From the cover of Tuscan & Andalusian Reflections.
One of the editors of Design Observer asked me to write about Southern California. "Write about Orange County!" he said. Well, I live about 25 miles north of Orange County in the old middle of Los Angeles (yes, there is a middle) and while there are many things to like about it, there are a few things to abhor: and one of those things is the creeping encroachment of a new visual style in building hard to call it architecture that has already covered Orange County and threatens the visual ecosystem of Los Angeles like an errant weed that blew over in a shipping container from some other place and proceeds to choke out all other organic growth. Some call this style "Tuscan."
The neighborhood I live in, like many older neighborhoods, can be carbon-dated by a glance at the specific eclectic styles of the houses. Built between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s, this part of mid-Wilshire consists of houses in four styles: "Spanish," "Tudor," "English cottages," and "Colonials."
No "French," no "German," no "Dutch," and no "Tuscan."
The "Spanish" houses are of course the most specifically Southern Californian of the lot. That style (tile roofs, plain thick stucco walls, relatively small windows) was a pop romanticization of the conquistadores and the ranchos of earlier days. There are actually a few (very few) real historic houses and missions in the area that provided a template for the style, and there were plenty of customers for both good and bad translations of the style.
The miniaturized "Tudor" manses and the more humble "English cottages" could perhaps be seen as declarations of allegiance with the Johnny-come-lately status of the "Anglos" of California settlement. And the "Colonials" of my neighborhood are the architectural equivalent of Depression-era comfort food, part of a larger national craze for a reassuring reference to the earlier days of the Republic.
(And there are also a few oddities in the 'hood: a couple of Krazy-Kat type "pueblo moderne" houses, and an extremely contemporary two-year-old house, winner of an AIA citation, which, while in construction, many neighbors thought was either going to be a gas station or a 7-11).
But occasionally a house is razed, and a new one built in its place, and lo and behold it is transformed into "Tuscan," a new stylistic aberration in the neighborhood. The appearance of this faux Italianate style (tile roofs, stucco walls, shuttered windows and crenellated corners) is not all that different from the "Spanish" but it seems a world away from the coherency of the rancho house. This is not helped by the fact that the new construction in this style is generally too big and proportioned poorly, and made of materials that are veneers, blatantly more contemporary than the image that they are constructing. Real Tuscan villas possess a sort of laconic elegance from their relatively unornamented rustic style: the rough hewn here is more of the Home Depot "I forgot" variety. And the houses sport "great rooms" and "master bedroom suites" and beveled or stained glass windows and brass fixtures that no Tuscan house ever witnessed.
Where whole new neighborhoods are still being constructed (i.e., Orange or Riverside counties) "Tuscan" is the style du jour. And not only for domestic development; some of the most successful shopping centers and malls (some so large that they are literally new town centers) ape the details of San Giminiano or Lucca, albeit at a metastasized scale.
"Tuscan" is sometimes called "Mediterranean," and one argument for the style, with its patios and porticos, is that it is appropriate for our dry seaside climate. But given that it is the visual style of a particularly aggressive period of development, it has become the new signature of sprawl, Southern California style. The environment seems to have nothing to do with it. (For photographic evidence of the "Tuscan" creep to other less balmy locales, see Rick Valicenti's Suburban Maul documentationof new domestic architecture of Barrington, Illinois).
Honestly, no one builds a Spanish style house anymore (ok, maybe in Santa Barbara). And it's true that the older eclectic styles were hardly an accurate quotation from their own historical sources. So one of the interesting questions is: why is old faux preferable, or more tolerable, than new faux? What did the designers who worked for the developers of the 1920s have to work with that seems different than the designers of today? Is scale the culprit? Or is it that the old kitsch somehow addressed, in the most indirect or repressed way, a degree of the history of the actual people who inhabited the place, whereas Italians have not invaded Southern California, so what the heck is this?
I know that 30 odd years after Venturi, Izenour and Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas or Jencks published The Language of Post-Modern Architecture it perhaps seems a bit retro to complain about the presence of a cacophonous visual style on the popular scene. The post-modern era taught us to respect styles as languages and codes for messages of social value. Perhaps it is not so much styles per se, and "Tuscan" in particular, that I am whining about, but the transformation of styles generated from the heart and the brain that actually contained meaning, to lifestyles generated by highly paid marketers and branders that are deliberately emptied out of meaning. As a culture do we all really accept the mantras, mores, and cranial laxness of "lifestyles of the rich and famous" brought to us by Kaufman and Broad, Pulte Homes, Related Companies, and countless other developers of the Southern California and American landscape as of higher value than any type of searching or questioning? Or is it just that so many of us really, really like pasta? Indeed, the comfort of the consumer the insistence that any inconvenience or interruption to a daily life of little moments be suppressed trumps criticality, and the critical moment is reserved only for the technicians who observe the focus groups behind the one-way mirrors. The evidence of the consequent blind and lazy landscape splays out all around us.
And now the mighty "Tuscan" encroaches at the global scale: new housing in places like Orange County, China, a recently constructed suburb near Beijing, and similar suburban developments adjacent to Bangalore echo the southern Californian template of total bogusness.
I know there are much bigger problems in my urban zone than the nasty Tuscan blight: social inequity, a shortage of affordable housing, adequate education or healthcare, and crushing traffic. On the face of it, to bemoan "Tuscan" is like complaining about Hitler's moustache. But if the Venturis and Jencks and my faux-relative Oscar Wilde are right, that surfaces are telling, then the particularly graceless escapism of the "Tuscan" is all too meaningful: not amnesiac, since there is nothing to forget, but more catatonic, in its total disconnect from contemporary reality.
I hope I live long enough to watch the descendants of DoCoMo struggle with the issue of the historical preservation of the copious architectural products of the first decade of the millennium: the image of an image, signifying what?