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A Vision for Sustainable Housing and Design in Los Angeles

The architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa makes the case for greater building density and more sustainable design practices to combat the region’s acute housing shortage.

Installation view, DENSE-CITY: Housing for Quality of Life and Social Capital at 18th Street Arts Center (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

SANTA MONICA — Criticism of Los Angeles as a city has historically been centered on its reliance on the automobile and inadequate public transit. It’s a cliché that’s persisted despite measured improvements in its bus lines and light rail, but fewer still are questions about why the city requires so many people to travel long distances despite living in a densely populated urban core. It might be time to question not only the city’s reliance on cars, but also what’s made them necessary in the first place: its housing, or more specifically, the proliferation of sprawling, single-family homes.

DENSE-CITY: Housing for Quality of Life and Social Capital, an exhibition currently running at the 18th Street Arts Center’s Airport Gallery, makes the case for greater building density and more sustainable design practices to combat the region’s acute housing shortage. Featuring models, renderings, and plans developed by the architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa — one of five recipients of Los Angeles County’s Housing Innovation Challenge — the exhibit presents a vision for sustainable housing and design as a right of all residents.

Brooks + Scarpa

While California policymakers have offered up rent control legislation and restrictions on short-term rentals to address the state’s housing crisis, architects and designers have also had a say in what the future of housing might look like in the face of growing homelessness and environmental devastation. Design solutions, both new and old, are part of efforts to provide people with housing that’s not just practical and cost-effective, but also attuned to aesthetics and quality of life.

The Los Angeles region has experienced growing numbers of unhoused people as the rental market sets rates beyond what most residents can afford. Earlier this summer, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) reported 58,936 unhoused people, a 12% increase from the previous year, and 721,000 households spending more than 50% of their income on rent.

Artists are also susceptible to the housing crisis. In November, the arts advocacy nonprofit Arts for LA released a report that surveyed 763 local artists, 89% of whom described housing affordability as a serious concern and 57% of whom reported incomes ($50,000 or less per year) that would qualify them as “cost burdened” (spending more than 30% of their income on rent).

What the market takes away in rent, it’s given back in the form of “coliving” spaces where artists and creative professionals pay a little less than $1,000 for a capsule unit just large enough to fit a single bed and some storage space. It’s a far cry from the affordable live-work artist spaces now under threat of disappearing completely from Los Angeles.

Models of 12 buildings designed by Brooks + Scarpa are on display in DENSE-CITY — thankfully none of which requires people to live in capsules as a tradeoff for living in the city. The proposed redesign of the 18th Street Arts Center’s main campus, for example, replaces its current lot of single-use buildings with a five-story, cross-laminated timber structure capable of housing 18 artist residencies, a 4,000-square-foot gallery, event spaces, and a café.

It’s the kind of mixed-use verticality eschewed by architect Peter Zumthor’s redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which stubbornly idealizes the city’s horizontal sprawl and the resulting need for more land to house the museum’s staff and collections. While height restrictions were once imposed by the city for aesthetic reasons in dense urban areas like Downtown Los Angeles, the city’s sprawl is much more an outcome of restrictive zoning controls that favor single-family homes.

Brooks + Scarpa

The SIX, a 52-unit affordable housing complex for disabled veterans in the densely populated MacArthur Park neighborhood, is a multi-story white cube made to look more inviting with a street-adjacent opening that reveals part of its interior spaces to the street. Facilities for on-site supportive services for residents, some of whom are formerly homeless, are built into the structure, allowing them to maintain their health and quality of life at home and within their community.

A small section of the gallery space is dedicated to NEST, a toolkit for designing modular and scalable multi-family and single room occupancy housing built with cost-effective prefabricated parts. The project was one of five winning proposals in Los Angeles County’s $4.5 million call for innovative housing solutions. Nonprofits and municipalities might use the toolkit to maximize their use of underused parcels of land, turning spaces like parking lots and gas stations into homes for people. To prototype the concept, Brooks + Scarpa and the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, an affordable housing nonprofit, plan to build supportive housing at a former gas station site over two years.

The promise of design solutions like NEST will be difficult to realize as long as red tape and complicated financing get in the way of new housing development. Last month, the Los Angeles City Controller issued a report describing the severe logjam and escalating costs related to building supportive housing, despite $1.2 billion in bonds approved by voters to address homelessness in the region.

“Developers are spending approximately 40 percent of overall project costs on soft cost components such as fees, consultants, and financing,” the report reads. “These costs are nearly as much as the cost of labor and materials to build Proposition HHH-funded housing developments.”

It remains to be seen whether policy changes and design solutions will deliver on the promise of more affordable housing in the city, and whether exhibitions like DENSE-CITY can transform the city’s nostalgic ideal for private residential architecture. Scalable architecture and prefabricated parts were once the domain of the mid-century Case Study Houses, none of which were duplicated and all of which have either been demolished or turned into museums inhabited by the wealthy. The urgency now is around turning Los Angeles from a city of houses into a city of homes.

Plans for the NEST prototype

DENSE-CITY: Housing for Quality of Life and Social Capital continues at 18th Street Arts Center’s Airport Gallery (3026 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica) through December 14.

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