As I sit here and write, the table is coated with days of newspapers. Poking out from the pile is an article outlining the side effects of Phen-Fen and other such diet sirens which sing songs of beauty and eternal thinness. The headline screams "heart conditions, cancer, memory loss," all in pursuit of thinness. It is the third article in the last few weeks. Each headline compounds the terrible affects caused by screwing with mother nature. Since I am in Los Angeles, I can’t decide if this article is having any impact on the those in search of the perfect bod. Body sculpting is an art form in this town of flared hip-huggers and bobbed noses.
I think of the exhibition of carved ice sculptures shown in the freezer section of a Chinese grocery store in West LA. It closed just last weekend due to vandalism. (Perhaps it was a crazed plastic surgeon armed with a scalpel.) And I think of the distracting night I spent at the Dresden Room where a woman with an age only deceived by her hands, paraded her newly crafted buttocks around the martined room. She wore a pair of light blue microfiber pants, the same color as the carved ice, the rear zipper aping the crack of her ass. I imagine the perky tailfeathers of the ice swans dripping with envy at her SoCal masterpiece. I wonder if the effects of the former wonderdrug are getting as much press in any other city.
Thinness has a home here. It goes far beyond the biological conditions. Never can be too rich or too thin. Thinning hair. Or over on Fairfax, pastrami, thinly sliced. It permeates the entertainment industry. No, it is the soul of the industry. Remember, the camera adds fifteen pounds. Thinness is the depth of celluloid, movie screens, billboards which feature Angeline, and Brad Pitt’s intellect. It is a scrim which connotes display. Thinness as the desirable object, thinness as communication. Thinness is so pervasive, that it carries through to the architecture. It happened early. The wafer-like walls of early sound stages did nothing more than define the cinematic space inside. Perhaps those walls kept the flimsy sets from blowing over as the Santa Ana winds blew through the groves of orange trees. Early modernists, landing in the Los Angeles oasis (Shindler, Neutra, later Lautner or Ain) were escaping the heavy masonry of eastern climes. They looked at the nakedness, and wanted thinness. Open to the sky, the land, the desert, their houses are lightweight mediators from inside to outside. The thinness of walls advocates a life where nature is on display, yet controlled.What eventually transpired within these Hollywood and Silverlake homes built for screenwriters and directors, is that thinness was inverted. The same devices used to bracket the landscape became elements to frame the inhabitants. Poised in the living room, gazing off to the pool, they sipped gin and tonics and smiled Life Magazine smiles. These were savvy Hollywood types, they knew how to frame a shot.
Beatriz Colomina in her essay "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism" analyses Le Corbusier’s villas in regards to the photographic or cinematic spacial implications, but her observations can be transferred to the thin Los Angeles condition. She writes "...everything in these houses seems to be disposed in a way that continuously throws the subject towards the periphery of the house. The look is directed to the exterior in such a deliberate manner as to suggest the reading of these houses as frames for a view." Later, she qualifies this reading of the house. Rather than the house just being a frame for dominating the landscape, the framing mechanisms as represented in the film "L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui" (1929) directed by Pierre Chenal with Le Corbusier, become thin devices which simultaneously capture landscape and the body within the villa.
"There is also a figure of a woman going though a house in this movie. The house that frames here is Villa Savoye....The camera shows the house from the distance, and object sitting in the landscape, and then pans the outside and the inside of the house. And it is there, halfway through the interior that the woman appears in the screen. She is already inside, already contained by the house, bounded. she opens the door that leads to the terrace and goes up the ramp toward the roof garden, her back to the camera. She is wearing informal clothes and high heels and she holds the handrail as she goes up, her skirt and hair blowing in the wind. She appears vulnerable. Her body fragmented, framed not only by the camera but by the house itself, behind bars. She appears to be moving from the inside of the house to the outside, to the roof garden. But this outside is again constructed as an inside with a wall wrapping the space in which an opening with the proportions of a window frames the landscape." (p.103.)
The legacy of the Hollywood types is still with us. Last April, Harper’s Bazaar ran a story entitled "L.A., the List." Glistening in the glossy pages were the words "The International Style Is In." Which were followed by the L.A. version of the cannon of architects: Wright, Gill, Ellwood, Lautner, Neutra, Shindler, Ain, Frey, and Soriano. The more interesting list was the one entitled "People Who Live In International Style Houses." Apparently Joel Silver, Kelly Lynch, Ann Magnuson, Bob Hope, and Ricardo Montoban all live in houses where it would be ill advised to throw stones. The same issue of the magazine ran a fashion spread entitled "Pacific Time," featuring Kate Moss in "sexy cool" slip dresses. Posed against the floor to ceiling windows of a Lautner home in the Hollywood hills, both are captured in all their anoretic glory. The camera adds fifteen pounds.
Dingbat developers replaced the large glass expanses of the Hollywood hills with sliding glass patio doors. They substituted five point inspired ribbon windows with aluminum framed holes in the wall. They were careful enough to maintain the thin as a rail, stucco walls for their apartment buildings. Eschewing the modern white walls for baby pink or harvest gold, building colors which matched the color schemes of Cadillacs and Fridg-edaires. Appliances took over where the aesthetics were shallow. The economics of building was happily affected by a less is more approach to materials.
Up and coming Hollywood starlets took well to the dingbats. Would it be too bold to imply a comparison? Both are works for cheap material, standing on gawky pole thin legs, and are tarted up with names like "Debbie Den" or "Bali High." Is it shocking to say that both have plenty of room between their skinny legs to house an obscenely powerful sports-car? The builders of these apartments must have known their clientele well. The kitchens in these apartments are squeezed into neat little corners (efficiency) or in the case of bachelor apartments, eliminated except for the firehazard hot plate in the bathroom and the bar fridge doubling as a bedside table. The builders knew that it really doesn’t take much to assemble a diet plate, just two leaves of iceberg lettuce, four carrot sticks, a lusty mound of cottage cheese cradled in a pineapple ring and a maraschino cherry on top, looking all the world like a perky nipple.
When I first arrived in Los Angeles, fresh from the foggy bohemia of San Francisco, these flimsy structures scared me to death. The stark, SoCal light made everything look temporary and precarious. While earthquakes are just as common in the Bay Area as in LA, I still had visions from the CNN coverage of the Northridge earthquake of these stork-like creatures collapsed. Their emaciated legs spread awkwardly in the air like an budding actress who met up with the wrong kind of agent. My housemate and I looked woefully at dozens of the leggy buildings as we searched for a place to live.
I railed endlessly against these thin apartments. I was both aesthetically appalled and also I feared the wrath of mother nature. Unknowingly, I sounded like Frank Lloyd Wright during his rant against the cardboard house. He wrote "...most new "modernistic houses manage to look as though cut from cardboard with scissors, the sheets of cardboard folded or bent in rectangles with an occasional curved cardboard surface added to get relief." My housemate and I found ourselves buying heavy hipster shoes at the local mall, trying desperately to alleviate the depression caused by scoping out one too many thin buildings. The car doors of the perky Civic became our touchstones of sanity. The reassuring sound they made when closed presented some notion of fatness. The doors of the sherbet colored buildings we knocked at with hope and increasing skepticism echoed hollowly.
Finally, we found a place suitably zaphtig. Shannon, the Rubenesque manager led us around the apartment, sliding closet doors and giving us colorful commentary. She let us know that in no uncertain terms would a Scandinavian bed designed by Ikea stand up to Saturday night at home in her apartment, but apparently the building, was holding its own. Built in 1991, it is ugly (definitely not resembling the cute bungalows across the street) and it is required by more recent building code regulations not to fall down. It is a simple building, two double story buildings flank a parking lot. The entry to the units is on the outside, away from the parking. The living room windows face the street, while the bedrooms the inner parking court. Still, the apartment is dingbat derivative and its historical thinness manifested itself soon after we moved in.
The first inklings of thinness came the weekend after we unpacked. At three in the morning, the orgasmic moans of a friendly neighbor bounced off the walls of the parking lot and stirred up dreams of a Bruce Goff revival. The ideals of thin California living seemed impossibly shortsighted, and I wondered if Shindler plan-ned for any sound muffling devices for his outside sleeping porches. Perhaps this was the unknown factor which changed his design approach and not the chill.
The noisy neighbor seems to have fallen into a dry spell, but the thinnest part of the building remains constant, the window in the living room. The window is huge. It dwarfs the room like a drive-in movie screen dwarfs Culver City. Like Princess Grace framed on the screen’s surface, I sit at the table, drink my coffee, and watch the street. I vicariously claim Ruby, neighbors dog, who gets to play outside of a quaint yellow bungalow all morning long. The words of wise nurse Stella in Rear Window crackle against my ears. "We have become a race of peeping toms. What people otta do is get outside their house and look in for a change. Yes, sir."
From my side of the window, the house opposite is the epitome of domestic bliss. It lives up to Hollywood perceptions of "house." Although Ward and June are replaced with an aging hippie couple. The window which frames Santa Monica’s own American Gothic is thin aluminum with pasted on mullions. The mullions are to disguise its dingbat cum ribbon window past. The ledger the window sits on is just five inches thick, the glass flush with the outside wall. From the street it looks has all the dimension of a movie screen stretched taut against the blue-gray building.
I had always assumed that I was the voyeur in this tableaux of thinness, but one Saturday morning at our neighbors garage sale I learned otherwise. I crossed the street to finger a pair of vintage curtains that I had spied earlier, and my housemate and I were greeted warmly with "Oh, you’re the people in the window. We finally meet." So, even as I sit here and lick the chocolate frosting out of sandwich cookies, I am participating in the thin Los Angeles discourse. I gaze out at the lawn which needs a bit of a trim remember that the camera adds fifteen pounds.