The Great Recession may have value if it shakes the belief that a single-family house and backyard is the fulfillment of the American dream. Millions of families have bankrupted themselves in pursuit of this trophy, while suburban sprawl has drained energy from city centers, increased global warming, and gobbled up land that might have been used for recreation, farming, or open space. As cities continue to grow, we need to learn to cluster more tightly together, encouraging architects and planners to enhance the quality of urban living.
Luckily, architects are responding to the need to expand inward and make better use of scarce resources. In Los Angeles, infill condo blocks have multiplied in the progressive neighborhoods of West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Venice, typically substituting eight to 15 compact units for one or two tear-downs. The best of these occupy the middle ground between the single-family communities that were first developed in the 1920s and the bland, overscaled apartment towers that often followed. At their best, they offer high-quality design and livability, as much space as most people need, plus sustainability and low maintenance, all at an affordable price. It’s the Prius versus the Hummer.
Several LA firms have specialized in multi-unit housing. Pugh + Scarpa, which just won the National AIA and AIA California Council Firm of the Year awards, claims to have designed as many as thirty condo blocks. Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects won acclaim for Habitat 825, which took its cues from the landmark Schindler studio house on the adjoining site, and several other innovative infill blocks. Koning Eizenberg Architecture were pioneers in creating low-cost infills in Santa Monica, and Frederick Fisher, Kanner Architects, and SPF:a have also done exemplary work. Like the following projects, they all draw on a rich local legacy of multiple housing. Spanish-inspired bungalow courts in West Hollywood are coveted properties. Gill’s Hollister Court, Schindler’s Falk Apartments, Ain’s Dunsmuir Apartments, and Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments are among those architects’ finest achievements. The tradition was ruptured in the 1970s, but a new generation has reinvigorated the idea in response to a growing demand for fresh solutions.
As always, large developers and builders lag far behind, stubbornly clinging to stale formulas and degrading the communities they exploit. A classic confrontation is shaping up in North Westwood Village, where Dallas-based PPC wants to squeeze a banal five-story rooming house—a warren of tiny rooms with inadequate parking and open space—onto a narrow triangle of land. It could overwhelm pedestrians and the Strathmore Apartments (where this author lives), an LA Cultural-Historical Monument that steps back up the hillside. Meeting a need for professional and faculty accommodations near the campus, Barton Myers Associates has proposed an intelligent mix of studios and townhouses that respects the topography of the site and the character of the neighborhood. The BMA proposal is a model, as are five recently completed developments that also put people ahead of profit and create intimate livability on a scale that is more sustainable than the single-family model.
Aleks Istanbullu Architects
John Chase, the planning director of West Hollywood, has weaned the community away from a Truman Show addiction to cute revivalism, and encouraged it to embrace contemporary design. With his support, architects and developers have created a succession of bold, urbane interventions. Istanbullu, who has designed upscale residences in the Hollywood Hills, has brought that same emphasis on quality to a cluster of ten maisonettes on the flats. Stacked duplexes are articulated with color: chartreuse stucco clads the expansively glazed living areas at top and bottom; gray covers the sleeping areas sandwiched between. The goal was to give each house its own character—a stepped loft was inserted over the ramp to basement parking—opening up to landscaped space. Color and dense plantings dematerialize the mass, and windows on three sides of each living space pull in fresh air and views to lofty open plans. The three apartments to the rear have stairs leading to rooftop terraces that are covered in artificial turf and separated by low walls. There, gazing out over the city and up to the hills, you can imagine you are in a private oasis. Nick Hertz of Urban Moments was the developer, marking his first foray into this field.
Eight row houses are squeezed onto three irregular lots just south of Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. The complexity of planning ordinances and the 50-foot depth of the lots discouraged building, but developer Rick Erhman saw an opportunity to exploit the location. Six identical row houses, plus a separate block of two, are crisply articulated, giving the complex a strong presence. Sloped shed roofs of copper that evoke mansard roofs canopy the entrances and enclose stairs and services. Ehrlich is best known for his indoor-outdoor single-family houses, and he has achieved the same quality here by putting living areas above the garages and using roll-up garage doors to open up the interiors with no sacrifice of privacy or security. The glazing grid and translucency of the garage doors evoke shoji screens, as do the upper-level doors when blinds are drawn. Stairs run up the sides of each unit, with a small office or guest room behind, to a lofty second floor and mezzanine wrapped around on two sides. The development mediates between commercial and residential zones, contributing to the densification of Venice without overwhelming its small-scale neighbors. That makes it a model for dynamic communities that want to preserve their character.
Courtesy Pugh + Scarpa
Pugh + Scarpa Architects
This project is a split 12-unit block that replaces the legendary Cherokee Recording Studios, which were built by Frank Sinatra and hosted many other notable musicians. It has a tough urbanity that respects the scale of its eclectic neighbors on busy Fairfax Avenue. The ground floor is given over to a fully glazed retail space with surface parking behind, and the three upper levels are wrapped in a perforated metal skin with manually operable shutters opening onto recessed balconies and narrow windows. The skin shields residents from the sun and provides a thermal barrier; the recesses have bold color accents. Laminated glass sliders protect the units from traffic noise. Entry to the apartments is through a second-floor courtyard, with stairs and an elevator leading to the upper-level living areas of the seven town houses. Acoustically insulated recording studios are incorporated into two of the larger units in a nod to the history of the site. A shared roof deck offers 360-degree views and is clad with photovoltaic panels to the south and east. The architects are seeking a LEED Platinum rating, which would be a first for multifamily, multiuse developments in southern California. It’s a debut for Rethink Development of Culver City, whose co-director, Greg Reitz, was formerly the Green Building Adviser for the City of Santa Monica.
Franklin Avenue Condominiums
Clive Wilkinson Architects
Clive Wilkinson’s nine two-story town houses are located on a triangular lot at the corner of Franklin and Las Palmas, which leads up to Whitley Heights. Local residents wanted an ersatz Spanish building to complement their historic neighborhood, ignoring the eclecticism of the immediate surroundings. The architect has given them something much more interesting as a symbolic gateway, exploiting the angularity of the site with a sharp prow and a strong feeling of openness. The white stucco exterior is partly clad in Galvalume paneling and cedar wood siding to break up the mass and articulate the separate units. Each unit has 20-foot ceilings in the living area, which extends through the site for views to the west through expansive windows and a protected entry court to the east. There are private balconies and yards and a shared roof terrace. Each unit has a distinctive character: a freestanding steel staircase in one, another with an upper-level bridge linking the main living room and a more enclosed space. Bath-service cores provide a retreat within expansive, transparent volumes. The firm is best known for its exuberant commercial interiors, but Wilkinson has applied lessons from his own house to his first multifamily project, which was developed by C.O.Wood.
Michael W. Folonis Architects
Venice has become a petri dish for creative residential architecture, relegating Santa Monica to the sidelines. A strong sense of community conjoined with a lack of pretension has allowed architects to build there for themselves and others with a freedom denied elsewhere in LA. Folonis has enhanced the boardwalk with a row of ten spacious lofts divided by the Thornton Walk Street and set back to the sides behind Pamela Burton’s cactus garden. The site was zoned for 29 units, but developer NSB preferred to emphasize quality over quantity, and has reaped its reward. The cool white stucco facades, rising from a glazed retail base and a podium of parking, are animated by projecting hoods over the entries: a direct reference to the purity of early modernism. The seven ocean-facing units are oriented southwest and benefit from solar gain and good cross-ventilation. Each undivided, double-height unit has pocket sliding doors leading to a terrace, with stairs heading up to a mezzanine sleeping gallery and a rooftop terrace with a glazed lantern. Though the lofts resemble goldfish bowls from the boardwalk, there’s a high level of privacy behind the parapet and to the rear.