Dean Nota and other prolific architects discuss the past, present and future of South Bay home design

A roundtable discussion on the state of South Bay architecture.

Interviewed by Suzanna Cullen Hamilton


A roundtable discussion on the state of South Bay architecture.

Interviewed by Suzanna Cullen Hamilton 

After centuries of Native Americans and European settlers occupying Southern California, single-family homes comprise the Beach Cities we know today. However, the massive influx of people in the 21st century  is causing planning boards, architects and residents to consider the past and contemplate the future of this high-occupancy area.

Noted South Bay architects Dean Nota, Doug Leach, and Keith Johnson and Miles Pritzkat 
of Pritzkat & Johnson discuss the issues with Southbay HOME contributing writer Suzanna Cullen Hamilton.

Does the South Bay have an architectural legacy?

Dean Nota: Several architects of distinction left marks on the South Bay, including John Blanton, Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Michael Rotondi and Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne. There is a lineage of modernism that is unique to Southern California.

Pritzkat & Johnson: Early modernists such as R.M. Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright
 and Cliff May also created South Bay houses that integrated lifestyle with the environment–a common thread that binds their architectural legacy.

Doug Leach: South Bay architecture is constantly changing and a cyclical process. Styles get overdone, and clients seek something fresh and new.

Are there certain South Bay architectural elements that should be preserved?

PJ: The natural light in the South Bay is magical, so architecture that eliminates barriers between indoors and out is preferred. That
said, we have a special place for the simple beach cottages of the late 1890s to the 1930s—they’re very livable with a quality that says, “You’re on permanent vacation!”

DN: Any structure that incorporates a unique quality of form, space and ambience that reflects the functional, technical, social, environmental and aesthetic considerations of the place deserves preservation.


What is the proclivity of people toward historic preservation in the South Bay?

DN: Redondo Beach has the most aggressive approach to preservation, but there is an absence of leadership in the other Beach Cities on this issue. In large part residents see their properties as investments, and protection often involves the limitation of property rights. So that carries financial consequences for property owners.

DL: Real estate values have skyrocketed so much that building costs are secondary to land costs. Therefore clients are apt to tear down existing houses in order to achieve more modern amenities and styles.

PJ: While Redondo Beach has incentivized historic preservation, little is done to inform owners about specifically what can and cannot be done. As a result, it falls on the property owner to determine preservation.


Is there an evolution of South Bay architecture since the second half of the 20th century?

DN: Until the 1980s little quality work was constructed in the South Bay, but there’s been steady improvement in both design and construction. Ray Kappe and John Blanton created terrific architecture, but Blanton’s best work was destroyed in Manhattan Beach. Michael Lee and Robert Sweet worked for me and now produce excellent projects.

Do you identify different architectural styles between the various Beach Cities?

PJ: Hermosa Beach has retained its “bohemian” Beach City past while concurrently creating an interesting linear downtown. Redondo is the most suburban
 of the Beach Cities, but things are evolving. Manhattan Beach has changed significantly, so there aren’t many old-school pockets. The big question for the Beach Cities can be summed up by Ogden Nash: “Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.”

DL: Manhattan Beach and Hermosa are
 very similar in aesthetics, with a big influx of beach plantation and contemporary homes— particularly near the water. North Redondo still has a fair amount of Mediterranean.

How about in Palos Verdes? Will those larger parcels of land mean that some of those homes will be renovated rather than torn down?

DL: Existing homes in P.V. that have architectural merit are normally preserved and renovated rather than torn down, but smaller homes built in the ‘50s are likely to be torn down and replaced.

PJ: Some areas of P.V. have an art jury that reviews the plans prior to renovation, to ensure strict design standards.

DN: With the 2012 destruction of the Moore Residence designed by renowned mid-century architect Lloyd Wright, my impression is that there is little appreciation for preservation over real estate development economics in P.V. and elsewhere in the South Bay. Building code inflation, zoning restrictions and real estate market conditions dictate that tearing down is the only logical approach in these economic situations. In the absence of any preservation process, it’s teardown time.

On the other end of the South Bay, will multi-family housing increase in overcrowded Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach?

PJ: As long as developers can make money doing it, the trend is not going to change.

DL: Developers will always opt for the most units possible given what the zoning allows.

DN: There is a crisis in housing affordability and sustainability, and the single-family, detached home is outmoded for a sustainable future. Regional planners, planning commissions and city councils must unite and guide.

Speaking of affordability, are your clients considering other areas as a result of skyrocketing costs?

DN: Hermosa and Redondo are replacing Manhattan.

PJ: The increasing load of property tax payments based on a purchase price means that a new homeowner could be paying exorbitant taxes while an older neighbor pays the equivalent of an electric bill. As a result, younger people are taking on fixer-uppers and going smaller.

Do you believe certain styles should be eliminated from the South Bay vernacular?

DL: Various styles will come and go, but there has been a movement away from the Mediterranean style.

DN: Good architecture transcends styles, so clients seek modern solutions that fit the lot proportions of the South Bay sites.

PJ: There is always a demand for timeless architecture, but the chunky developer-Mediterranean has gone for good!

On the flip side, what products or features do you think will stand the test of time?

PJ: Houses designed with classic materials and quality construction that optimize the features of the site while also enhancing and nurturing the lifestyle of the inhabitants will endure.

DN: Well-composed, minimal forms and spaces that capture a unique aspect of the site executed with timeless materials will endure.

DL: An indoor-outdoor lifestyle permeates the South Bay, so features that give flow and ease to a residence will always be valuable architectural elements.

What emphasis is put on landscaping and outdoor living?

DL: Outdoor living is a critical component, but occasionally the landscape suffers, as it’s the last piece of construction, and sometimes clients run out of money.

PJ: Utilizing exterior spaces and outdoor rooms is critical to the overall home design, so we encourage our clients to hire landscape architects.

Do South Bay residents appreciate quality finishes and interiors as they relate to the comprehensive whole?

DN: My clients understand the value of interior lighting, materials and furnishings, so I aspire to a collaborative approach between architect, owner and design consultant.

PJ: Designers think from the inside out, so we require our clients to have an interior designer so they end up with the best products.

Regarding the use of space and features, what aspects of a home are important to owners?

DN: Home sites are limited in space, so the open floor plan offers the illusion of space. Subtle methods such as half-walls, level changes and ceiling height can define rooms, while quality craftsmanship, materials and space organization drive client priorities.

DL: Capitalizing on views is important to clients, so the open floor plan accommodates maximizing volume and views. We now include air conditioning in every home to address comfort, air quality and allergies, while focusing on interesting interior details such as ceilings.

PJ: South Bay owners like an open concept floor plan with maximized views. Providing interior air quality is important, so air conditioning is now a frequent request. I sense the move toward “green” building in the community.

Is LEED certification important to your South Bay clients?

DN: Everyone says they want sustainability, but few understand the commitment. High-maintenance mechanical and electrical equipment costs, as well as the complexity, inhibit most from engaging. The greenest square foot that you build is the square foot that you don’t build.

PJ: There are increased costs with green features, and LEED requires certification from a third party–something most clients don’t feel the need for. However, they are interested in solar panels and Tesla battery packs.

DL: Very few request LEED certification, but solar panels are a frequent request. Recent energy codes require an abundance of insulation–something many older homes are lacking.

What’s the best advice could you give someone moving to the South Bay?

DL: Planning codes are different in each Beach City, so pick an architect and contractor who have vast experience in that city.

PJ: Build on the best location you can afford, and understand the regulations of that city.

DN: Keep it simple and build what you need.