HB: Looking Beyond Image

After a recent business / holiday to the place where I grew up, Huntington Beach, I was struck yet again by how much it had changed in the last 30 to 40 years. This was coupled with a book I’ve been reading, which is a critique of Design Review and in part about the problems it poses to freedom of expression. Looking around HB over the years, I felt the urge to blame the developers for all of the new, repeatitious, ‘Spanish Style’ boxes that litter the landscape. I also thought the developers might blame taste, as they often do, although without any alternatives it’s hard to make such an assessment.

But in my reflection, I came to realize that the City must have wanted these buildings designed in this way. Some set of design review guidelines or an appointed committee out there was clearly guiding this effort. Otherwise, how could they be so consistent? There must be more than one builder behind all of the construction, and that couldn’t provide the requisite continuity. The only recurring factor has to be the City itself.

Another thing that struck me about HB was how similar it was to other places that I’ve lived – places that I’m attracted to, in part because I was brought up in them. The common connection is the people I’ve known in these places. Hard working, roll up your sleeves, get shit done kind of people. Raw, vibrant, and individual; people that bred the same in the places they lived. Huntington Beach has – or had – this quality, especially when compared to the deeply rooted conservatism and privilege of other Orange County neighbors like Irvine or Newport Beach.

I only bring this up not to suggest that any one way is correct, but to point out that it’s important to understand a deeper history and context of a place, not just the image that has historically been projected onto it. One aspect of a deeper history might be in the lives of the people that have and continue to live there. Others may be the industry, culture, and sport.

Even when it comes to the ‘image’ of Huntington, from my view it was always eclectic and rough around the edges. Main Street was a collection of clapboard shacks, each painted differently, mixed in with some of the old brick of the likes of the Golden Bear or Perqs. Scattered throughout were various types of running oil pumps and derricks, storage tanks and exposed pipelines. Looking back far enough, the image of HB is mostly oil. Much further than that and it was open ranchero. All of this richness of history was long before entire blocks were bulldozed and assembled into a massive mono-architecture. And it’s not the bulldozing that bothers me so much as the large, singular Disneyesque monolith that replaced what was there. HB was always fun, irreverent. What I wouldn’t give to have had (an open, unencumbered) shot at that project. Or any other in my old home town, for that matter.

It isn’t that multiple views can’t coexist, but something has been subtracted and replaced with a sea of sameness that is numbing. I can’t say exactly what I would have done to recapture the lost qualities of HB, but my thought is that it would be a combination of preservation and restoration, design that reflects some of the rough and eclectic (like much of what we do at Baran Studio), and an allowance for diversity where people would be free to express themselves, including Spanish style townhouses. The resulting eclecticism would best reflect the Huntington I remember, while also looking towards its future.

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