LOS ANGELES — Every city has its own characteristic architectural forms. For New York, it’s the skyscraper. San Francisco has the Victorian. But in Los Angeles, residential architecture is the defining element of the urban fabric. After all, Southern California is where the dream of the single family home with a yard and a pool was most fully realized. However, given the contemporary challenges facing LA — including a growing population, lack of affordable housing, and a looming drought — is this model still feasible, or even desirable?
This is exactly the question that A+D Architecture and Design Museum hopes to address with the inaugural exhibition in their new arts district location. Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles presents new housing proposals from six LA-based firms that consider issues that reflect the city’s changing reality, like the need for density, new forms of transit, and sustainability. “We’re not doing Case Study Houses in the hills,” remarked exhibition co-curator Sam Lubell, referring to the mid-century affordable housing program that created so many icons of SoCal domestic modernism. “We’ve run out of room.”
Participating firms were split between two geographic areas: the Los Angeles River, poised to undergo a massive revitalization effort under the guiding hand of architect Frank Gehry; and Wilshire Boulevard, one of the city’s major East-West thoroughfares that is only to grow in importance with the construction of the Purple Line subway extension that will run parallel to it. Through models, renderings, and explanatory panels (some of which seemed better suited to an architecture competition than an exhibition), the firms put forth their proposals that ranged from the conceptual to the practical. The thoughtful exhibition design organized their projects along two meandering lines on the floor: Wilshire in red, the river in blue/green.
The most creatively adventurous proposal was from wHY who presented a conceptual model of a section of Wilshire Boulevard. Instead of a flat streetscape however, their model — made of debris like Styrofoam packing, discarded pill bottles and band-aid boxes — was folded into a vertical loop that rotated like a ferris wheel. Bob Dornberger, the Objects Workshop Leader at wHY who was in charge of the model’s fabrication, told me he just asked everyone in the office to dump all the junk out of their desks to get the raw material. Rather than focusing on individual housing, wHY’s project takes a step back, looking at large-scale changes to the city’s fabric.
“This systematic approach considers housing as part of an infrastructural thinking as opposed to a building-level thinking,” said Ideas Workshop Leader Misa Lund. WHY’s proposal would reconfigure Wilshire into a multi-level roadway, similar to New York’s highline, but it is purposefully vague. “We’re not trying to control the outcome. We’re trying to make something more open source,” said wHY’s founder Kulapat Yantrasast. “The more you try to design, the more people are going to hack it. Therefore let’s look at the relationship that allows people to hack the design in a way that’s productive.”
The two other firms working on Wilshire, PAR and MAD, offered more conventional proposals — residential high-rises located adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the middle of the Miracle Mile. The site will be changing dramatically over the next decade, with a planned redesign of LACMA’s campus by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and a new subway station (which prompted the A+D’s relocation from its previous home at Wilshire and Fairfax). Although MAD’s fluid, multi-tower design is more organic than PAR’s single, rectilinear structure, both plans sought to integrate vegetation throughout their buildings. It is a strategy that builds off of the modernist interest in dissolving the barrier between interior and exterior spaces so prevalent in mid-century SoCal homes. Given our current, unrelenting drought however, it is unclear how feasible this scheme would actually be. Although these two projects are attractive responses to our need for density, there is little uniquely Angeleno about them. They would fit in equally well in New York, Shanghai, or Singapore.
The three firms tasked with addressing the LA River site all presented variations on the classic single-family home, updated for changing conditions. The proposal from Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects considers the river as an ecological resource. With titles like “Bladder House” and “Sponge House,” their project clearly addressed the need for water conservation. “Part of the dilemma of the city is that it’s not built for capturing water. We lose 85% of it,” said principal Lorcan O’Herlihy. “How can you utilize housing to capture, purify, recycle, and distribute water?” Not only are their organic, slightly sci-fi designs meant to capture rainwater, but they are also intended to replenish underground aquifers.
Bureau Spectacular began by isolating unique characteristics of “normal” housing in LA, such as “wet and dry pool culture,” “dingbats,” and “outdoor living.” They then explored connections with other influences like the work of Mike Kelley, the typological photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, illustrated on project boards. The resulting impeccably produced models reflect a hyperbolic take on the hybridized and heterogeneous nature of LA’s domestic architecture.
The Frogtown-based firm LA-Más looked at an actual swath of land in their neighborhood and engaged with the community regarding their wants and needs. Rather than starting from scratch, they worked with the existing architecture, focusing on the potential of illegal accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats.” Their plan aims to make these informal backyard structures safe and legal, while at the same time create shared, communal space.
“Instead of this framework of privatization, we decided to make it more public,” co-executive director Helen Leung told me. Their low-slung, single-family approach to density is the most straightforward, but also the most likely to be realized. “The tower’s sexy but we got really excited about it on its side,” said co-executive director Elizabeth Timme. “The idea that the residents could lead how their infrastructure improves rather than being told by developers where they’re going to improve, it just made more sense.”
Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles runs through November 6 at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum (900 East 4th Street, Downtown, Los Angeles)