Few LA clients have as keen an appreciation for the added value of good architecture as the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT). To provide humane shelter for the city’s homeless, the nonprofit trust has commissioned leading local architects to design 23 SRO blocks Downtown, with others in development. Michael Maltzan won acclaim for his New Carver Apartments and Rainbow Apartments, and the organization has hired Koning Eizenberg, Killefer Flammang, and other well-regarded firms. Their most recent project is for themselves: Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects’ (LOHA) inspiring work environment for 60 SRHT staff.
The upper floors of an old hotel at the corner of Central and Seventh had already been converted to housing units, and LOHA has transformed the ground floor, formerly used for storage. O’Herlihy describes the 4,100-square-foot space as “an urban oasis within the otherwise chaotic Skid Row district.” His big move was to sheathe ten structural columns in aluminum tubes that branch out at the top to support extruded fluorescent lights, creating a luminous forest after dark. Blocked clerestories were revealed to pull in natural light, while glass doors open to a landscaped patio. A conference room and 11 private offices borrow natural light through glass partitions and their yellow walls are reflected in the polished concrete floor of the central area, which adapts to a wide variety of activities and informal meetings. The space was built out for under $60 per square foot.
The same mandate to do the most for the least guided LOHA’s designs for three sites on the periphery of downtown that SRHT was unable to acquire. Still SRHT will use them as models for future development, said SRHT executive director Mike Alvidrez.
The commissions grew out of LOHA’s condo blocks in West Hollywood, specifically the low-cost Gardiner Apartments, and the block on Formosa Avenue that faces onto a pocket park. All three emphasized green space, a welcome element in the most park-poor city in the country. “We opened the front door to the sidewalk to make the homeless a part of the community, rather than something to be feared,” said O’Herlihy.
The biggest challenge of the three was Plaza Vermont, located on the boundary of two gang territories. Rather than fortify the site, O’Herlihy proposed a staggered stack of prefabricated units, set back behind a garden that opens to the street but could be secured after dark, similar to Formosa. It exemplifies the vision of SRHT, and their insistence on buildings that include counseling and health services and boost the self-esteem of people who may be sick or addicted.
“Why can’t everyone enjoy good architecture?” asked O’Herlihy. “The homeless are never invited upstairs—they live their entire existence at street level. It’s an extraordinary experience for them to enjoy outdoor spaces at fourth-floor level with a view over the rooftops.”