"It is normally a two-story walk-up apartment-block developed back over the full depth of the side, built of wood and stuccoed over," writes architectural historian Reyner Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.
"'Round the back, away from public gaze, they display simple rectangular forms and flush smooth surfaces," but out in front, they brazenly show off styles run through the "Los Angeles Mincer: from Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-line Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled and even — in extremity — Modern Architecture."
Banham is writing about the dingbat apartment. He described it as "the true symptom of Los Angeles’ urban Id trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusions of homestead living," which have divided the opinion of Angelenos ever since.
"You couldn't make an uglier building if you tried," writes Boing Boing's own Mark Frauenfelder in a 1999 essay that turns out to be an appreciation.
"Thousands of the inexpensive 16-unit structures were built in the late '50s and early '60s to accommodate the huge number of people moving to Southern California" — much as forests of concrete apartment towers, differentiated only by stenciled numbers, have come to characterize Seoul.
"Forty years later, the smog-stained, sagging dingbats are still here, and have become as much a part of the LA landscape as medfly traps and on-ramp pistachio vendors."
I must note here, however, that other cities, even supposedly far more urbanistically enlightened ones like Seattle and Vancouver, have dingbats too.
"Embellishments like French mansard roofs and Streamline Moderne façades introduce variety, but honor the bland predictability of the box underneath," writes Architizer's Lamar Anderson.
"Like starlets striving to be noticed, many announce their names in whimsical midcentury script—the Camelot, the Wilshire, and, hilariously, the Crapi. Their signature embellishment is usually a star, diamond, or other geometric flourish."
Graphic designer Clive Piercy, a countryman of Banham's, developed such a fascination with dingbats that he published an entire book on them. Pretty Vacant, about which I interviewed Piercy on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, looks intently at these seemingly homely buildings from every angle in a photographic paean to the Southern Californian spirit of reinvention-on-the-cheap that inspired them.
But we may get another dingbat-loving volume soon. One year ago, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, who held a contest to reinvent the dingbat, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund Dingbat 2.0, "a book exploring the history and future of the Los Angeles apartments that everybody knows but nobody talks about" which addresses "the dingbat’s fundamental characteristics, its influence, and its future impact on the city."
Alas, Dingbat 2.0's web site link has, in the year since, turned as dead as the dingbat construction industry itself. Given Los Angeles' long but inexorable turn away from the single-family house dream and toward high-rise, high-density urban living, have we heard the last word on dingbats?
I may be one of the most high-rise, high-density-loving Angelenos you'll meet, but I sincerely hope not.