Because I didn’t want to spoil the magic or be ejected from the premises, I didn’t ask why a man to whom my husband and I were complete strangers let us into the locked courtyard of El Andaluz. We had visited Santa Barbara before, even with cameras, but never with an eye to urban street shooting. The city obliged beyond our wildest dreams. Moody tunnels. Long, straight expanses of train tracks vanishing into a distant haze. Brightly colored buckets vying for attention with the bright spring flowers they held, open air tables piled high with textiles in all the colors of the rainbow. There was all manner of architecture as well, from mission to modern, but wandering the streets with our Nikons we didn’t expect to be brought up short by, of all things, what appeared to be an office building.
Initially our gaze was drawn to the bold arches and the light and shadow playing against heavily textured white walls. The portico should have been fully shaded from the lowering afternoon sun, but beams streamed in from somewhere above. Still, at a casual glance it looked like a mission style building whose arch tiles had a bit of a Jackson Pollock vibe.
But the longer we looked wilder and weirder details emerged. Every gate and stair rail undulated as if a flow of lava had passed through and twisted them into new, fanciful shapes. Smiling stylized bird tiles adorned the ceiling and columns of one alcove, cavorting ants another. We revised our initial impression to Jackson Pollock meets M.C. Escher.
And became a little ant-like ourselves, crawling over every cranny of the building. With so many clashing design elements the aesthetic of the building shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did. Was it the way colors shifted with the patterns, creating well-defined subspaces? Or because the really eccentric details were tucked into nooks, gifts to observant passers-by?
A trim middle-aged man wearing business casual with a black folio tucked under his arm emerged from a car at the end of the block and headed in our direction. I was too busy pondering the mind of the architect and trying to get a decent shot of the neon lit words El Andaluz suspended in darkness some yards beyond a locked gate (I failed) to notice that he had stopped next to us.
“Are you familiar with this building?” he asked.
We shook our heads. “No, but it’s amazing.”
“Like Dr. Seuss, isn’t it?” He grinned. “Would you like to see upstairs?”
We followed him up veronica purple steps, past a locked raw metal gate and into a Moroccan-inspired paradise. The whimsy was dialed down a notch, and though the colors were just as vibrant as outside shades of blue and ochre dominated. The space was more intimate, the doorways bore no signage, and as my suspicion grew that while the downstairs might be commercial the upstairs was not I let the camera fall to my side. “Can I – shoot?” I asked hesitantly.
He gave me an “of course” nod. Giddiness and a certain terror warred within me. This man – the head gardener for this and several nearby properties, it turned out – had opened the literal gate to a hidden sanctum that not every photographer has access to, and for an amateur like me that was heady stuff. But the light was rather poor and this was only my third outing with the 24 mm wide angle lens. What if absolutely nothing came out?
I fought the feelings down and prowled about the courtyard, trying to be deliberate but also swift, half-listening for an exit cue as he and my husband chatted. “Jeff Shelton has designed several other buildings in the area,” he said, describing in particular how to get to Ablitt Tower, a five story eighteen by eighteen foot private residence with equally fantastical detailing.
And he spoke of El Andaluz itself, its own kind of Mecca in the heart of Santa Barbara. Eight multimillion dollar condominiums each with its own elevator, modernist interiors and balcony views onto that striking courtyard. I admit I felt a twinge of class consciousness at that, this beautiful space being accessible to so few people. But that didn’t stop me from being glad I’d seen it and could photograph it. And that at least a few of the pictures were in focus.
After a few minutes he led us back downstairs, and we thanked him for his time and the peek into El Andaluz. I’ll always wonder – because even though now we were beyond being thrown out I still didn’t want to spoil the magic – why he let us see it.