Rediscovering Los Angeles Walk Streets
Many surrounding houses have dormer windows, some of them so crudely detailed as to suggest the windows were added as "home improvements" long after the original construction. In the Ascher house, the dormers display careful wood detailing, so as to resemble something like an open-air porch of a traditional California bungalow that has been enclosed in glass after the fact — a common sight in older Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Although much of the elevation is generic stucco, Kirkpatrick has covered a portion of the wall with clapboard siding to abide by the wishes of the owner, who has memories of clapboard-covered beach housing of the eastern seaboard. Surrounded by stucco wall, the clapboard is unapologetically presented purely as a surface, but still conveys the East Coast allusion without falsifying the building. In short, Kirkpatrick has taken a vernacular form and made it into architecture. The building elevates and adds meaning to everything around it.
Although Kirkpatrick has received major nonresidential commissions, much of his work centers on houses in the "beach cities" of Los Angeles County — a necklace of affluent, waterfront communities that start about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Santa Monica and continue south to Long Beach.
The walk streets of Manhattan Beach, which date from the first two decades of the 20th century, are arranged perpendicular to the ocean and to the vehicular through streets. The pedestrian streets lead to the beach while all parking, trash pick-up, and deliveries are relegated to rear alleys.
This type of pedestrian-only street has become an ideal of "new urbanism" because it separates home life from traffic and creates an implicitly social setting for housing. In many cases, these houses were originally modest seaside bungalows with low fences separating the public walkway from the shallow front yards of the houses.
The close proximity of housing to a highly public walkway relies on a kind of unwritten "social contract" between residents and outsiders. The boundaries between public and private are clearly delineated, but are not enforced by high walls or barking dogs or what property managers like to call "anti-personnel planting."
The social contract of the walk streets, instead, is simply that passersby respect the privacy of homeowners. The dual nature of the street is reinforced by a local ordinance that designates the first 10 feet (3 meters) in front of the houses as a public easement. Homeowners are allowed to plant gardens or even extend their yards to the easement line, but the fence must remain low — no higher than two feet (60 centimeters) — presumably to preserve the spacious feeling of the narrow streets. As the edge between public and private, the design of the easements is important to the social quality of the walk streets.
Surviving Real Estate Trends
Like much of the Los Angeles-area waterfront, the beach cities started life mostly as enclaves of the lower middle class. During the explosive growth of the region following World War II, however, the desirable oceanfront areas became expensive and exclusive.
Higher real estate values in recent years have also led to the "mansionization" of the beachfront cottages and the influx of an unfortunate suburban sense of privatism and paranoia. It would be too simplistic to say that rich people have spoiled the neighborliness and social contract of the walk streets. Much has happened in the past century, both to society and to the social meaning of real estate, to account for those changes, with or without mansionization.
But the big new houses, ranging from sophisticated seafront villas to crudely executed medieval castles, are rarely designed with either the street scale or the pedestrian in mind. Some homeowners erect tall, opaque fences that are plainly out of character with the public nature of the walk streets.
Others plant gardens of tropical density to keep intruders away from the windows. Sometimes the street-front elevation of a house is a windowless wall, the architectural equivalent of a keep-out sign. A sense of neighborliness and the implied social contract are often lost along with human scale.