four plus one may be the closest typological cousin to the dingbat, especially in the sense that people really didn’t like them. Part of this had to do with years of built-up NIMBYism, but people also thought that they cheapened the aesthetic character of the neighborhoods.
Now I am going to talk about the present, of which there is a lot of overlap. It is interesting to look a bit more closely at what Chicago is currently doing and see, despite the differences in urban context, how similar it is to Los Angeles.
In 2014, Chicago, as with most cities, saw an uptick in something called transit oriented developments or TODs. TODs are multi-family housing developments, usually in the form of towers that are located within half a mile from a major transit stop. An early pioneer is Wheeler Kearn’s 1611 West Division, which is a housing project that takes advantage of a few of TODs lessened requirements, with one being parking. In this particular case, there are zero parking spaces for cars, but there are 99 parking spaces for bikes, one per unit. There are three bus stops and one CTA L line within the TOD radius. These TODs are highly structured around transit nodes yet they tend to be popping up at places where there aren’t existing tower typologies.
I think the question with TODs remains, how might these be affecting community building or re-imagining the social aspects of living? We haven’t really seen them around long enough to see how this will play out. While their contributions to broader urban issues is clear (for example, reducing traffic while increasing CTA ridership), they preserve the large-scale internal condo typology and the social aspects of multi-family living, where residents remain fairly separate despite their physical proximity. In the end, not much has changed with regard to that.
An alternative to these large-scale developments is now popping up in Chicago and, in contrast, it is to return to small-scale development over multiple locations. However, small-scale hasn’t always been presented as a good thing. This 1920 Seattle zoning commission advertisement warning of smaller scale, i.e. higher density than single family house on a single family lot, presents a mode of densification that is monotonous and on an over-crowded housing tract. It is similar to the tenement qualities that were projected onto the dingbat. Those views of smaller scale density have persisted. Chicago’s answer to this resulted in a large number of what we call phantom triplexes. I happen to live in a phantom triplex. Here, the character, scale, and form of the single-family house are preserved, but the unit distribution is hidden behind the façade. More importantly, however, zoning is not only slightly challenged, for example a lot may be rezoned from R1 to R3, but there aren’t really challenges being made to the existing zoning code.
Now, however, Chicago is looking to Los Angeles for bolder restructuring of zoning relative to housing. One example of this is the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, or SLSO, which Joshua and Thurman talked about. This has actually been around Los Angeles for about a decade, and we are just now seeing a rise in its application, both in Chicago and there. These SLSOs provide increased opportunity for home ownership, especially for first-time buyers, with increased density on a single lot that surpasses the phantom triplex. The downside is a loss of affordable rentals for residents who have been there for generations. So, practically a gentrification and a changing neighborhood aesthetic that may seem as homogenous as the residents that are moving into them.
Looking at some of the results of this ordinance, zoning may seem a bit more viable for the long term housing market, or at least for its stability. A couple of things that are happening that are interesting for us as Chicagoans, is that there is a reduction in the minimum lot size from five thousand square feet to six hundred square feet. This applies on land zoned for commercial uses, apartments, condos, duplexes, etc. The second thing is that there are reduced setbacks, so homes can more closely abut neighbors and sidewalks. These zoning amendments effectively create smaller communities within a large urban context.
This is Barbara Bestor’s Blackbirds project in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood. She has a great essay in the Dingbats 2.0 book titled “Deeply Superficial: Excavating the Dingbat from the Art and Architecture Canon” that you should read. This project, built in 2015, essentially takes five lots, removes five single-family houses, and replaces them with eighteen. In a couple of them, or maybe about half of them, they actually start to share parking vaults, so that the identity of the single family house, once you tear away that façade and we look at the section of the building, is slightly skewed from what we are seeing on the exterior.
This is a 2016 project in Chicago’s Old Irving Park called Basecamp SFH by Ranquist Development that I think has some similarities. It is not played out through a small lot ordinance, as we don’t have it in Chicago. But it is rethinking the zoning code in a relatively interesting way. It is is a series of forty-eight autonomous homes that don’t share walls, but the zoning is being affected in one particular way, which is the lots are subdivided. They are actually gaining a foot, so they go from 25 to 26 feet wide. But what the developers are adjusting is the length of the lot. That produces a middle zone that allows for circulation, a shared community space and, effectively, a new street. The issue with these, or what is funny about them, is the fact that the only shared walls happen when people decide to go from a two-car garage to a three-car garage. That is when we start to see abutment, and even further maxing densification, even though it is not increasing the amount of people that are living there. They have about nineteen of them built of the forty-eight. This weekend I went to see the projects in preparation for this talk, and what was interesting is that the Chicago developers had been looking at the Blackbirds project and other projects in Los Angeles that are rethinking zoning codes.
I want to close with a project of mine. I came across this relatively new program, called Large Lot Program, that is part of Mayor Emmanuel’s “Five-Year Housing Plan,” which “aims to create, improve, or preserve over forty-one thousand housing units citywide.”  The program will enable existing homeowners, block clubs, and non-profits to purchase vacant city-owned residential properties for a dollar. The idea is that these spaces get manicured and groomed to become part of the larger blocks, but you have to live on the block that you are trying to but into these lots. You can also add to your own property, but there has to be some kind of public giveback. So there are some interesting things happening that start to address the vacancy in the city of Chicago, which I think has a different bearing on the zoning issues than they do in Los Angeles.
This is the only rendered image that I could find on the Large Lot Program, that someone did to explain ways of beautifying some of these lots using that particular program. I believe this has only been tested in one neighborhood so far, and the idea is that they add one neighborhood each year.
I’ll close with projection. This is a project that I did in my office in 2015 for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. It was part of an exhibition in the biennial titled “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” curated by Iker. Nine offices, were given “The Available City” research project by David Brown as a starting point. Essentially, what “The Available City” looks at is the wealth of vacancy in the city of Chicago. The base understanding of the project is that if you were to take all of the vacancy that is in the city of Chicago that is privately owned, it would be the area of the Loop. If you were to add all of the vacancy that is owned by the city, it is twice that size. So there’s actually quite a bit of land.
What David’s visionary zoning code suggests is that one might be able to combine different ratios of public and private land, typically adjacent to one another. We were given the option to work with between one and five lots. Every architect except one chose all five lots, which is really telling. I was one of the ones that chose five lots. I am not going to get too into the specifics but I’ll just quickly say that I zeroed in on a couple of things. I was already working on the problem of urban corners at the time, so I zeroed in on a specific one-mile by one-mile area in the North Lawndale neighborhood. The reason for that specific site had to do with David’s research, so it was tied into that. There was a whole study of the corner types, which I won’t get into for tonight, but the gist of this is to rethink the zoning code. The idea is to move it from a quantification of things like floor area ratios and square footage, which zoning codes always tend to be, towards a qualification of other kinships between private building barns and public collective surfaces.
We took five lots and we understood them to be three private and two city-owned lots. We then gridded those lots, effectively taking a similar approach to the winning competition in the dingbats, which is the micro-parcelization. We went from five lots to many more, and they could be broken down even further. In the way that these were laid out, they were roughly about 600 square foot, similar to the reduction for the site size in the small lot subdivision in Los Angeles, which, interestingly enough, I didn’t know about when I was doing this project. Then there was the operation of cutting and filling. The idea was to not find intensification by filling all of these lots, but by micro-parcelization, to borrow that term, through moments of the lot and giving back other moments to landscaping and other types of public functions: gardens, amphitheaters, and so on.
The other thing that this project did was to take the general form, the general icon of the house, and force it to turn the corner. It starts to confuse the identity and relationships of fronts and backs. In some ways, it made the project all fronts or all backs or, if you were in the center, a shared courtyards that made them all sides. This project, in the way it was played out here, was thought of as eight units, on what was effectively five lots. There was not a huge increase in density, but because of the way the fronts and/or backs were set up relatively to the new grid, there was an opportunity to entering and existing similar to the phantom triplet. Effectively, it could be upwards of sixteen to twenty-four units, depending on how you define the interior. But again, these were thought of as single units.
These are a couple of images from the exhibition. The one on the right is showing some of the landscape elements that we designed, including the pathways. The way that the grid starts to establish access allows for certain moments of access through and across the site, but also limits it so that there are moments of privacy and limited access for people that shouldn’t be in the center court of the house or between the houses.
That is my survey of the history of the dingbat relative to Chicago, or as close as I can make those connections, the sampling of what I have seen around town in the past couple of years, and some projections on where things might go.
1. This portion of the lecture substantially refers to the development of the dingbat as covered by the Dingbat 2.0 essay “The Embodiment of Speculation and Regulation: The Rise and Fall of the Dingbat Apartment,” by Steven A. Treffers.
Kelly Bair is principal of Central Standard Office of Design, an architectural research studio based in Chicago. Her work has been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, and Detroit. Most recently her work was exhibited in the 1st Chicago Architecture Biennial (2015) and the upcoming 16th International Architecture Exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in collaboration with Kristy Balliet of Balliet Studio and Bair Balliet. Bair is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also co-founder of Possible Mediums, a collaborative of four Midwestern architects and educators interested in shaking up the context and format in which architecture is taught, produced, and engaged.
Thurman Grant is a Los Angeles based architect and educator who specializes in residential and commercial architecture and interiors. Since 2005, he has been an adjunct faculty member at the Woodbury School of Architecture, teaching at its Burbank campus, as well as through the university’s programs in Italy and China. Grant has contributed to a long list of built residential, commercial, institutional and urban design projects, as well as award-winning design competitions in the United States and Asia. Grant is the former president of the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, where he sat on the board of directors from 2009-2013. His first independent exhibition, a collaborative on-site installation with artist Olivia Booth at the MAK Center for Art & Architecture at the Schindler House, was part of Schindler Lab, Round 1 in spring 2011.
Joshua G. Stein is the founder Radical Craft and the co-director of the Data Clay Network, a forum for the exploration of digital techniques applied to ceramic materials. Radical Craft is a Los Angeles-based studio that advances an experimental design practice saturated in history, archaeology and craft. This inquiry inflects the production of urban spaces and artifacts by evolving newly grounded approaches to the challenges posed by virtuality, velocity, and globalization. Stein has received numerous grants, awards, and fellowships, including multiple grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the AIA Upjohn research award. He was a 2011 Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture and is Professor of Architecture at Woodbury University where he also directs the Institute of Material Ecologies (T-IME).
www.radical-craft.com | www.data-clay.org