Wendy Gilmartin Loves LA’s Ugly Buildings

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Landscape image of Days Inn
Days Inn Hotel in Santa Monica; photo, Avishay Artsy (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” as they say, and many find themselves written into our buildings, which are the mute expressions of their makers, their time and the forces of economics and politics. Sometimes those forces produce buildings generally accepted to be “beautiful.” Mostly, the results are fairly banal, or downright “ugly.”

Wendy Gilmartin is an architect and writer who studies, tours and finds the charm in the ugly, or the “fugly,” as she sometimes calls them, buildings in our own naked city of Los Angeles. She’s written about them — and lovelier architecture — in L.A. Weekly, Artbound and “LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas,” published by Hey Day Press earlier this year.

On Saturday, October 17th, some of LAtitude’s authors will be giving tours around the city, and Gilmartin’s will take people around some ugly buildings in the San Fernando Valley, pointing out the stories behind such places as Carlito’s Way Lounge, Tri-Star Carwash, a bank that looks like a Taco Bell, and the Springbok South African Grill.

But Gilmartin is also a practicing architect, with her firm FAR (her partners Mark Frohn and Mario Rojas are based in Berlin and Santiago de Chile), and this Sunday she will present her firm’s ideas for an artists’ senior community in Salton Sea, at a “Big City Forum” focusing on ideas stimulated by the L.A. 2050 initiative.

Wendy Gilmartin; photo, Frances Anderton

DnA caught up with Wendy Gilmartin in front of one of her favorite “ugly” buildings, and learned about the good and the bad in the ugly, as well as what motivates her own work.

Her choice was the Days Inn Hotel at 3007 Santa Monica Boulevard at Stanford Street in Santa Monica.

DnA: So why did you pick this building?

Wendy Gilmartin: It’s a standout example of misfit L.A. architecture. It’s got strawberry and vanilla vertical stripes going up and down the building and it’s cloaked in stucco. It has some strangely placed, geometric, filigree detail. And I would guess that parking may have made the massing a little bit of a problem. But it seems to be sort of an exuberant building too, though, and every time I drive past this building it puts a smile on my face.

DnA: It seems very postmodern. You’ve said that people will drive past and notice it. However isn’t your goal to take the buildings that either people don’t notice because they are generic or they are just plain ugly, and people pass them by without giving them much thought?

Wendy notes that Days Inn has some Miami flourishes.
Wendy notes that Days Inn has some Miami flourishes. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

WG: What I love about this conversation is there are many beautiful buildings in L.A. There are historic buildings in L.A. that are preserved and maintained by conservancy groups and other groups like that. There are buildings that are newly designed with million dollar budgets and design teams and countless consultants and those buildings are written about and talked about.

Then there’s this other 99 percent of everything that we drive by and walk past and we do our groceries in and take our dog to the vet there. We interact with them on a daily basis. And to look at those in a critical way and to invite anyone to be a critic, not just designers or architects or architecture writers, is really the end goal of the “ugly buildings” project.

DnA: But who defines what is ugly?

WG: Oh, it’s in the eye of the beholder, just as beauty is, right? It’s a completely subjective endeavor and my opinion isn’t the right one. Your opinion isn’t the right one. It’s what anyone chooses and that’s why I really like going out on these tours.

People will come up to me and ask me what I think is the ugliest building in L.A., but then I ask them the same question. And I really like where that conversation gets us. I think talking about an ugly building gets to issues of economics and real estate development and history and the city. And then we project our own likes and dislikes on them.

Beverly Center, Wendy Gilmartin's pick for one of LA's ugliest buildings.
Beverly Center, Wendy Gilmartin’s pick for one of LA’s ugliest buildings. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: But I have to ask, what do you think is the ugliest building in L.A.?

WG: That’s a hard one. I usually tend to say The Beverly Center and those Geoff Palmer developments with the sort of Italianate icing around the facades.

DnA: Both of those are very large and perhaps scale plays into what might make them ugly.

WG: Scale and massing are obviously an issue with any building. You don’t want a building that blocks out the sun. You don’t want a building that feels uncomfortable approaching it as a pedestrian on the street. I think color is something else I think about. But I’m not a New Urbanist. I don’t think that a building has to completely match its entire neighborhood.

DnA: The other day I saw Geoff Palmer speak and met people who were admirers of his buildings. The architecture community does tend to have a different value system for buildings than the so-called lay person. Is that something that you might be bringing to the table inadvertently?

WG: I hope not!

One thing that happened at the L.A. Weekly in terms of the blog is that we picked a Best Western hotel in West L.A. and we put a question mark at the end of the headline and asked, is this the ugliest building in West L.A.? Is this the ugliest motel in West L.A.? We were astonished at how the Comments section just blew up: ‘Well, no it’s not this one, it’s this one,’ ‘no, I think it’s this one.’ Or ‘you should check out this one,’ ‘hey guys, you know, you’re stupid, you should definitely see this other ugly motel,’ and it started this conversation online in the comment section which is usually just folks screaming and yelling at one another but it was amazing to me to realize what people think about their territory.

Wells Fargo in San Fernando Valley; its similarity to Taco Bell reflects changing roles for banks in the 1980s, says Wendy Gilmartin.
Wells Fargo in San Fernando Valley; its similarity to Taco Bell reflects changing roles for banks in the 1980s, says Wendy Gilmartin. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: So tell us about some of the other buildings that you’ve singled out for your tour.

WG: So the tour will actually be in Van Nuys in the heart of the Valley and one building we will be looking at is a Wells Fargo bank that looks just like a Taco Bell. It really does. If it was late at night and you were tired and you wanted a burrito you may mistakenly drive into this Wells Fargo parking lot.

So we’ll be looking at that and the reasons why we don’t have these grand home savings banks anymore. Why do we have a Wells Fargo on a street corner in the valley that looks like a Del Taco?

There are solid concrete, historical, economic and real estate development reasons.

DnA: What are all those reasons?

WG: In the ’80s and ’90s banks overall switched tactics to keep customers and the new methodology to keep customers was to offer ATM machines and quick ins and out, and then migrate all the loan business and all that to a larger district. So you have these little structures that popped up that really are like a fast food bank.

We will also be walking past an old Googie car wash which I don’t really think is ugly. I think it’s sort of a homegrown L.A. type of thing but it’s a curiosity now, and it’s been renovated a couple times.

DnA: So it sounds like you are interested in the ugly/beautiful, and you have a bit of a love affair with these buildings.

WG: Look, I wrote this in the LAtitude book and I’ve said this before — they’re kind of like us. They’re flawed. They may be hiding behind some beige stucco so as not to be noticed. They may be outfitting themselves in spikes so that they don’t get birds pooping and they may be worn down and not aging as well as the original owner anticipated. They’re there, they’re flawed, they’re contaminated. But I find that sometimes they’re more interesting than a completely thought-out, unflawed building or structure.

Excerpt from cover of Latitudes
Excerpt from cover of LAtitudes(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What you’re getting at is something that distinguishes L.A. from so-called great cities or great capitals. One goes to Paris expecting pretty much every building to be marvelous.

WG: L.A.’s not like that. We can’t forget that Paris looks that way because it was mostly built during the time of [Baron] Haussmann. That was under a dictator whereas we actually are the wild frontier out here. We are free. As homeowners and entrepreneurial builders we can build almost anything we want to, we’re allowed to build a Frankenstein. We have a very weak mayor and a lot of our laws are set forth by committee. And so there has not been a heavy hand in planning in L.A. or zoning in L.A. And what that creates is this free reign aesthetic.

DnA: Is it good news or bad news to see the emergence of more and more design review and also preservation? Is that stymying this free reign?

WG: I don’t think so. It’s a big, big city. There’s room for all of it.

DnA: Was there an era in the history of L.A. that made more ugly buildings?

WG: I don’t know if there’s an era in particular that produced ugly buildings in L.A. but I will say, and I write about this in the Latitudes book: Proposition 13. I think we all understand how that affected local municipalities in terms of public parks and streets and education and schools. But what I don’t know if all of us understand is that Prop 13 caused local municipalities to turn to sales tax for for revenue and that increased the amount of shopping malls, strip malls and big boxes.

But what I like about that is we can look at a building and say it looks that way because of something we’ve voted on, and that’s very important.

Archipelago, conceptual design by FAR (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: What is your vision for for beautiful building?

WG: Oh wow, well look, a beautiful building is one that’s very thoughtful and has meaning for the city. It has meaning for the block it’s on and it’s agreeable to hopefully all the stakeholders involved. It has — you and I have discussed the classic ideal of Vitruvius — “strength, utility and beauty.”

DnA: Let’s pivot to your own work. You spend a lot of time chewing over other people’s buildings; now tell us about what you’re working on, some of which is going to be presented this Sunday.

WG: I’ll be presenting work that my partners Mark Frohn and Mario Rojas and I have been working on in terms of the L.A. 2050 initiative.

We been looking into mixed housing and alternate housing for aged communities. And we’ve done some research with an artist community in L.A. that is raising money and organizing to build a retirement community out in the desert which we’re working on with them.

DnA: What will make this community different from the traditional retirement home?

WG: So the traditional assisted living home, as we all sort of picture in our minds is this room with cloth table cloths and beige and pink paint on the on the walls, It’s a model that essentially came into being in the 1970s and 80s. It’s been a very long time since anyone really proposed an alternative to that.

The artists — all from CalArts — came to us asking us to work on a couple workshops for them. This idea started actually started out as a little bit of an art project for them, a performance art piece for them. They want to raise money for a retirement community at the Salton Sea and we have joined their team. We are in, we can go there when we’re old if we want to.

It’s a sort of a commune-based idea. But pens have not hit paper yet. And that’s the thing with with this research we’re doing is we really want to get to know these artists. We want to get to know how they organize themselves, and what hierarchies they’ve built into their community now. And build a community out of that.

You can find out more about Wendy Gilmartin’s tour, which is presented by LA Commons, here. See below for details about the presentation of her own work:

Big City