The Star Apartments are Michael Maltzan Architecture’s third project for the Skid Row Housing Trust in downtown Los Angeles. In contrast to the firm’s 2009 New Carver Apartments—a sleek white cylinder with sharply faceted bays—Star is a rough-edged, asymmetrical stack of prefabricated units rising from an existing single-story podium of retail spaces. It’s a brilliant model for future development, but it illustrates the challenge of experimenting in L.A.—a city where bureaucrats are wedded to the status quo.
“From the start this was to be a prefab building because the Trust wanted to do a mixed-use project on Skid Row,” Maltzan explained. “Though they had enjoyed greater success than other nonprofits, their SROs had been criticized for failing to participate in the life of the city. A retail facility gave them a presence on the street, but that left us with a very confined site and we needed to build quickly and less invasively.” However, as he quickly discovered, the last use of prefabrication for multi-unit housing—a Dworsky Associates project on Bunker Hill—was completed 50 years ago.
L.A.’s building department considers a prefabricated unit to be a product, just like a light fixture or a doorknob, and thus requires stringent testing and a research report when prefabricated units are employed for anything larger than a single-family house. The architects had to work closely with city authorities to develop this as a pilot project in order to secure a building permit and certificate of occupancy.
Maltzan’s office designed the units, which are a uniform size and were mocked up and fabricated by Guerdon Enterprises in Idaho. The units are self-supporting and shipped as pairs, with a connector that was sawn through to separate them before they were craned into place and bolted together. A concrete deck and columns below support their weight. The wood boxes are fully equipped, and the logical course would have been to express the individual units to create a boldly articulated complex, as Moshe Safdie did with Habitat 67 in Montreal. Maltzan decided to give each unit a unifying stucco finish to disguise their factory-made character. “I was afraid it would appear as though we were warehousing the homeless in containers,” he said. “What would be architecturally juicy for market rate housing would have tricky connotations for an SRO.” From a bird’s eye perspective Star does read as an erector set; close-up it’s more subdued.
The Trust intended to keep the existing retail to generate revenue, but the L.A. County Health Department wanted to locate their first storefront healthcare facility on-site in an effort to get involved with people on the street and address problems before they became acute. The facility occupies half the ground floor with parking to the rear, and it offers physical and psychological healthcare for this and neighboring Trust properties.
Star Apartments is also an experiment in densification, and there, too, it points the way forward. Community areas are located on the second floor, with tightly clustered living units accessed from narrow walkways above. That allowed the architects to provide an expansive deck with gardens, a kitchen, a basketball court, and a jogging track around the perimeter, in close contact with the street. The contrast of spaciousness and compression accentuates the virtues of both. One could imagine a new layer of the city, one or more stories up from the ground. For the homeless, it’s literally a step up from the street. Some have been out there so long that they can no longer navigate the social network. “Shifts of scale are the hallmark of a city,” observed Maltzan. “In New York you might go from a small apartment to Central Park. I wanted to get away from the monotony and privatization of space you find in the suburbs, which have no density.”
Sadly, this ambitious project is undercut by poor detailing—from badly formed joints to uneven finishes and unintentionally exposed services. The budget was cut during the recession, construction was delayed, and the contractor was out of his depth. On the plus side, Maltzan overcame many obstacles, the building is fully leased, and the tenants are happy. The Trust has won praise and developers have been touring the project in search of fresh ideas. It may prove the seed of a new multi-level downtown, adopting prefabrication on a large scale to save time and money, and taking advantage of the many single-story buildings that flank the historic core.