Homes That Look Like Big White Boxes Have Taken Over the Westside’s Landscape

The big house on the next block rose in 2014, startling in its size, its whiteness. The design was simple, almost austere—two rectangular stories and a balcony, the stucco expanse broken only by three wood-framed windows. In an older, mostly modest Westside neighborhood five miles east of the beach, it seemed an aberration. In fact, it was just the start. Today clones of that house stand on every street, hulking white squares, sometimes accented with black or gray, sometimes with wood. Inside they have five bedrooms and six baths, open floor plans and floating staircases along with a bonanza of window glass. The realtors’ fliers that regularly arrive at my door announce them as the latest and best in “modern” architecture: “luxury modern,” “coastal modern,” “modern masterpiece,” “reimagined modern designed jewel.”

The Great White Box (as I call this style) is slowly but inexorably transforming where I live. Its cookie-cutter looks and the astronomical prices it commands—most recent peak: $2.8 million—have filled me with wonder. All the boxes near me were built on spec by a constellation of individuals, companies, and mysterious LLCs. How had they all simultaneously decided to build nearly identical houses? In a city where the median home price is about $700,000 and median household income less than $58,000, that’s a 5-percenter question for sure (though—as GWBs spread through Venice, Mar Vista, south Santa Monica, Culver City, West Hollywood, Beverly Grove, and even parts of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver—not an idle one). It’s pretty clear how a fashion craze takes off: A model or celebrity wears a dress, TV and Instagram explode with images of it, H&M cranks out a version for $29.95. But who and what was behind this architectural steamroller? What human first gazed down the block of an aging postwar tract, slapped his or her forehead, and shouted, “By God, what this place needs is a box!”?

If there’s a specific person or dwelling from whose loins the GWB sprang, I never found it. The realtors, designers, and builders I asked seemed taken aback by the very question, replying with, essentially, “Dunno, but not me.”

“We’re not trendsetters,” said Jay Lappen of the Riviera Property Group, a six-year-old investment company specializing in new construction, particularly west of the 405. Small-scale West L.A. builder Yigal Sadgat was even more blunt: “I have no idea. I just follow what houses in the area have been selling. I put my finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing.”

The GWB seems not to have been planned as much as to have materialized out of a powerful cultural-economic convergence—think of those spots in the ocean where opposing currents smack to create monster waves. Building big is nothing new. Homes in L.A., as in the rest of the U.S., have been expanding for decades, even as the number of people who inhabit them shrinks.

In 1950 the average single-family American home was just 983 square feet. And even the latest round of local fighting over how big is too big is more than a decade old. The urge to demolish older homes and replace them with something grander spikes during economic booms; cases in point, the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2001 the Los Angeles Times reported that a recent demolition binge of 1,211 homes per year, or around three a day, had created a new sort of “ghost town in the city.” Stupendous, architecturally ambiguous McMansions replaced those specters, especially in some of L.A.’s pricier neighborhoods. In 2008 pushback from preservationists and neighbors left in shadow led the city to pass a “Baseline Mansionization Ordinance,” which aimed to put some limits on home-to-lot ratios. Tweaks and updates to the ordinance followed in subsequent years, each igniting fresh debate.

The current rush to bulldoze ’n’ build has unfolded at an even more frenzied pace. Nearly 8,000 L.A. residences were replaced between January 2013 and June 2017 (that’s an average of five a day, around half on the Westside.) Literally hundreds of the new homes, at $2 million per, have come from a single developer, Aliso Viejo-based Thomas James Homes, which Builder magazine admiringly called “one of the nation’s largest tear-down, scattered-lot, production builders.”

Since developers monitor what sells, these spec houses share a pattern, though three dominant variants seem to have emerged: the Cape Cod, with a steeply pitched roof and “coastal” feel; the Modern Farmhouse (slightly more rustic); and the GWB. All are white, feature open floor plans, and hit new levels of gigantitude. When the anti-mansionization movement began, the median size of a new L.A. home was 3,520 square feet; that’s where these babies start.

A cube is simple to construct, can be plopped almost anywhere, and accommodates the requisite bells and whistles an upwardly mobile buyer demands

Unlike the Cape Cod and Modern Farmhouse, designed for family living—“My builder won’t do a ‘modern’ here because it won’t sell,” one realtor told me at a Cheviot Hills open house—the GWB targets the two-income, no-kids hipster market. And it’s no coincidence that unlike its McPredecessors, known mostly for their size and opulence, the GWB uses the description “modern” to claim an elite aura and pedigree. (GWB style may be called “modern,” “modernist,” or “midcentury modern,” terms that have real and different meanings but that have become sloppy shorthand for anything with a flat roof and white walls.)

Modernism is one of L.A.’s few native architectural aesthetics, observes Dana Cuff, director of the UCLA architecture think tank CityLab. “The indoor-outdoor living that’s part of the modern tradition is a California model,” she says. It’s also one with zeitgeisty cachet. This popularity has varied roots: Mad MenDwell magazine, Design Within Reach, the casting off of maximalist ’90s glam for simplicity and vast expanses of white, and even the clean, spare lines of Apple products. More to the point, the style’s most passionate adherents are educated, wealthy, and youthful. Mollie Carmichael, a principal at the real estate, data, and technology advisory firm Meyers Research, pointed me to the results of her company’s survey of more than 6,000 new-home shoppers. Younger buyers overwhelmingly wanted a home with a “casual contemporary” interior and “modern” exterior, a preference, Carmichael says, that was especially strong in the “more affluent price points.”

Which brings us to Venice, possibly the GWB’s ground zero. Geometric neomodern architecture appeared here in a dramatic way in 2003 with Mark Mack’s Bay City Lofts, and it was a style well suited to a community that had money, lots too small for sprawling homes, and a reputation to uphold. In 2007, for example, a $2.25 million, three-story modern with a music studio, media room, and roof deck squeezed 3,154 square feet of living space onto a 2,250-square-foot lot. But it was the arrival of tech firms in 2010 and after that brought hordes of modern aficionados, “dual-income, educated, frankly moneyed buyers who were moving to L.A.,” as Joanna Leon, a designer for Riviera Property Group, described them. “Young buyers who loved contemporary design and wanted something that was very highly curated.”

As neomodernism spread through coastal neighborhoods, then into an increasingly large adjacent area that real estate magic made part of Silicon Beach, curation—perhaps inevitably—gave way. The architectural firm Marmol Radziner has specialized in modernist work for several decades and is known for a careful restoration of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. True modernism, in which a house and its setting exist in harmony, “is less a stylistic response than it is a way of living…a philosophical perspective,” founder Leo Marmol wrote in an email. It’s “about proportion, efficiency of materials…the relationship of the interior to the exterior garden.” Doing it right, he emphasized, requires “rich, deep, thoughtful design.”

But when 8,000 homes have been torn down to make way for updated models, and the point is return on investment (not artistic vision), rich, deep, and thoughtful is not a viable option. It’s not as easy as you might imagine to make money on a spec house, longtime Westside realtor Ron Wynn told me. He explained the economics: Take the cost of the teardown, the price of construction, the interest on the cash you must borrow to buy and build, and closing costs/commissions for selling the finished product—and putting up a 3,000-square-foot house in a hot Westside neighborhood will quickly set you back a few million. If you want to turn a respectable profit, you need to build something that goes up smoothly and sells fast. A cube is simple to construct, can be plopped almost anywhere, and accommodates the requisite bells and whistles an upwardly mobile buyer demands: en suite bathrooms, big closets, a kitchen full of gleaming quartz and chrome. Standardized plans and inexpensive finishes also save money.

Perhaps the resulting homes aren’t really a “slow, steady cancer upon the landscape,” as Marmol has called them. Yet the irony is that even as historical modernist designs are found wanting—in 2013 the Pacific Palisades Kingsley Residence that was the last unaltered home designed by J.R. Davidson, a Neutra and Rudolph Schindler contemporary, was flattened and replaced by an $11.7 million “modern traditional estate”—the postmodern “modern” flourishes. Still more ironic is that a sophisticated demographic, one whose members wouldn’t dream of buying something that might be called a McMansion, have embraced something equally as generic. “A pile of geometric forms that maxes out the building envelope in order to market at the highest price,” as Cuff put it. “A minimal articulation. The crust of a style.”

Earlier this year I went to open houses at two nearby GWBs, asking prices $2.3 million and $2.7 million. They were big, blandly pleasant spaces, pale wood floors and a palette of black, white, and cream. Every bedroom had a walk-in closet and a bath, and the two master baths were huge, each with a freestanding soaking tub. Multiple sliding doors opened to rooftop decks and rear yards. It was churlish of me—who couldn’t afford either house—to notice the cheapness of the windows, the stark, treeless landscapes. One home’s second-floor deck offered a view of the 10 freeway.

Whatever. A GWB that set neighborhood price records in 2015 sold again this year for $300,000 more. A five-minute walk away, a tiny pink ’50s house with a bay window had sold in nine days for $1.27 million, and the construction fence with a demolition notice was already up.

“The demand right now for a $2.5 million, 3,500-square-foot house on the Westside is tremendous!” Wynn says, practically shouting. “It’s overwhelming!” Architecturally, he acknowledges, maybe GWBs “aren’t so pretty. But builders will stop building them when people stop buying.”

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?

 

 

I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.

 
 

I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.

 
 

We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times

 

The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.