Books: Digging into Dingbats

The outgrowth of an exhibition, a new book examines LA’s ubiquitous dingbat apartment buildings. Image courtesy Dingbat 2.0.

If you’ve spent any time exploring LA, you’ve seen a dingbat. They’re everywhere—boxy apartment buildings with names like The Palms or The Tropics. Over the years, architects have had something of a love/hate relationship with them. On the one hand, “their relentless efficiency,” as architect Thurman Grant calls it, is noteworthy, while their grim aesthetics (out of step with the romance their monikers conjure up) have not helped their reputation. 

If not getting an image boost, exactly, a new book, Dingbat 2.0, will be the first to turn a critical eye to the dingbat’s place in Los Angeles’s urban fabric. It’s an outgrowth of a 2010 exhibition, competition and related panel discussions organized by the LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design that explored the structures from a variety of perspectives. “Dingbats grew out of the margins,” explains Grant, who, with Joshua G. Stein, is editing the publication. “They weren’t really created by architects; they were developer driven.” Designed to maximize profits, dingbats packed as many units as possible under their roofs—on lots typically intended for single-family homes.

The publication will be divided into three sections. In the first, architectural critics, artists and urban theorists, among them Barbara Bestor, Wim de Witt and Judy Fiskin, will explore the building type from a range of perspectives. Section two presents a primer on the type. “There’s a lot of ambiguity as to what makes it a dingbat,” says Thurman. “We don’t think we’re giving an exact definition but are framing a vision.” The final section will examine the continued impact that the dingbat has on Los Angeles today as well as its future. As a jumping off point, the winning entries from the group’s Dingbat 2.0 competition will frame the discussion.

“Dingbats,” says Grant, “are very slippery creatures. That’s part of the reason we did this. They’re a really loaded building type and specific to LA and the southwest in general. This is what the LA Forum does: We look at things that aren not talked about as much as they could be—these are hiding in plain sight.”

To see the project through, Stein and company have turned to Kickstarter. To learn more about it and to contribute, visit their Kickstarter page.

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