Everyone knows what American automobile design of the 1950s was all about – fins, chrome, swelling curves combined with sharp angles for sex appeal. It is equally clear that the average Nissan Sentra from the 1970s wasn’t trying as hard to seduce customers with visual stunts. The same could be said of popular modernism, especially in Los Angeles during the same eras.

The exuberant modernistic design of the 1950s is already vanishing – witness the disappearance of the Sunset Strip Googies and the Westwood Ships.  But just as the turquoise trapezoids disappear around the bend, popular appetite for modernistic ornamentalism rears its triangular neon-lit head once again.  There is clearly a whole new generation of buildings which display a similar decorative approach to architecture.  It is possible to lay claim to some sort of local tradition of cosmetic facades, composed of additive decorative components, that links the popular modernistic work of different decades. The first article in a two-part series will examine their spiritual ancestor, the stucco box, while reserving a discussion of present day pop modern multiple unit housing developments for the second installment.

Southern California is famous as the land of the single-family house – that is where all of our best and most interesting work has traditionally been done.  Not nearly as much attention has been paid to multi-family housing. Yet, while observers tend to notice most the randomness of Los Angeles, there are indeed ordered and coherent districts comprising multiple housing from particular eras.  The much-maligned stucco box deserves analysis by virtue of its ubiquity and its role as a repetitive module in the urban fabric, if for no other reason.  While we can be easily distracted by both the banality and kitsch aspects of stucco boxes, it is clear that they presented a housing type that suited builder and customer alike, proliferating widely during a major era of Los Angeles’ development.

First, to define the stucco box apartment as discussed here. Stucco box apartment houses (aka dingbats) were generally 2 to 3 story stuccoed wood framed buildings containing 4 to 16 units.  Most were constructed in the 1950s and early 1960s by small investors on single or paired 50 foot wide lots, although some had 70 or more units and were built by contractor-owners or investment syndicates.  The prime of the stucco box was between 1954, when it was spurred by the popularity of modernism, the post-World War II housing boom, and the mass-production of aluminum frame sliding windows, and 1960, when more rigorous parking requirements and changing tastes signaled its eventual demise.

The buildings raise many issues. They throw into question conventional notions of architectural truth and integrity. The straightforwardness of the buildings’ stucco-skinned frames versus the additive quality of their ornament can be viewed as offensively superficial or as an opposition (a dialectic, some might even say) so rigorously organized as to qualify as high art. This aesthetic approach may be termed “cosmetic design.”

The fundamental rule of cosmetic design is that its visual impression is not determined by its formal or architectonic order. Look, the building says, I am nothing without decoration. The building acts as a 3-dimensional canvas for graphic patterns or abstract ornament unrelated to the organization of the building. This disparity was undoubtedly a result of expedience – it was far easier and cheaper to customize buildings with decorative appliqués on standardized plans, construction methods, and materials rather than to unite plan and elevation in any sort of novel way.  Thanks to the simplicity of their materials and their straightforward Type V construction, stucco box apartment houses were among the cheapest ($8-10/s.f.) multiple-family housing that could be constructed.

Accommodation of cars was critical to the design of the stucco box. Not only did parking requirements limit the number of units and, thus size of the stucco box (unless builders resorted to costly underground parking). If required on the street façade, the second floor would often float on thin pipe columns above the void of the carport to become a light machine-made object separate from the landscape in characteristically high modern fashion. The automobile, then, became the focus of display at eye level and, thus, part of the architecture. (In some cases, this arrangement took on an almost uncanny aspect of pop homage to Le Corbusier’s 1920s and 30s villas, particularly when strip windows were joined together with a molding surround.)

Yet builders of stucco boxes did not content themselves with minimal functional design. Although the pragmatic rear and side facades presented planar, unornamented, severely modern compositions that would have been comfortable in German housing exhibition of the 1920s and 30s, the decorative program for the front of the stucco box was the most important component of its identity. Stucco box designers developed a whole battery of highly original abstract effects that arose directly out of the nature of stucco as a medium. They scored it in stripes and grids and painted it in contrasting colors. They scattered dark-colored sand or grit over light-colored walls to create a smoky overland and embedded small chips of pumice for textural interest.

Ornamental vocabulary was frequently related to exuberant populuxe car design or borrowed from the local tradition of high art architecture being produced by John Lautner and Lloyd Wright and reduced to two-dimensional graphic patterns. Popular motifs for stucco boxes included decorative scoring of stucco, planes or reliefs of fieldstone or gridded stucco, boomerang kidney shapes, picture bands around windows that effectively altered their proportions or banded several windows into one, and the use of individual iconic elements such as starburst and swag lamps.

Occasionally period revival elements were used, but in shorthand, as iconographic references only. For instance, although the roof of the stucco box was often flat, hipped or low-pitched gable roofs were used where builders wanted to project a more conventional ideal of domesticity. Butterfly roofs were sometimes used to signify modernity.

The lighting and landscaping of the stucco box were as exhibitionistic as the ornament. Plants were selected for their dramatic silhouettes, such as dracena and sago palms, and were often isolated as sculptural objects or graphic accents. The naming of individual stucco box buildings was equally as important. Many of their builders were small investors and took personal pride in their constructions, naming them as they would a boat, “Melody Ann”, for instance. Or their names served as important vehicles for theming. They frequently had escapist connotations of resort hotels (the Algiers, the Fountain Blu) or desert casinos (the Sands, the Palms, the Dunes, etc.).

Ultimately, the most striking visual aspects of stucco boxes were their disregard of conventional architectural integration of form and ornament and the boldness of their patterning—both elements are readily discernible in recent multiple unit development projects.

Note: Portions of this article appeared as “The Stucco Box” by John Chase and John Beach in Home Sweet Home, ed. Kathryn Smith and Charles Moore.

John Chase

Back to May 1990 Newsletter