The Fugly Neon Aquarium at 11280 W. Olympic Blvd.

The Fugly Neon Aquarium at 11280 W. Olympic Blvd.
Wendy Gilmartin

At the busy corner of Olympic and Sawtelle sits a banal retail center that's typical of Los Angeles' low commercial-development standards, complete with all the elements of conventional, early-'90s design and construction. You've got your beige block, your beige stucco, your storefront glass, your copper and teal accents. But this building has that extra something that sets it apart from the others; a garish, eye-popping feature that really makes it an outlier -- its giant, glowing neon aquarium-seascape scene that comes blazing to life each evening after the sun sets.

Beyond the corner aquarium feature, the building complex includes a Marshall's discount department store (which used to be a Linens n' Things) on top of a Starbucks, a Sushi Stop, Champagne Bakery and other office-adjacent lunch establishments, piled on one level of structured parking that stacks up to four levels in back -- all in the shadow of the 405 freeway.

11280 W. Olympic is essentially a four-level concrete-and-steel shed to hold cars while folks shop and eat at the stores and restaurants on the street, dressed up with a rainbow-colored sparkling seascape in an attempt to make the place more animated, warmer and a more desirable place to be. Other cold, beige and boring buildings around the area -- the Public Storage building across the street, for example -- specialize in storing people's crap temporarily. The Olympic Collection across the intersection also primarily serves as a parking structure for tenants on its periphery.

But the area's buildings haven't always served as holding tanks. The Sawtelle/Olympic area once housed actual people in neighborhood housing, and this exact lot was a testament to that minor achievement. For all the crap L.A. catches for its lack of planning and worse transit problems, the city has seen its share of achievements in housing (pop-up developments, swanky trailer parks and Quonset hut villages are a few examples), specifically transitional housing like the bungalows that used to sit at 11280 W. Olympic.

Flash back to before the 405 sliced the Westside in half -- back in the '50s -- and this same plot of land was home to a community of those typical bungalows that predated L.A.'s prolific stucco box "dingbat" apartments. The bungalows at Sawtelle and Olympic housed Japanese immigrants transitioning to single-family homes just as World War II vets moved in and settled with their newlyweds. Amazingly, these bungalows survived the construction of the 405 freeway (an anomaly in local history), and, until they were torn down in the late '80s, they stood as one of the Sawtelle neighborhood's last remaining blocks of low-income housing.

The last demographic group to call the bungalows home was Latino day laborers who worked the Armstrong nursery lot at Pico and Sawtelle (now a Best Buy). By that time, the bungalows had become supposed crime havens, with neighbors complaining of traffic, public drinking, loitering and lewd behavior; thus, several high-profile immigration raids occurred there before their eventual demolition.

Like most other nondescript strip malls in the city, 11280 W. Olympic pays no mind to its past and that's fine -- no one's asking it to become a museum to long-gone L.A. housing history -- but it does make the blinking jellyfish and sharks within the two-story glass cone on the corner seem trite at best and contextually questionable at worst. The dressing up of the corner of the mall mostly points to how dumbed-down development has become in the city, when you consider what was here before. It's as if the developers figured that if it gets covered in colorful flashing lights, no one will notice or care.

It should be noted that the artist commissioned to create the neon seascape is the heralded local neon master Michael Flechtner, whose work was featured on a U.S. postage stamp not long ago. His other (much greater) achievements include the renovation of the Pioneer Broach Co. sign off the 5 freeway in Commerce, and his "Year of the Rabbit" piece at the Museum of Neon Art. It's too bad Flechtner's talents were squandered here, achieving the architectural equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.

Follow me on Twitter at @fugly_buildings, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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