Almost every Angelino has a dingbat story. It might be a tale of love and loss in a sixties-era apartment complex or a joke about a friend who lived in stucco box in West L.A. with “stoner” scrawled across the façade in fancy script. Dignbats are such a common multifamily building type that we almost forget about them, even though they crop up everywhere across the Los Angeles basin. They are neighborhood infill noted by such keen observers of the built environment as Ed Ruscha and architecture historian Reyner Banham but rarely celebrated.
When I first moved to Southern California, I lived in a late-model dingbat not far from Dogtown. At night immodest sounds from the adjacent apartments would leak out into the central carport, bounce around a bit, and then pour back into my open window (a skinny aluminum-framed form with a screen). Sometimes I didn’t know if what I was hearing in my sleep was dream or reality. Surely, architectural photographer Julius Shulman wouldn’t deign to train his lens on the whole affair.
The dingbat wasn’t designed for collective living (as was the socialist, feminist, and communal Llano del Rio Colony designed by architect Alice Constance Austin in the Antelope Valley in 1914) but its construction — two stories of thin walls and cheap carpet — produced a chance, sometimes awkward collectivity.
Of course, dingbats are far from perfect structures. Their “soft story” open-air parking makes them susceptible to collapse in earthquakes. And changed parking regulations due to the rapid proliferation of higher-density apartment buildings, led to a less favorable development climate and, with other economic factors, the demise of the building type.
The example of the midcentury dingbat, however, reminds us that while we might think that Los Angeles is defined by its experimental houses — glass boxes perched high in the hills — multifamily housing has been here all along. Banham described the dingbat in “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” as “the true symptom of Los Angeles’ urban id trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusion of homestead living.”
In the recent publication “Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis,” architectural historian Steven A. Treffers writes that in the late 1950s the number of building permits issued for multifamily buildings exceeded those for single-family homes. Following his lead, it’s easy to rewrite a quick history of experimental architecture that foregrounds housing: we begin with Llano del Rio; then architect Irving Gill’s Horatio West Court (1919), six small homes around a central courtyard with shared parking; and R.M. Schindler’s two-family co-housing experiment on Kings Road, the Chase-Schindler House (1922) that’s now home to the MAK Center for Art and Architecture; or his 16-unit Manola Court Apartments (1926-1940) in Silver Lake.
Later, the same midcentury masters of the single-family house were also skilled authors of more collective living. Gregory Ain developed the Mar Vista track of “modernique” model homes, the same years he built the Avenel Cooperative Housing Project (1947-1948): ten three-bedroom attached units, each less than 1,000 square feet aligned in two neat rows on two 60-foot lots on a Silver Lake slope. Architect Raphael Soriano, best known for his use of modular steel framing, designed the 10-unit Colby Apartments (1951) using the same construction principles. The list goes on.
Today, multiunit housing is a sore spot; increased density a point of debate. Fights spring up over small-lot development with every new project. There’s a Change.org petition circulating in support of the Los Angeles City Council’s backing of accessory dwelling units (otherwise known as granny flats) with the hope that in modifying covered parking and setback requirements, homeowners could legally convert garages and add units to their properties.
While the city faces a critical housing shortage and rising rents make shelter increasingly precarious for renters, the proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure drafted by the anti-development Coalition to Preserve L.A. is fighting high-density projects, specifically luxury apartment towers planned for Hollywood. Their plan would put a two-year moratorium on projects that include General Plan amendments, which are granted by city officials for more height, or reduced parking. It would also impact small and mid-size development, including much-needed affordable housing.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking piece of our revised architectural timeline, and the project echoes in the heated disputes around the future of housing equity, is Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra’s housing plan Elysian Park Heights (1958). The scheme for Chavez Ravine, then home to a Mexican American community, is a reformist vision with a socialist heart. The progressive plan to transform the “slum” was met with anti-public housing opposition, which ultimately gave way to one of the biggest social injustices in the city’s history: the controversial razing of the original village and the construction of Dodger Stadium.
In “Dingbat 2.0,” editors Thurman Grant and Joshua G. Stein compiled reflections on the building type, including a telling gem from artist Gary Indiana, “[Dingbats] serve a palpable social need: as housing for people who want the option of reinvention.” Ours is a city of fluid architectural identity. The shape and future of L.A. depends on reassessing not our instinctual urban ID, but our ego. To understand the city’s true character is to accept Los Angeles as a dense metropolis predicated on housing over house.