Editor’s Note: Today’s essay is the second contribution to the Lower Modernisms project by Russ Holthouse – his first post was on the topic of Popular Modernism. Russ and I visited the GVCA together on October 30, 2011, and share credit for the photography. I consider the GVCA to be a tremendous find (and please note, now leasing!), and I nominate this essay for Lomo Post of the Year. –JAB
Although the expressed purpose of this blog is to delve into the unexplored Lower Modernist typologies, it is increasingly clear that to accomplish this thoroughly, one must occasionally venture off on a tangent that may not be immediately identifiable as modernist at all. Lomo is populist, after all, and populism demands a big canon. It follows that the subject of today’s post is the Green Valley Circle Apartments, appropriately located at 5830 Green Valley Circle at the edge of Culver City, near the remodeled Fox Hills Mall. The Culver City GIS site suggests it was completed in 1972.
I chanced to pass the G.V.C.A. several weeks ago when road construction on Sepulveda Boulevard forced me into what was an initially very frustrating detour. But then, there it was! Lurking behind some pines like a Yeti made of giant architecture. At first blush, the G.V.C.A. appears to be an example of the Gourmet Mansardic, albeit one positioned at the extreme end of that particular idiom’s reach in terms of shear scale and exoticism. I won’t delve into Gourmet Mansardic’s etymology, its stylistic differences from the orthodox mansardic, or the appropriateness of its presence on an avowed Lomo website, as these topics have all been aptly dealt with by my host, particularly in posts #11 and #22.
Speeding past, I was initially taken with the scale of the structure’s mansardic forms, one wing of which is fronted by a fully 2+ story mansardic plane, which stretches from the street level to the top of the parapet. When I had the opportunity to return several weeks later, I was pleased to see that the G.V.C.A. was not merely a large stucco box fronted by a pretend mansard roof, dingbat-style, but is actually a large complex of considerable stylistic integrity that employs the mansardic form as a device throughout.
The G.V.C.A. is approximately U-shaped, and the two legs of the U define a courtyard on the Green Valley Circle side. The courtyard contains a pool, and is screened from the relatively high-traffic street by a number of pines and a fence with a mansard-roofed pavilion for pedestrian entry at its center. On both sides, driveways dive below grade to provide access to parking. Consequently, at the alley at the back of the site, the structure stands a full level higher than it appears at its principle elevation. The courtyard and parkway along the street are nicely landscaped, with interior walking paths formed out of river-rock concrete. To my eye, the overall impression is somewhat Adirondack.
Although the overall massing is roughly symmetrical, the articulation of the three wings differs substantially. In addition to the mansardic roof forms, which are shingled here in a rusticating fashion, many of the street-facing walls consist of battered stucco planes. This begs the question – if the entirety of a building, starting at grade, is contained within a mansard ‘roof,’ is it really a mansard at all? Or is it just a battered wall with shingles on it? This is where things start to get really tricky. As the reader will no doubt recall from posting #11, one of the principle differences between Gourmet and orthodox mansardic is that in the Gourmet Mansardic diagram, the roof form is basically an applied parapet (though one through which punched or dormer windows are sometimes inserted), while an orthodox mansard actually describes an interior volume. While various previous mansardic revivals, in particular those found atop New York skyscrapers and Parisian apartments, may have had their way with other less significant mansardic conceits, they typically maintain the integrity of the mansard roof as a container for space. Of course, in these cases, the need for a mansardic-shaped spatial arrangement was dictated by code, and the designers simply returned to an already established mode of dressing the resultant ziggurat-shaped section. The differentiation of the top parts of these structures from merely battered walls is achieved by their identifiably roof-like cladding and detailing. This is essentially what happens at the G.V.C.A. However, the reading is intentionally confused here by juxtaposing the mansardic volume in the same elevational plane as the battered walls.
The G.V.C.A. also has secondary features that are worth noting. There is some kind of truncated A-frame form that is employed at least three times, one on each point of the U, and once in the middle, where it acts as a central tower of perhaps circulatory nature. James thought these looked half-dormer, and half-John Woolf doorway, and I suspect if one were arguing about direct precedents, he would be correct. However, the scale and texture of the G.V.C.A. is so utterly un-Hollywood Regency that I have a hard time thinking that Woolf could have had much more than a subconscious influence on the designer. The flat-topped A-forms are somehow much more elemental than Woolf’s fussy Regency entries, and I instinctively identified them as being of more Adirondack or Germanic origin, or something, though I would be hard pressed to identify a definite precedent in either style.
I was further impressed by the anonymous designer’s continuation of the mansardic form in various places where one does not expect to find it. Shingled, angled ‘mansardic planes’ are used to terminate balconies and decorate various jogs in the structure’s massing. This suggests that the mansardic form is in fact up for grabs as a decorative device in a fashion even more superficial than its typical Gourmet Mansardic use.
Examination of this detail enables us to decode the whole scheme. The G.V.C.A. decontextualizes the mansard roof to the extent that the explicit symbolism of the revived historical form begins to evaporate. Mansard roof-shape + mansard roof cladding simply become another Lomo formal/material combination, like the textured block wall, steel bent, or folded stucco roof plate. The G.V.C.A. is a postmodern outlier project than can instruct us about both the Gourmet Mansardic and the Lower Modern, although it is not exactly either. I would argue that here, exploded to a heroic scale and myriad uses, the form may have more in common with Giant Object architecture than with either of these.