In 1781, Spanish explorer Felipe de Neve established El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula (The Village of the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula). A vast pastoral terrain teeming with grizzly bears surrounded the tiny outpost in what is now called California. In the beginning the creatures were unlikely companions, but soon the tranquil coexistence between beings and beasts devolved. After the Spaniards came the cowboys, then the railroads that brought the settlers. Most were farmers, who, unlike their predecessors, hunted grizzlies to protect their crops from foraging. Gradually the grizzlies were hounded into extinction—defenseless against newcomers’ ferocious determination to domesticate the great basin across which the City of Angels was quickly spreading. Bears gave way to people in the town blessed with warm winter sun.
Over time, this garden city grew to become a metropolis, home to nearly four million inhabitants. And yet, Los Angeles remains narrowly characterized by freestanding homes engulfed in lush vegetation. Every swath of industry, every mile of imposing infrastructure, every bit of dwelling, and all the fragmented space resulting from their confluence is obscured by the city’s Arcadian myth. What remains intact is a cliché to which all urban realities must surrender. So what value is there in pointing out, as does USC professor Todd Gish, that Los Angeles is also “built on the back of multifamily rental housing in an urban setting?”
Many believe that if new strategies in favor of density are not implemented, Angelenos will face the same fate as the grizzlies. While predators might not kill the city’s inhabitants, the inability to create denser forms of living may. Although some neighborhood activists and interest groups object to greater density and the potential ills that such practices might bring, pundits are quick to point to its advantages.
A handful of informed developers, financiers, planners, politicians, civic institutions, and architects have begun to script a revisionist plan for what it means to live in the city that is predicted to become the densest in the country. Together, these “place entrepreneurs,” so it appears, are seeking to radically alter the way urban living is conceived and implemented in Los Angeles.
One Santa Fe, located in Los Angeles’s river-adjacent Arts District, is such a project. Michael Maltzan Architecture designed the hyper-dense mixed-use development for a consortium of real estate developers and investors including Canyon Johnson Urban Fund. Realizing that cities are subject to uncertainty or chance, Maltzan describes One Santa Fe as well as other ongoing projects by his firm (the Sixth Street Viaduct and the Central Avenue Art Park) as examples of “anticipatory architecture”—exercises in form making that endow architecture with the power to productively shape urban policy, planning, and the city at large.
In contrast to Hollywood, where building up is intended, horizontality is One Santa Fe’s tactic for achieving greater density. Two six-story buildings occupy an unusually narrow four-acre interstitial strip wedged between South Santa Fe Avenue and an adjacent Metropolitan Transit Authority railyard. Running more than a quarter of a mile, the two elongated masses take cues from nearby linear forms including the Los Angeles River, adjacent rail lines, and SCI-Arc’s reconditioned freight depot building.
At 510,000 square feet, One Santa Fe fuses architectural prowess with developer ambition. The end result shares many traits with OMA’s recent Entrepôt Macdonald, a grand urban renewal project in northeast Paris. Envisioned as urban armature, Maltzan’s design invites other adjacent elements to participate in a larger civic project. At its northernmost end, the project links directly to the First Street Bridge, which carries pedestrian sidewalks, vehicular traffic, and the LA Metro Gold Line. There are open-air portals that punctuate the building volumes to afford visual and pedestrian access at strategic moments. Ground-level connections across the width of the site will soon provide access to a future commuter station to be located on the existing Metro repair yard. Proposed community gardens are planned atop of bridge-like appendages that are hoped to one-day link MMA’s project directly to the Los Angeles River. In the words of Maltzan, “One Santa Fe is a work-in-progress.” Whether these appendages will ever be realized depends heavily on a sustained collective effort involving the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Friends of the Los Angeles River, and other civic agencies.
Suggesting that the old edge of the city is the new center, One Santa Fe is intended to cater to a growing number of individuals seeking alternative lifestyle preferences— people who are less interested in owning a car or having a house and backyard and more excited by the thought of riding a bike, walking, or taking public transit to work—socially-minded folk who are not intimidated by socio-economic diversity. To that note, nearly 20 percent of the total 438 units are earmarked as affordable housing.
One Santa Fe oscillates between pragmatism and design wit. Ubiquitous construction methods, generic materials, and standard details mandated by cost effectiveness and building code are the architect’s palette. What Dan Flavin did with fluorescent tubes, or Frank Gehry with chain link, Maltzan must accomplish with sticks, stucco, and paint. In this particular instance, affect supersedes connoisseurship. The buildings’ signature white enhanced with red accents stands in stark contrast to the gritty, post-industrial landscape. Air conditioning condensers and ventilation ductwork march unapologetically across the rooftops, and the utilitarian nature of raw concrete ramps spiraling around like a wound up springboard at the building’s northern base is indebted to utility.
The architect’s choice to embrace the cheap and everyday is best understood by his deep suspicion of materials and detailing as “stand-ins” for what architecture is really about, claiming that material refinement is too frequently at the expense of bigger, more compelling issues. Maltzan urges that One Santa Fe is most successful when we can appreciate how the project operates at the scale of the city and at the scale of the surroundings community.
It is not likely that One Santa Fe will bring back the bears, but for Maltzan, the project does represent a moment in which architecture reestablishes a foothold at the table of civic engagement, a turning point where architects reclaim their rightful place as visionaries of large-scale urban propositions that influence urban policy, planning, and city growth. For Angelenos, it is a sign to take stock in their urban diversity rather than pretend L.A. is all about sunshine and seashells.