Elly Ward

My Kind of Town: Venice, California, is fun, free and flourishing once again

Elly Ward


Loved and loathed in equal measure, Los Angeles is in almost every way the antithesis of the classical European city: vast, sparse and built for the automobile. Considered uncultured by snobbish aesthetes on the East Coast, the popular iconography of its built landscape is familiar to us all through movies and television, not textbooks. To me, a preoccupation with tastefulness and total design is anathema to city life; celebration and inclusion of the everyday is vital.

Reyner Banham once described Los Angeles as “instant architecture in an instant townscape”, and there are few layers of history woven into its fabric even today; most of its buildings are still the first to have been constructed on their sites. The city grew rapidly from 1848, when the first Spanish land grants were subdivided out to developers, into the sprawling metropolis we recognise today, which boasts one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world.

To me, a preoccupation with tastefulness and total design is anathema to city life; celebration and inclusion of the everyday is vital.”

Lacking any grand plan, Los Angeles instead consists of distinct neighbourhoods that have evolved organically around the main transport routes. To drive across it is like journeying through several different countries. From Koreatown to Beverly Hills; South Central to Silver Lake; Venice to Topanga; the lack of historical precedent or existing architectural context has resulted in a proliferation of styles imported from almost everywhere else in the world.

Such a regurgitated aesthetic jumble might offend some, but this uniquely eclectic pluralism is for me its appeal, what Charles Jencks has called a ‘Heteropolis’. My favourite neighbourhood has to be Venice. In my first visit, I saw only the skaters, surfers, sun worshippers, bodybuilders, marijuana smokers and peddlers of hippy tat along the Boardwalk. But later I discovered the beautiful residential canal network just a few blocks back from the beach, the remnants of ersatz Renaissance-style architecture, the palimpsest of a former lagoon and other, grander canals that have been filled in, fascinatingly transformed into overly-wide avenues fanning out from an oddly oversized roundabout, which also serve to make it one of LA’s most walkable neighbourhoods.

Enchanted by travels to Italy as a young man, Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney, created this canalled beach community in 1905. Filled with Venetian-style buildings and attractions to both educate and entertain, he hoped to foster a ‘cultural renaissance’ for visitors and residents alike. St Mark’s Hotel sported a decorative diamond brick pattern that bore resemblance to the Doge’s Palace and the columns of its arcade were dressed with capitals fashioned by an Italian sculptor bearing images of Kinney’s face.

Unfortunately, by the 1960s it had become a ghost town, but gradually artists moved into the area, joining an underground community of beat poets and hippies who were already squatting the many abandoned properties. It became an architectural playground and home to many of the first works of the ‘LA School’ – Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Frederick Fisher, Eric Owen Moss.

Kinney would be impressed today to see a culturally diverse, highly creative community that has so far managed to maintain the independent, bohemian spirit that brought it back to life. The creative atmosphere here is alive and feels liberating. A few blocks of the original colonnades still survive and I find these perhaps the most romantic relics in the whole city, spinning a narrative that symbolises the aspirational founding, unabashed cultural reappropriation and optimism that exists here like nowhere else I’ve been.

There is an inherent freedom afforded by the climate, and the old Californian adage that ‘anything, given enough water, can grow here’ feels applicable to ideas and dreams too. I grew up by the seaside, but I love the city too and have lived in London for most of my adult life, so for me Los Angeles presents a perfect marriage of both.