Residential neighborhoods all over Southern California are losing their character as owners and developers exploit escalating land values. North Westwood Village, master-planned in the 1920s as a small-scale community of rental properties, has been particularly hard-hit. The North Westwood Village Specific Plan mandates harmonious development, but that requirement was ignored from the 1960s on, as hills were carved away and big-box student rooming houses overwhelmed neighboring properties and narrow, winding streets. Development was driven by the growth of UCLA and its behemoth medical center. The university (a state institution unhindered by local regulations) was the worst offender, constructing oversized faux-historic blocks and trashing modern classics by Richard Neutra and John Lautner.
After a half century of abuse, the North Village has finally acquired an architectural gem, located across the street from Neutra’s landmark Strathmore Apartments. It required legal action by a neighborhood association to compel the developer to abandon the eyesore he had proposed and commission a new design from Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA). The challenge was to fit 31 units (totaling 37,000 square feet) onto a narrow, tilted wedge of land, stepping down from six to two stories in deference to Neutra’s design, a garden court of eight units terraced up a steep slope. The strategy reprised LOHA’s Habitat 825 on Kings Road in West Hollywood, where the site was excavated a story so that the new block would not overshadow the garden of Schindler’s classic studio-house.
The “luxury” condo towers along nearby Wilshire Boulevard and the dingbats on every side street are essentially alike: warrens of rooms and internal corridors, sealed off from nature and the street. LOHA’s works stand in contrast; two of the firm’s condo blocks in West Hollywood are set back from pocket parks, blurring the divide between public and private, and creating shared spaces that benefit the community as well as the residents.
“On Strathmore we asked ourselves, ‘What if we cut into the box and landscaped the different roof levels, allowing residents to engage the outdoors?’” said O’Herlihy.
That’s a concept as old as the Native American pueblos of the Southwest and the roof gardens of North Africa and the Middle East, but one that has been largely forgotten in the most developers’ rush to exploit every foot of rentable space.
With Studio 11024 on Strathmore, the architects go further. The city mandates a 50-foot wide view corridor through a block that is more than 150 feet long. LOHA reinterpreted this rule to create a linear divide, which accommodates outdoor walkways and stairs linking three roof gardens, and reduces the need for double-loaded corridors. Half the apartments have opening windows on two sides for abundant natural light and cross ventilation.
Most L.A. houses and apartment buildings are faced in stucco, all too often in beige tones. LOHA had used metal facing panels on previous jobs—Formosa 1140 in West Hollywood was clad in fire engine red. Though the budget was tight, they discovered the structure could be clad in ribbed, white enameled aluminum panels for only a few dollars a square foot more than a standard stucco finish ($16 versus $13). The panels are deployed on the two street facades in tiers of differently sized ribs. Those variations break up the mass of the conjoined blocks and the sheer planes serve as screens to capture crisp patterns of sun and shade. Lateral cuts serve as backdrops to the roof terraces and are clad with Hardie board, layered in six tones of yellowish green that become lighter as they ascend. The white echoes the Neutra and several neighboring blocks and responds to changes of light. Handrails and metal staircases pick up on the green walls, which introduce a vibrant new element into the townscape. They even inspired another property owner to repaint a faded pink block in forest green. Perforated white metal panels screen the staircases, teak benches divide up the terraces, and the sharp edges are softened by landscape architect Mia Lehrer’s generous plantings.
Nearly all L.A. apartment blocks are as repetitive as a motel, but LOHA insist on diversified interiors, ranging from studios to lofts. O’Herlihy—like architects Michael Maltzan, Kevin Daly, and other contemporaries—understands that a younger generation wants to break free of the conventional layouts imposed on earlier generations. On Strathmore, the two- and three-bedroom apartments were configured by the developer’s interior consultant, but the plans are varied, and there are three duplex apartments on the fifth floor.
Studio 11024 is a deceptively complex building with well-varied fenestration that responds organically to the shifts of elevation and orientation. It raises the bar for Westwood Village and shows how architecture adds value for the owner, tenants, and neighbors. Ideally, it will not become another student rooming house, but will attract a lively mix of residents, and encourage other developers to aim higher, hiring talented architects rather than docile hacks. It should also stiffen the resolve of the Westwood Community Design Review Board, which rejected the previous scheme and enthusiastically supported this, but has sometimes been too tolerant of mediocrity.