New Orleans has the shotgun house. San Francisco has the earthquake shack. Los Angeles has the dingbat. Cities are defined by their unofficial architecture as much as by the celebrated stuff—the St. Charles Avenue manses, the Pink Ladies, the Case Study Houses.
Which is why a group of architects and critics have banded together to produce a critical study of dingbats, those simple wood-frame stucco apartment buildings that sprang up all over Los Angeles in the 1950s and early '60s. The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture & Urban Design (LA Forum) recently launched a $12,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund the book Dingbat 2.0, which features essays by Barbara Bestor and Wim de Wit, plus a photo essay by longtime dingbat chronicler Judy Fiskin.
Though the dingbat caught on in other parts of the West and in the South, “It certainly feels more LA than anything else,” says architect Joshua G. Stein, a Dingbat 2.0 co-editor with fellow architect Thurman Grant. “The Case Study Houses feel quintessentially LA, but that’s not what most people live in.”
Common dingbat types. Photos: James Black
Like the strip mall, the dingbat capitalized on Angelenos’ romance with the automobile. The format is essentially an inhabitable parking structure, with two or three stories of living space sheltering a ground-level carport. Embellishments like French mansard roofs and Streamline Moderne façades introduce variety, but honor the bland predictability of the box underneath. Like starlets striving to be noticed, many announce their names in whimsical midcentury script—the Camelot, the Wilshire, and, hilariously, the Crapi. Their signature embellishment is usually a star, diamond, or other geometric flourish.
The term “dingbat” was popularized in the 1970s by the British architectural historian Reyner Banham, and it certainly calls to mind the playful printers' ornaments known as dingbats. But the origin of the name is unclear, explains Stein: “There’s some confusion as to whether it’s about a particular typographical element or the nature of these facades in general—almost like all of these different facades yelling at their loudest but not necessarily saying anything coherent.”
Photo: James Black
Like thousands of transplants before him, Stein lived in a dingbat when he first moved to LA, in 1997. His dingbat was called Dee’s, after the landlord, and it even had the requisite palm tree out front. (As a new arrival in California, I lived in a plain-fronted Silicon Valley version of the dingbat. I often found myself staring across the street at the mirror image of my building, flanked by palm trees that accentuated the structure’s blandness while also seeming to sell it.)
That blandness is part of what appealed to Ed Ruscha when he filled his 1965 photobook Some Los Angeles Apartments with dingbats. Outside the realm of Pop art and the rental histories of quite a few LA architects—“We all lived in them at some point,” says Stein—“dingbat” refers either to a zany typeface or a dolt. “Even in Los Angeles, people might live in a dingbat and not know that word,” he says.
Photo: Judy Fiskin
Photo: Andrew Murr
Stein and Grant hope the book stokes critical, and possibly popular, appreciation for an overlooked type and a particular cultural moment. “What made the dingbat so prevalent was that anybody who owned a piece of land could put one up,” says Stein. Building just two or three stories required the simplest of foundations, and a wood and stucco box was easy for a prospective landlord to plan and build. But after a heyday of seven short years, the dingbat was felled by the very forces that brought it to power: cars. In 1964, new zoning rules required more parking than a building on stilts could provide. The only direction to go was underground—an expensive requirement that, Stein explains, all but handed residential development to larger investors.
The demise of the dingbat signaled the rise of another apartment trend: the stucco beast. Developers bought up dingbat lots and put up taller buildings at the scale of half a block. If the dingbat retains a hint of the detached-house form and the open space of a yard (even if it is filled with concrete), the stucco beast calls to mind a Holiday Inn.
“A lot of people have talked about the dingbat as the consolation prize for the American dream, in that it still pretends to be a single-family house,” says Stein. He points to the dingbats’ balance between density and outdoor space, and their pedestrian-friendly scale—even if most pedestrians are only walking between the garage and the stairs.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: James Black
Midcentury nostalgia aside, are dingbats really all that lovable? The vernacular of 50 years ago will always look quaint next to the vulgarities of today. Plus, when a type’s identity is rooted in its ubiquity, how does its slow disappearance change its image? At some point doesn’t a dingbat cease to be a dingbat and become just another "Crapi" house?
Stein, for his part, walks a careful line between fondness and pragmatism. “I do get sad when dingbats get torn down without a conscious decision to put up something better,” he says. “I don’t think every dingbat needs to be preserved, but I think we should understand what we are replacing dingbats with and be conscious of how it changes the city.”