With our Frank Gehry buildings and iconic downtown landmarks, Angelenos know great architecture when they see it. Or at least great architecture in the sense of what's conventionally accepted as pleasing to the eye. Few people would argue the magnificence of Union Station or the Walt Disney Concert Hall — these are the buildings tourists love to take selfies in front of and that professors nerd out over.

But what about the overlooked underdogs, the buildings that don’t make it onto lists of top architectural sites in the city? Surely they deserve some love, too.

Thurman Grant and Joshua G. Stein decided to focus on one seriously forgotten (and often hated) structure: the dingbat. Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis reflects on the importance of the dingbat in thinking about the urbanization of Los Angeles and the making of a metropolis — even while some naysayers might call it a blight on the architectural beauty of the city.

Most Angelenos might not know what the word dingbat even means, but plenty of us live in one. A classic sight in the city, the dingbat consists of a carport with apartments above it. They are the buildings that house only a few tenants as opposed to the high-rise or courtyard buildings that house many more. 

The box-shaped buildings first emerged in the 1950s and '60s with evocative names like the Capri or the Palms. Dingbat 2.0 takes a scholarly approach to this structure. Published in conjunction with the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design — where both Grant and Stein served as board members — the book counts history, nostalgia, safety and preservation among its themes.

Chapters include sociological explorations such as “The Veneer of Nostalgia: Dingbat Life in Slums of Beverly Hills,” by Stein, and historical investigations such as “Deeply Superficial: Excavating the Dingbat From the Art and Architecture Canon” by Barbara Bestor.

Credit: Photo © James Black, 2016

Credit: Photo © James Black, 2016

While it's regarded as objectively ugly to many critics, the authors argue that the dingbat is an important part of the city’s history and architectural heritage, though they still acknowledge what the criticism is all about.

“It’s long been a sort of fetishized object among architects because it’s sort of a lowbrow building type,” Grant says. “Like the dumbest building that has this aspirational façade on it.”

As Grant points out, the dingbat design hinges largely on this feeling of aspiration. It mimics “high-modern architecture” and all the things that might attract an urban dweller to Los Angeles — palm trees, clean midcentury lines, bright colors. Some dingbats were even modeled to resemble French chateaus.  

“It’s this gesture toward the American Dream of owning your own property where you can park your car in the driveway and then walk up to your front door,” says Grant. “It’s a little more aspirational than, say, living in a 40-unit stucco monster where you park underground and go up an elevator and down a corridor into your apartment and there’s less of a sense of a small, tight-knit community.”

But as time passes and the city grows denser, many detractors figure dingbats are better off being torn down, and not just for aesthetic reasons. A new law calls for the retrofitting of wooden buildings for better safety against earthquakes in areas like the San Fernando Valley. More than 13,000 soft-story buildings have been identified by city officials as potentially in need or retrofitting. Many of these are dingbats.

Grant predicts that many owners will prefer to tear down entire buildings and build more modern ones (with more units) instead of dealing with the cost of improving the dingbats as they stand.

Credit: Photo © James Black, 2016

Credit: Photo © James Black, 2016

Most architects seem to figure that's the best solution, too. Dingbat 2.0's release coincided with a design competition of the same name in which designers, urbanists and architects were asked to “envision a future for the dingbat and the city it blankets,” as the book explains. The competition included more than 80 teams that took on the challenge of re-envisioning “the dingbat apartment, and in so doing, offer a revised vision for Los Angeles itself.”

Grant estimates that 50 to 70 percent of the teams thought the best solution was just to tear the dingbats down. But with the publication of Dingbat 2.0, Grant hopes that the discussion will be broader, and that other solutions will be brainstormed, along with ideas for preservation. For Grant, the dingbat “can be considered an icon of the 20th century, in all its kitschy glory.” Tearing it down would take away an essential part of Los Angeles history.

“At the very end there is a section called 'Post-Dingbats' where we say, yeah, dingbats were criticized for, you know, maybe tearing down an old Craftsman house or something and replacing it with a dumb box,” says Grant. “But then after 30 or 40 years the dumb boxes get torn down and they’re replaced with bigger, uglier, dumber boxes that a lot of people refer to as stucco monsters. That becomes this example of 'be careful what you wish for' in terms of which would you rather have.”

There will be a public reception for Dingbat 2.0 on Saturday, April 30, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Jai & Jai Gallery,  648 N. Spring St., Chinatown.

LA Weekly