Downtown LA has been called the national epicenter of homelessness, with some preferring to sleep on the streets for years rather than risk their health and possessions in overcrowded temporary shelters. This problem was exacerbated in the 1990s by the widespread demolition of old SROs that failed to meet a tougher seismic code. Several local non-profits have built humane, low-cost housing for these urban refugees, but the designs have often been compromised by the exigencies of budget. The New Carver Apartments, located beside an elevated freeway on the southern edge of downtown, have set an exemplary standard for something better.
This is the second affordable housing complex that Michael Maltzan Architecture has created for the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust, and a third is in design development. The challenge for the architects was to make the best use of a confined lot and to infuse a block of small, single rooms with a strong identity. The trust decided to invest in high-quality construction to reduce the cost of maintenance.
Like the firm’s Inner City Arts campus, which appears as a gleaming white apparition in a blighted neighborhood, so does this saw-tooth cylinder offer an oasis for its occupants, many of whom are ill or physically handicapped. “When people are on the street, they shut down,” said Maltzan. “Private space, counseling, and communal interplay can help them rejoin society. If you give tenants something they’re proud of, they’ll take care of it.” The absence of graffiti suggests that even vandals respect what he and project architect Kristina Loock have accomplished.
The cellular structure of the block is transformed into a dynamic hub that seems to spin as you speed past at fourth-floor level. The cylindrical form minimizes exposure to the freeway, and the angles orient windows away from the traffic while catching the flash of headlights passing by. Close up, the building has a powerful presence. The wood-and-concrete frame is clad in white stucco with brilliant yellow accents. Axial corridors link the lobby to rooms for medical services and communal areas. Concrete steps rise up through the courtyard to connect residential levels to the ground floor.
Ninety-five rooms are angled outward on five levels, and open onto galleries that encircle the inner courtyard, and onto two upper-level decks. Structural columns and service ducts on the inner surface of the cylinder are clad in galvanized metal, and these dramatically angled fins support the gallery’s handrails. They also serve as baffles to give residents—who may live here indefinitely and treat the apartments as their permanent home—a sense of privacy. Walls are heavily insulated and the small windows are triple-glazed to shut out the roar of freeway traffic.
“We’ve come to realize the therapeutic value of good design,” said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the trust. “There’s an optimism about our buildings. They indicate that there’s a solution to a seemingly intractable problem. On the street, the homeless wonder if anybody cares whether they live or die. Michael understands how to integrate architecture with our program and send a message to the larger community.” He saw how the contractor and subs shared his sense of pride, requesting copies of the rendering as a memento of what they built. The word “hope” in several languages is emblazoned across the lobby wall and it aptly expresses the project’s potential.
It is this mix of realism and idealism, functionality and inspiration that makes the New Carver Apartments (named for an older property that was torn down) such an important achievement. The building is far superior as a work of art to most so-called “luxury” apartments, with the power to transform lives and reshape public perceptions. Most architects would like to share their skills with a larger public but have found few opportunities to do so.
Though the trust has to compete for funds and relies to a large extent on federal subsidies, they have hired such firms as Koning Eizenberg and Killifer Flamming to put up new buildings and rehabilitate old ones. They now own 22 downtown properties containing 1,500 units. In the New Carver Apartments, they’ve raised the bar and created a model of affordable housing.