I recently found myself in Malibu for a long weekend to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Malibu is the kind of place where people fall out of the sky outside your window while you eat breakfast. It’s quintessentially LA – or at least the LA that on occasion approximates the mythical dream life of Southern California. It ain’t half bad.
Tiptoeing out of bed at 6 AM to photograph the sunrise while everyone else was asleep was easy. Opening the glass door to the deck and setting off the alarm? Not so much. A button was pushed somewhere and all was forgiven. It’s an $18M house. Of course it has an alarm system.
The cavalcade of beach homes of every imaginable style is impressive. Cottages inspired by Normandy, pristine white Richard Meier modernist gems, tasteful faux Italian villas, and what a friend calls the ubiquitous bento boxes.
Sprinkled along the beach are vestiges of an earlier Malibu sitting quietly behind rusty chain link fences and plastic lawn furniture. The same little stucco bungalows that grace lesser neighborhoods all across California can be found here. They’re testaments to the families who hang on as the rest of the city mutates around them. The architecture shifts one funeral at a time. Of course, Prop 13 frozen-in-time property taxes in California are hereditary so it’s possible for grandma to leave a house as well as its 1979 era taxes to her loved ones. These places wouldn’t still be here otherwise. That’s a blessing and a curse. Depends on who you are…
Poke under any of these beach homes and you’ll quickly discover that salt air, erosion, and driving winds extract a tax of their own. If it’s metal it rusts, pits, and chalks. If it’s wood it rots. If it’s glass it’s sandblasted. If it’s plastic it becomes sun bleached and brittle. Water and sewer pipes, electrical conduit, natural gas pipes… ashes to ashes. You get maybe twenty years before these things need a serious overhaul. I’m amazed some of these places haven’t exploded already. Notice the patches, scabbed joists, sistered support beams, cross braced retrofits, fortified pilings, taped fix-it jobs, and good-enough this-should-hold-for-a-while Hail Marys. You don’t own a beach house in Malibu. You rent from the Pacific.
In California the beach is open to the general public by law. But you have to get to the beach somehow first. Every mile or two a sliver of alley is carved out, extracted from private lots as part of the building permit negotiations. How much more house might you be allowed to build if you calve off a slice here or there? No doubt Richard Meier’s office has a full time staffer who specializes in such horse trades.
For those not familiar with Malibu it’s a slender strip of territory pressed between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. The majority of the land is a cliff. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the municipality is 21 miles long and one buildable lot wide.
The Pacific Coast Highway is the road. Singular. A few side roads twist up through the steep canyons of Topanga, but the PCH is pretty much the only thoroughfare in Malibu and it’s desperately trying to slide into the sea. Only endless expansions of elaborate retaining walls keep the pavement secure – for the moment. Heavy steel netting is draped over the hillsides to keep giant rocks from falling on to motorists. It’s a perpetual wrestling match between the Department of Transportation and the Earth as the California coast inches its way toward Canada one earthquake tremor at a time. Guess who’s going to win in the long run?
Property values have risen enough that heroic infrastructure can be justified in order to facilitate new homes, some of which look oddly like Turkish mausoleums. The arched colonnades mask the walls that hold the mountain in check. When the winter rains come water has a predictable habit of flowing downhill in great floods carrying loose soil and debris with it. And every year people are shocked when it lands in their living room.
This part of Malibu was spared the horrific Woolsey wild fires that destroyed over 1,400 buildings just a couple of weeks before I arrived. The dry native chaparral provided the fuel and arid winds accelerated the burn with record speed and ferocity this year. I was reminded of Mike Davis and his 1996 A Political History of the Fire Coast where he made the case for letting Malibu burn. From a purely pragmatic standpoint he might be right, but tell that to the people who live here. I was put in touch with a friend-of-a-friend who just lost her home. She was still in shock and was scrambling to sort out her affairs. So what’s it worth to live in a place that actively wants to destroy you? That’s a story for another time.