Rediscovering Los Angeles Walk Streets
Repairing the Social Contract
It would be claiming too much for Kirkpatrick's houses to say they restore the neighborliness of the walk streets. Individual buildings by themselves cannot change entire neighborhoods or belief systems. But buildings can reinforce a sense of order that already exists, even one that is waning.
The Titus house attempts to be friendly, even inviting, to pedestrians by offering them a low masonry wall to sit on. It is not a perfect solution. The invitation, however well intended, seems ambiguous. It still feels intrusive to sit on someone else's front steps.
Architecturally, the Titus House is a handsome, Viennese-flavored composition of minimally detailed stucco and inset wooden window frames, with a deeply indented front entrance. Pushing back the front door divides the front elevation into two masses, and creates more opportunities for windows on the front elevation.
The lots on the walk streets are generally only about 30 feet (9 meters) wide, and architects must maintain the fine line between making an effective elevation in a narrow space and overwhelming the street with something too emphatic.
The Escobar house, an abstract version of Mediterranean with punched openings, announces its presence without sticking an elbow in its neighbor's ribs. The Rudolf Schindler-influenced Geller house, while ingenious for juxtaposing horizontal balconies with the vertical shaft of the stairwell, risks overpowering its shorter neighbors.
Equally assertive is the Droke house, which has the advantage of being situated on a 45-foot- (14-meter-) wide lot allowing more elbow room for its sculptural gestures. The south-facing elevation is pointed away from the beach to avoid the blustery, oceanfront wind. Aesthetically, the street elevation is flawed by a chimney stack that is too prominent in an elevation otherwise dominated by glass and deeply indented voids.
Whatever its limitations, the Droke house makes a modest, if meaningful, gesture to the walk street: a drinking fountain. The owner had grown up in a beachfront home, and wanted to provide an amenity to passersby that he remembered from childhood. Almost invisible in a photograph of the house and not really an architectural element, the tiny drinking fountain sends a resonant message about the willingness of at least some of Manhattan Beach residents to trust and even welcome pedestrians.
The fountain is one of many gestures that give Kirkpatrick's best work a street-friendly character. Taken as a group, these houses help Manhattan Beach hold on to what is left of the imperiled social character of the walk streets.
Morris Newman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer with a degree in architecture from UCLA. He has been on the masthead of both Progressive Architecture and Architecture magazines and contributes regularly to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, GRID, Metropolis, Landscape Architecture, LA Architect, and others.