In “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” Reyner Banham popularized “dingbat” to describe the horrendously bland and ubiquitous developer driven apartment buildings that cover the flats of LA. Far away from the high design inhabiting the hills, canyons and beaches preferred by architects of the Case Study program, these clunky rent generating machines, consisting of 4, or 8, or 12 studio, 1-bedroom and two bedroom units were often the first arrival point for many recently minted Angelenos. Their desperate designers tried to compensate for the relentless mediocrity with a swanky name (The Versailles, The Lido, Beverly Arms), and, in extreme cases, a fancy metal mansard roof, an oversized swag lamp in the entry court, a couple of cartouches and…hold for it… glitter stucco. Like the romanticized bungalow courtyards of Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonely Hearts” they are now part of Hollywood's background scenery. They are comfortably ensconced as an easy shorthand for a certain despairing and striving social strata of Los Angeles – in the films these sad sack dumps are occupied by grifters or screenwriters.
San Diego has its own home grown version of the dingbat, thanks to wise guy developer Ray L. Huffman. North Park is blighted by these 6-pack, 8-pack and 12-pack apartment buildings. Even today realtors tout Huffman’s expertise in cramming as many units as possible into the ugliest box possible. There were few attempts to upscale or sweeten the relentless efficiency of these ghetto creators. San Diego’s dingbats lack even a veneer of style. In their defense, they are the mainstay of affordable housing in San Diego. They are just ugly and cheap.
Well, those were different times, right? Well, yes and no. We have now what I call the Dingbat Nouveau – new apartment and condo buildings no doubt lauded by fans of San Diego’s City of Villages plan. Denser and bigger these new buildings are thankfully more aware of the politesse required to shoehorn denser and bigger into the fine-grained neighborhoods of North Park, Hillcrest and Mission Hills.
Well, at least some of the time.