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Ride Share or Ridership?

How does the design of Los Angeles’s new Expo Line stack up?

The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has finally rebuilt one of L.A’s original commuter streetcar lines: The Expo line, a 15.2-mile long appendage that will link Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Completion of the $2.5 billion route marks an important milestone for the region’s maturing 25-year-old rapid transit system. The lead architectural and urban design was by Gruen Associates who, with planning and design firm RAW International, crafted the system’s transit stops; Parsons Brinckerhoff carried out overall planning; and Skanska spearheaded construction. The Expo line is the transit agency’s latest effort to weave light rail travel into a growing, multimodal web of mobility options available to Angelenos—it is as much a new way to see Los Angeles as it is a train.

While the system’s 1990s-era subway stations play fast and loose with decorative schemes—from massive boulders at Beverly and Vermont to highly polished kitsch at the Hollywood and Vine and Chinatown stops—Expo stations are subdued. Mostly located at-grade and topped by a half-hexagonal mop of ocean wave–inspired, perforated aluminum panels supported by a sinuous, pale-blue, crisscrossing armature, the stations try hard to be poetically mundane. A product of tight budgets, the line’s many at-grade crossings and stations result in a crude and dangerous construct: Drivers are forced to acknowledge light rail trains and passengers as a legitimate urban presence through their sheer occupation of the street. This condition could benefit from a more aggressive transformation of the intersections and sidewalks leading up to each station: Introducing simple elements like bollards, contrasting paving strategies, and other speed mitigating measures would do much to improve what should be nodes of pedestrian activity.

Stations between Downtown L.A. and the University of Southern California campus are easily approached from the street via handicap ramps and feature no-frills signage. The concourses are, again, simple in their articulation, with a smattering of concrete and aluminum benches. These stations are earnest attempts at creating planted flags in what might one day be a larger, more prototypically pedestrian urban expanse. The empty storefronts along many of the tacky, faux-Italianate perimeter block apartment complexes in the area, while highlighted by the stations’ electric bolt silhouette, have yet to benefit from the line’s booming ridership. As of now, these stops are desolate, quite a few gentrification waves away from being viable transit-oriented developments. At-grade stops between USC and Culver City are also unsuccessful as stations, with complicated tangles of pedestrians, trains, and drivers.

The elevated stations further west, however, like those at Culver City, La Cienega, and Bundy, announce themselves from a distance as a new type of elevated object in the Southern California sky. Less majestic than Chicago’s industrial-era L stations, the elevated Expo stops gently appropriate the language of freeway vernacular, subverting the typical L.A. overpass by co-locating a landscaped bicycle path and potentially, future stations for the system’s new bike share program, along the length of most of the line. These areas are straightforwardly open spaces; the overhead bridges’ weights reach the ground via four discrete and compact piers, leaving room for drop off and transfer areas. Large concrete walls designed in great relief, populated with complex, pixelated geometric motifs and lushly planted with drought-tolerant flora line the bike path itself. Instead of dank, unwelcoming troll bridges like those associated with the freeways, Expo’s overhead crossings are places for collective movement, an aspect exemplified by their minimal treatment and the location of a variety of specially-commissioned art installations at each stop. Riders ascend via elevators and stairways to reach the platforms that provide molehills from which to gaze out over the city’s flatlands. But, because one is walking—and waiting—instead of driving, the effect is potentially one of true introspection.

The western terminus at Santa Monica is also a fundamentally pedestrian urban gesture. The station is built as an elevated plaza that cascades to the north in a broad set of stairs, funneling travelers toward major pedestrian shopping areas and into the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, redesigned as a massive diagonal crossing intersection. Here, the intersection is striped with massive white bands of paint in a strangely fitting plaza and civic space for Los Angeles.

If it is indeed Metro’s goal to normalize multi-modal transit in Los Angeles, then the Expo train, with a few tweaks, is a good template for what the rest of the region’s rapid transit system might look like in the future. Expo’s design and existence is an unexpectedly powerful, if somewhat work-in-progress expression on behalf of transit-mixed streets.

       
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DIA In, DIA Out

Denver’s airport additions aims high, but the city needs more than one-off showcase projects

On April 22, the city of Denver inaugurated the Denver International Airport Transit Center, a commuter rail terminal that anchors the previously completed Westin hotel. The transit center provides Denver with a key piece of infrastructure (not to mention a signifier of ambition and status) while finally completing a plan that was over 20 years in the making.

In the transit center and associated hotel, Gensler’s steady hand has provided Denver with a handsome, if unexceptional, addition to the airport. Few designs, including Calatrava’s original proposal, could match the tectonic celebration that is the original Fentress Architects–designed terminal. However, Gensler carefully crafted a piece of architecture that is deferential to the unique and timelessly beautiful structure, while humbly presenting its own attractive qualities. From the catenary swoop of the Westin roof to the well-executed structural canopies interpenetrating it, this is a project that aspires to deliver great design in spite of the city’s traditionally conservative approach to architecture.

The transit center suffers from a common problem in Denver projects: an uneven approach to landscape. Denver-based landscape architects Valerian and studioINSITE provided a variety of landscaped spaces, but it seems that only those that are inaccessible and visible from afar are attractive. The crux of the project—the plaza between the new hotel and the existing terminal hall through which passengers pass when moving from the train station to the airport terminal—is a drab beige and lifeless expanse of brick pavers and an insult to the original terminal and the aspirations of this new addition.

 

 

A major component was the procurement of a wide variety of public art and its integration with the architectural and landscape design. In most cases, such as Patrick Marold’s Shadow Array, it supplements the design in a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing way. In the grand public plaza, however, Ned Kahn’s kinetic artwork only adds to the lifeless melancholia, making the traveler wish for a patch of swaying greenery, which, ironically, Kahn’s piece is supposed to evoke.

Denver’s new train line is anchored by exceptional architecture on both ends (SOM’s canopy at Union Station is a symphony of structure and simplicity), as well as generally impressive pieces of monumental public art at every station. Yet the project is being used to justify and support the unsustainable suburban sprawl slowly creeping eastward. The city has focused on the financial impact of additional airport hotels and conference centers being developed at the Peña Boulevard station, but one must wonder what value they add to Denver’s culture and what environmental and social debt we have incurred by supporting their construction. Not all commuters and visitors will use transit, and the burdens of commuting weigh unevenly on the most marginalized and financially strained citizens among us.

If the city does intend to stitch together the thirty mile gap between central Denver and the airport with new development, we should aim higher than lifeless beige boxes surrounded by parking lots in spite of the transit line just feet away. Conversely, while central Denver’s Union Station and the adjacent train canopy provide viable anchors for downtown revitalization, they are hemmed in and overpowered by ramparts of beige stucco and cement siding. Marketing materials for both the transit center and Union Station have championed the economic impact of the development they will spur, which is no doubt important, but architecture aspires to be measured by more than function and economic effect.

Just as the design of this new hotel and transit center ignores the spaces that knit the project together with the past, so has Denver ignored the workaday spaces that compose the majority of the city. City government (and, by extension, the voters) seem to believe that no matter how dismal the majority of urban infill is (or how unsustainable development in an empty field is), they can drop a Libeskind, Graves, or Calatrava in the middle of it and somehow lend Denver the cultural and aesthetic capital they feel it should have. The overlooked projects that make up the urban fabric have been so thoroughly neglected—in form and execution and analysis and criticism—that the city lacks the cultural vocabulary necessary to articulate what is off about its built environment. Like many American cities, Denver is struggling with its low zoning density, huge numbers of cars, uncultivated aesthetic standards, and particularly oppressive height restrictions. Projects like Denver International Airport’s Hotel and Transit Center (and the larger FasTracks regional transit initiative) are but the germ of a solution.

One attractive project alone cannot chart a new course for architectural and urban design in the city. Denver is blessed with many of the ingredients necessary for a sophisticated and expressive regional modernism to flourish: a native population that cherishes the city, a steady stream of immigrants, a strong environmental consciousness, plentiful local materials, robust building trades, advanced manufacturing and fabrication, and a unique climate. What the city requires is an elevated discourse around architecture and urbanism that goes beyond a limited number of showcase projects and is fostered by the same degree of cultural investment and education that Denver has put into its public art program and economic development initiatives—the results of which speak for themselves.

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Gordon Parks Arts Hall
Barbara Karant

The University of Chicago is often praised for its rigorous academics, its serene location in an enclave on South Side, its superb bookstores and museums, and its traditional ivy-laden, collegiate atmosphere. It is less frequently cited for its impressive collection of buildings designed by notable modern, postmodern, and contemporary architects: Henry N. Cobb, Holabird & Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, SOM, Murphy/Jahn, César Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Jeanne Gang—and the list goes on—are all represented on the campus. In October 2015, Chicago–based Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA) joined these prestigious ranks with their Gordon Parks Arts Hall, the latest addition to the University of Chicago Laboratory School.

Steve Hall

 

Located at the southeastern corner of the university campus, the Lab School occupies two square blocks. The eastern block is dedicated to a playing field and sports facilities, while the academic buildings sit around the perimeter of the western block. The new arts wing is given pride of place along the north side of the block—being the first thing one sees as one approaches from the north, east, or west, this VDTA addition is the new face of the South Side prep school.

Set back from the street, it faces Scammon Garden to the north and the Lab School’s central courtyard to the south. Both are important exterior spaces used for recreation and instruction, and are extensions of the Main Lobby gathering space. The Scammon Garden in particular elegantly responds to the architecture; a simple green field meets the main entrance in a ripple of concentric circles, as though the building were a stone dropped in a pond of grass.

From the north, the building appears as a long rectangular form made of Indiana limestone and glass. This continuous curtain wall is intersected by an irregular procession of rectangular masses, or “vertical solar chimneys,” which punctate the long facade and recall, abstractly, the buttresses of a gothic cathedral. The limestone carries around to the east and west facades, connecting the hall materially to its context—the Lab School’s original limestone building was designed by James Gamble Rogers in 1896—while glass-enclosed corridors connect it to the existing structures that flank the new wing on the east and west ends.

Barbara Karant (left), Steve Hall (right)

 

The building has spaces for music and visual and performing arts education for the middle school and high school students. Arranged along the north side of the building, all the classrooms are treated to floor-to-ceiling glass and a wash of natural light. Visual arts and music are designated to the upper two floors with studio and rehearsal spaces as well as digital media labs. On the first floor, there are classrooms for the performing arts, a formal art gallery for the display of student work, the Studio Theater, used for cinema screening, and the 250-seat Sherry Lansing black-box theater that doubles as a sound stage. According to the architects, Gordon Parks Arts Hall is a symbol of the Lab School’s commitment to multimedia literacy and “should be understood as a place where work is created by hand, and then shown to a larger, real or virtual audience using every possible media imaginable,” said Joe Valerio, VDTA design principal.

The most prominent feature of the first floor is the 750-seat assembly hall for performances, meetings, and special events. A large cylindrical drum, the hall dominates the double-height lobby and intersects the southern wall of the building, jutting out into the courtyard. It is the one interior volume that makes its presence known externally, signaling its importance beyond the arts program and for the school at large.

While the architects refer to the project as “emphatically modern” in its formal articulation and in its “seamless connection between the outdoors and the interior,” it has a distinctly postmodern flavor. The east and west facades are marked by a gabled roof profile and a fenestration pattern which mimics the adjacent neo-gothic towers of Belfield Hall. This explicit contextual gesture mixes somewhat incongruously with the north facade, a modernist curtain wall that seems to buckle under some invisible pressure—is this a nod to the deconstructivist fold, or simply a flex of the firm’s digital muscles? Either way, the historicist references and not-so-subtle collage of architectural styles suggest the building belongs to a strain of contemporary-corporate design, a neo-postmodernism, where modern architecture is no longer the primary mode of expression but rather one among many styles to reference, mimic, and embellish.

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Salt Shed: In Praise of the Urban Object
WXY and Dattner Architects' Spring Street Salt Shed joins a select few buildings in New York City that can be considered estranged urban objects as much as architecture.
Field Condition
The city consists of a multitude of architectural and infrastructural objects. We tend to resist the description of “object,” for we typically find that the life of urbanity comes from events, not blunt material things. It is through programmatic activities that we experience the vibrancy of human occupancy that lends quality to the experience of the city. These activities come so much to the fore that architecture often drifts into a backdrop experienced in a habitual state of distraction. In a city such as New York, architecture is often only noticed by someone unaccustomed to it—the tourist—or when a change in demolition or construction reconfigures it. Even so, these changes usually amount to new amenities, new restaurants, new residences, new offices; changes that fit comfortably within the set of activities of the city, and after a brief period of acclimation settle into the background again. But not all urban structures are so easily assimilated. There are a collection of buildings in the city that always strike one as other, as something not easily reduced to the events of inhabitation. I define these as objects, for these structures maintain their objecthood over a longer period of time than other buildings. Two examples in downtown Manhattan that testify to this quality are the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel Ventilation building and the lower west side’s new Salt Shed. Even though I know the nominal usage for these structures (for air exhaust and salt storage respectively), I don’t know how I can use them. I cannot enter these structures, physically, visually, or even conceptually, for in a way they are buildings that are not for people, their function is on a different scale of material organization. As such, these buildings remain objects that resist reduction to the relations of human events.
Albert Vecerka / Esto
This “objectness” can often be viewed negatively as these constructions do not in themselves provide any activities for urban street life. I would like to argue otherwise. The positive appreciation of a city should not be reducible to the amount of people on a street, to the amount of restaurants, to the amount of shopping, to the price per square foot of commercial exchange. This reduction of the city to commerce is one of the underlying drivers of how urban success is measured. Manhattan real estate crossed one trillion dollars in worth recently, and this number seems to attest to the strength and vibrancy of the city. Stone, glass, and concrete disappear into an abstraction of economic data. The reader may now quickly suggest that the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel Ventilation building and the Salt Shed are nothing if not gigantic components in the economic engine allowing car traffic to access the densest part of the city and continue to function during inclement weather. This is, of course, correct regarding the functional necessity of these buildings. But, this is not the crux of the argument. When I walk past Battery Park, the ventilation building always strikes me. Why? It is not a beautiful building; it is not even that interesting as an architectural design, so why does it hit me? One reason: It is a freestanding building with no windows. This makes me think, ‘what the hell is going on in there?’ The absence of aperture suggests that this thing may not be for human inhabitation. It is the following condition where things get interesting.
Field Condition
The elongated intensification of attention that the exhaust building created forces me to look at all of the buildings nearby differently. They leap out of their background for a moment, and become exactly what they are, aesthetic objects in the city. And during this experience I see the city for the material fact that it is. This is what a successful urban object can do. It disturbs, or estranges, the background of reality for a moment and allows an engagement with the city in an alternate matter. Without moments like this, the city quickly becomes a habitually consumed image, smoothly operating as a backdrop for tourism, domesticity, labor, consumption, and investment. This is why I quite like the new Salt Shed. The first time I saw it I had the reaction of “What the hell is this?” Yes, it does have a striking form of faceted geometry and a raw exposed concrete surface that speaks a language of difference in relation to its context. But, as important as these formal and material aspects are for the architecture, they are doubled when I realized that I could see no doors or windows, no exterior indication of interior use, the appearance of a single solid mass. I have no idea if this structure serves its function successfully. (I hope it does, for I would like it to stay). I also have no idea about the symbolic associations desired by the architects. My interest in the building is not to be found in these explanations of functional or cultural meaning. Instead its strength is similar to the best aesthetic abstractions; it resists interpretation and obscures easy understandings. When you see it, you don’t know what to do with it. It forces you to look at it longer, more intensely, differently. This aesthetic shift offers a re-engagement with the city in its vicinity, it pushes the background to the fore for a moment and allows one to consider just how abstract and artificial the construct of “the city” as material reality actually is. It is in these moments that the aesthetics of the city come alive, which is quite a wonderful gift to the City of New York.
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One Santa Fe
Iwan Baan

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.

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Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
As BAMPFA finishes construction, the museum cafe cantilevers over the soon-to-open entrance.
Iwan Baan

Architecture of Life. There’s nothing retiring about the ambitious title of the inaugural exhibition of The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). When the new building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro opens at the end of January, the sweeping survey curated by museum director Lawrence Rinder will fill all of the galleries with an imaginative, interdisciplinary, and international collection of some 250 works drawn from art, architecture, and science.

Although the show promises some self-reflexive spectacle, it is the title of the initial film program that sets the tone for an understanding of DS+R’s hybrid adaptive reuse and suggestive formalism. The retrospective series Cinema Mon Amour will ask celebrities, filmmakers, and artists to select precedent-setting films for screening. The New York City–based firm’s design is an architecture mon amour; it cannot help but carry the burden of longing for past plans and former architectures.

 

It is impossible to visit the Downtown Berkeley museum without evoking memories of Mario Ciampi’s raw concrete edifice across campus. Seismic issues drove BAMPFA out of that 1970 building, but Rinder also suggested that the architect’s open atrium and spiral of cantilevered, tray-like galleries made it a challenging space to hang and see art, setting up the case for a replacement rather than renovation. In 2008, the museum announced a $200 million design by Toyo Ito to be located along Center Street. The transit-friendly location paired nicely with an ongoing revival of downtown Berkeley and a reorientation of the campus-city interface to the west, rather than south toward Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues.

DS+R’s design for the new theater acts as a counterpoint to the existing art deco building. Architectural tension builds where the two structures come together.
 

Then the recession hit. The university needed a cheaper option for the Center Street site. At $112 million, DS+R’s scheme efficiently integrates the existing 48,000-square-foot art deco industrial building and an organically shaped, 35,000-square-foot structure (much of which dedicated to the theater and to Babette, the upper level cafe). In adapting the older WPA structure—formerly the University of California printing plant—the museum adds another layer of history: In 1945 the UN Charter was printed in the building.

And it is impossible to visit the new BAMPFA without inducing comparisons to Los Angeles’s The Broad, even though the two museums—one budget-minded, one blockbuster—share few common approaches and features. Differences even extend to design principal: Within the DS+R universe, Elizabeth Diller oversaw The Broad, while Charles Renfro took on the Berkeley project. Nevertheless, as BAMPFA is matched against the spatial drama of both Ciampi building and The Broad, it comes up pale—Depression-era architecture jazzed up with a shiny, stainless-steel skin.

Inside, DS+R duly parcels out the programmatic requirements, the largest being the main gallery lit by the original north-facing sawtooth skylights and its programmatic opposite, the windowless 232-seat theater—the auditorium’s volume gives the building exterior its rounded form. Four additional white-walled galleries (perfectly functional, but dull) and a tiny 33-seat theater are tucked below grade.

 

BAMPFA is an unrequited architecture—a building wishing it was more than the sum of its parts, of its pasts. But the pragmatic holds sway. Rinder noted that one goal of the museum was to “present our programmatic capacity in a safer building with a more efficient design.”

The best spatial experiences come when the programmatic imperative lightens up, producing overlaps and intersections indicative of DS+R’s imprint. The meeting of the auditorium and the older structure, for instance, produces stagy section slippages and creates an atrium that has views to the street and into study areas. A visit to the upstairs cafe—a chili-red corridor-esque space—pays off with God-like glimpses into the large gallery below and a viewing platform overlooking Center Street.

Brushing away the past, the museum’s current romance seems to be focused on engaging the public and establishing itself as a civic institution. Rinder noted that only 30 percent of museum visitors are students. Storefront windows along the main facade open onto the Art Wall, a 60- by 25-foot space reserved for temporary murals. A painting by Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie will inaugurate the space.

 

DS+R installed a LED video screen on the north exterior wall of the main theater in order to screen films outside the typical auditorium setting. With a very small outdoor lawn for gathering, it is unclear at moment how this screen will transcend any prescribed role as digital billboard.

Just off the entry and ticketing, the ground floor drops away, replaced by cascade of meticulously joined wooden risers. Built by master woodworker Paul Discoe out of Canary Island pine lumber harvested on-site, the performance space is a site-specific artwork in itself. Rinder emphasized that attention to craftsmanship and natural materials connects to a Bay Area ethos: “It’s more Berkeley-ish than DS+R-ish.”

But is the space homage to Ciampi’s atrium, a tribute to the happenings when the museum opened in 1970, or a contemporary recognition of the need for public performance spaces in today’s cultural venues? In the end, BAMPFA’s future is a clouded personal and institutional memory, leaving one to wonder whether the museum’s architecture is robust enough move beyond lingering histories and truly engage downtown Berkeley.

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Pico Branch Library
Large windows and deep overhangs connect Santa Monica's Pico Branch library to the surrounding Virginia Avenue park.
Eric Staudenmaier Photography

 

 

 

 

The City of Santa Monica first approached Koning Eizenberg Architecture (KEA) about their new branch library back in 2008. The city hadn’t inaugurated a new branch library building since the 1960s, and they came to the award-winning Santa Monica architects’ office with a goal to develop a new kind of inclusive and informal library for the surrounding community in Virginia Avenue Park on Pico Boulevard. The library would need to sit among and connect the incongruous infrastructural pieces of the 9.5-acre park: the open plaza that supports a Saturday farmers market, the senior center building where yoga classes are held, the “splash pad” spouting fountain where kids frolic in the summers, as well as basketball courts, a playground, picnic areas, and parking. It was a lot to ask of any 8,400-square-foot structure, but it was ultimately a project that KEA was well-suited to design and execute.

 

Inside, the plan is a departure from the traditional Carnegie library model—think dark wood paneling and a librarian shushing idle chatter from a centralized desk. The new model for the Pico branch library has a flexible, free plan without much compartmentalization; access to technology, digital commons, and computer stations are what draw the public into a library these days. KEA surmised that a free plan would be adaptable to changes over time, and might also allow the staff and end users to adapt the space to their needs, hopefully allowing park patrons to feel like they could take ownership as well.

Outside, the building expands park-ward in all directions with canopies, graphic elements, and textures (many derived from the topography of the park) that blur and stretch the intention of use, activity, and occupation.

The rectangular building sits at the site’s center, oriented to harness optimal daylight. The library’s community room—for meetings and after-school study programs—sits under the same roof structure but is detached and pulled to the other side of the mandatory fire truck lane that bisects the site south from Pico Boulevard to the north parking lot. The two volumes sit apart but remain connected by the steel framed canopy between that serves as support for photovoltaic panels as it casts a shadow pattern onto what has unintentionally become a skateboard ramp. This kind of fortunate serendipity happens frequently at the new Pico library branch; architectural elements serve multiple functions in an easy orchestration that even KEA principal and lead designer Nathan Bishop hadn’t anticipated.

 

“Our approach to [the library’s] architectural image was about making sure it was something that people can make their own. It should feel easy, informal, and welcoming while still exhibiting a sense of exuberance and wonder,” said Bishop. “It doesn’t have to be executed with heavy handed architecture. If it just seems like an art object, then it won’t have a resonance with the community in which it belongs, and no one would ever feel like it’s theirs.”

If the library building serves as an urban unifier of the park, the roof structure is the unifying architectural form in the design scheme. Up to 20 feet deep in some areas, the roof is geared for performance, providing the surface area for a significant, LEED-platinum-worthy rainwater catchment system. The depth also accommodates the interior return air plenum. This keeps the ceiling free of grilles and allowed KEA to develop a formal language of inverted ridges and valleys that give the different spaces below a cohesive field of visual reference. The ceiling’s angular gestures also allow for an even modulation between the plentiful afternoon daylight that spills into the library’s south side and the light from fixtures for tasks and reading.

The east side of the library points toward the park’s vast lawn, where a smallish area of stacks is a tidy reminder that modern libraries are less about the book depository and more about the lending out of technology (DVDs, not books, are the items most in demand at the Pico branch). A central seating area outside of the stacks flows into the south corner where sunlit perimeter seating is perched under an up-arching wing of the roof overhang. Here, views expand from the library out to the main lawn through desktop-to-ceiling height windows.

“At the library’s edges we wanted it to feel participatory instead of like a boundary,” Bishop explained. “At each edge we tried to pull the activity of the park into the library and vice versa. It’s a continuous public space in a lot of ways.”

Pico Boulevard is the dividing line of the city of Santa Monica. North toward Interstate 10, the housing stock is mostly multifamily apartment homes for moderate-income families. South of the park and of Pico Boulevard, single-family homes sell for over two million dollars. KEA made sure that the Pico library branch didn’t privilege one side of the park over the other, and its experiment in neighborhood connectivity is most significant in this spirit of quiet assertion—that a building can possess a multitude of functions, but is only successful in doing so if it remains a place of enjoyment and discovery for everyone.

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3595 Broadway
3595 BROADWAY IS NOT NAMED AFTER A PATRON, AND HAS A LOW ONLINE PROFILE , BUT ITS ARCHITECTURE LAYS BARE SOME OF THE MOST PRESSING ISSUES IN UNIVERSITY DEVELOPMENT.
Marcelo Lopez-Dinardi

Designed by Renzo Piano, the Jerome L. Green Science Center at the new Columbia University Manhattanville Campus along 125th street and Broadway is basically a square and less expressive version of the Whitney Museum. The Columbia University Medical Center and Graduate Education building at 104 Haven Avenue between 171st and 172nd streets was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It epitomizes the architectural expression of continuity that was characteristic of the late 1990s and early 2000s and is intended to “foster connection and collaboration” among students, faculty and the medical community.

However, it’s Columbia’s 3595 Broadway, a massive, twelve-story concrete structure on the southwest corner of 148th street, that can help us ask questions about the role of the university and its expansion plans. This building is designed by a “specialized” local architectural firm to create “sustainable communities” through “well-designed and high-performance architecture” projects. These designations are highly questionable.

3595 Broadway is not named after a patron or an academic figure, it is only a series of numbers. The numbers are the product of a lot of parcel consolidation, programmatic swapping, development air rights, easement acquisition, and a site strategy that included the demolition of a townhouse built in 1901. 3581-87 Broadway, 3595 Broadway, 3591-3599 Broadway and 600 W 148th Street are all numbers involved in the real estate and architectural operations.

The Columbia University Medical Center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler
 

3595 Broadway isn't featured in the same high-profile way on the Columbia site like its uptown companions. Here is 3595 Broadway, Manhattanville, and the Medical Center.

The new building will host the Meeting with God Church Inc., currently next door (occupying 3581-87 Broadway since 2007), formalizing the vacating and lot consolidation with 147th street for a future numbered project (also owned by the university). It proposes to construct and manufacture affordable housing 20 blocks north of the Manhattanville Campus as a measure to supply housing to “some residents” who were displaced by the larger operation on 125th street.

3595 Broadway is a massive opaque structure broken in two main volumes with a distinct brick cladding: Red terra cotta and sand-cream are the agents of contextualism. A third color of brick—black—is used to articulate the space between the two main volumes toward Broadway to formally give the impression that there are two buildings instead of one. A third, setback volume atop is fully clad in sand-cream color with black-brick details. A dark-brown cast-stone base fixes the building to the ground.

Renzo Piano’s Jerome L. Green Science Center.
Courtesy of RPBW
 

3595 Broadway followed its legal capacities to build to the very edge of the plot line, permanently blocking two windows per floor of the adjacent 100-year-old brownstone on the west, condemning those units to gloomy interiors. The site’s previous retail building—built around 1969—had a typical eight-to-ten foot easement space for light and ventilation to the building next door. That space gained adds roughly 3,000 square feet to the first four floors, a drop in 3595’s 150,000-square-foot bucket. It seems that the domestic living environment of at least four units with three to five people each (12 to 20 total) was not enough of a reason to keep the light and ventilation patio for the mental sanity of all; it was not enough of a community.

The building is said to have three green roofs. I have seen one from my building rooftop and it’s adorned with mechanical air handling units and exhausts. There is already a surveillance system in place, as well as exterior lighting that produces yellow light typical of the 1990s, most importantly, it is vandal-proof.

I am glad Columbia University will divest from for-profit prison companies (they should eliminate all their ties with them), but perhaps they should also revise the legibility and legality frameworks for their expansion plans. They could re-evaluate what their architecture can be: provocative, controversial, agonistic, or radical. They could at least clarify what “high-performance” means for the new building, and which “sustainable community” they are sustaining. Unfortunately, they fall into the “well-designed” project rhetoric that lacks a proposition. I believe a research university at the highest level should also have highest design ambitions and competencies.

Renderings of the Jerome L. Green Science Center.
Courtesy of RPBW
 

To what “community” does this building serve by implementing these architectural strategies characteristic of the neoliberal propositions of the 1980s? 3595 Broadway’s apparent non-confrontational formal language visualizes critical conditions about how the university positions itself when speaking to their ivy-league-educated audience in their Manhattanville and Medical Center buildings in comparison to the public around their 3595 Broadway building at 148th street. The building in Hamilton Heights is evidence of how architecture is manipulated and treated with different standards (nothing new here) and how their formal, material, visual, programmatic, and even legal strategies (this is the only project where there is no executive architect separated from the design architect) are a concrete infrastructure for impressing and perpetuating what this seemingly innocuous building is doing: patronizing, marginalizing, and stigmatizing a neighborhood with the this-is-what-you-deserve-community-building proposition. Here, both the legible and legal framework clarify the role of architecture as a media for formulating ambitions, or lack thereof.

What is being manufactured is probably something different—something that will not speak to two-tone bricks compositions or legal compliance of construction codes. It makes legible some of the hard realities of the local and global expanding American university, where the school is both a real estate developer and an educational facility. Can or should the university aim for less apparent legibility in order to truly embrace progressive modes of building the future following its academic mandate? Can or should the university stop contributing as an inane city developer with their apparent mundane buildings? 3595 Broadway should not be a bland and insipid sample of physical reality. I am sure the university aims for an improved future for all, but it cannot fail in communities where it may be needed more.

The selection of the architect as designer and the executive architect also supports the problematic legibility all these projects are communicating willfully or not. The hiring of a “specialist” firm to work on 3595 Broadway reaffirms both the lack of “specificity” that a project may require (and questions the idea of specialization itself) and the problem of disciplinary knowledge in an architectural commission.

All the university’s expansions will for sure score the “green points” needed for institutional validation including that of the Enterprise Green Communities, although I am still struggling to find the “high” and the ‘”performance” in 3595 Broadway. Perhaps it is only in the less apparent numbers that no one in the neighborhood will see or experience with exception of rent hikes. There is much to discuss about the Manhattanville Campus and the Medical Center, their content, and the role of the university in them. Unfortunately, 3595 Broadway is a mute conversation.

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Catamount Center
Courtesy Independent Architecture

Denver’s Paul Andersen of Independent Architecture has been making waves in the national architectural discourse, but has retained a comparably low profile in his hometown of Denver. The inclusion of his work in the preliminary Chicago Architecture Biennial—a kiosk produced in collaboration with Paul Preissner and University of Illinois-Chicago—is an important moment, as is the pending completion of Andersen’s first building-scale project.

The recently completed Catamount Center cluster housing/field station project is the firm’s first full-scale building to be realized. The project is a small dormitory serving a field station and ecological research center located outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Located on a sloping and somewhat remote site featuring views of Pike’s Peak and the Front Range, the project must confront many of the more challenging aspects of building in the Rocky Mountain region. Independent Architecture’s handling of the considerable site topography and limitations, environmental considerations and program generates an innovative architecture. Andersen described the process of designing the project, “There are a few things we slowly realized we could take advantage of. Views to the south are of Pike’s Peak. The client also wanted some space that was protected from the wind, so we chose a courtyard scheme from the earliest models. The scheme started as a spiral, which was a way we could opportunistically solve the issue of a slope that faces east with a view to the south… We try to identify opportunities to simplify things by making them more integrated.”

The Catamount Center’s design in Colorado Springs, Colorado, integrates the dormitory-style living spaces with the sloped site and carves out space for an outdoor classroom.
 

This approach to design is carried through to the material and formal expression of the building. The spiraling form is visually reinforced with gently radiused corners that project an air of Pop-Art sensibility along with an organicism that befits an ecological research institute. The building mass is buffered from the site by an equally curvaceous concrete apron, popping the building out of its surroundings and providing a functional walkway encircling the building. The exterior of the project is finished with a playfully deployed standing-seam metal skin.

 

Here, Andersen takes advantage of the corrugated construction to seamlessly wrap the curving walls of the project in a seemingly endless ribbon. The rugged metal skin plays perfectly against the curvilinear forms, speaking at once to the local vernacular and the nature of the work done at the site. Simple glazing oriented toward the views and looking into the courtyard completes the exterior of the project, offering a simplicity and diagrammatic clarity that belies the rigorous thought and planning behind this building. Andersen reiterates, “We are trying to do things that are really quite complex but which look simple in the end.”

With Denver and the Mountain West undergoing sustained growth and immigration, the demand for exceptional design from avant-garde architects will only increase. It is the thinking and practice of young firms in the city that will take these opportunities and turn them into projects that push international architectural discourse forward, while simultaneously elevating design in the region—a winning situation for all involved.

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Petersen Automotive Museum
Michael Bodell

Wilshire Boulevard is impressive for both its length as well as its remarkable collection of notable architecture, much of it pedigreed within L.A.’s historical time line beginning in 1895. Wilshire was also made for the automobile. Over the decades it has evolved into a mélange of typologies and styles, to be viewed by most Angelenos through the rearview mirror of their car rather than by the lone flaneur pounding the pavement. To attract attention in the parade of largely unremarkable architecture that makes up the majority of building stock along the boulevard, only the brash and bold will do.

The newly redesigned Petersen Automotive Museum by architects Kohn Petersen Fox stimulates the senses. Brash and bold it most certainly is, with an undulating steel facade wrapped in slick red and silver ribbons of LED-lined steel panels. The ribbons project from the eclipsed shell of Welton Becket’s Seibu Department Store supported on tubular struts. Produced in Kansas City and brought to L.A. by semi-truck, each ribbon was computationally designed to fit together in the field, thereby reducing on-site coordination. Expertly engineered, flawlessly fabricated, and installed on time and on budget by Matt Construction and Zahner Inc., this energetic renovation of the original Petersen is KPF’s romance with the visual image of aerodynamics of a racecar in a wind tunnel. But this flirtation reads as an excuse to produce visual exuberance, and what we’re left with is an articulated billboard, nostalgically hawking the cosmetics of a familiar, and more primitive digital age.

Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum
 

However, no one can debate that the Petersen now visually owns the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire. A monster truck previously blasted out of the old museum’s facade in an attempt to communicate the contemporary program within. A sleek wrapper has replaced those marketing gimmicks, but programmatic ambiguity remains the architectural imperative of the new Petersen. Becket’s big box is still formally present, but now clad in KPF’s red and silver skin, it’s got “bling” in surplus. Behind the stainless-steel ribbons is a utilitarian rain screen of red corrugated steel, completing a textbook example of Venturi’s decorated shed, but one that offers no clever cues toward its program, nor its larger cultural purpose.

Herein lies the true problem for the Petersen Automotive Museum: The building’s dominating opacity doesn’t work for a block of Wilshire soon to be subway adjacent, and it is assumed, will host more pedestrians as a result. The few sections of glazing at the ground floor are certainly welcome, but the contemporary flaneur needs continuous storefronts stocked with spectacle in order to turn their gaze away from their smart phone. Becket’s original design was certainly no more transparent, but can be excused given its time and program—a postwar department store whose patrons entered from the rear through the parking garage. The contemporary museum visitor may often arrive on foot.

Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum
 

To their credit, the design team at KPF did challenge the client’s brief, which ruled out a curtain wall for both its cost and environmental impact on the collection. They developed the entry as a concourse, or sectional promenade through the building that includes visual connections to the ground floor galleries and restaurant from the interior of the building. This nod to the changing urbanism along Wilshire allows the public to filter into the lobby from both the sidewalk and the parking garage at the rear, either to visit the museum, grab a meal at the restaurant inside the Petersen lobby, or journey onward to LACMA nearby.

The Petersen board championed opaque galleries as an obvious way to mitigate environmental and acoustic issues facing the design. Local architects House Robertson gave the windowless, showroom-like galleries a cosmetic update, but the interiors could have used a more aggressive spatial upgrade in order to push for a stronger urban interface. It is not unusual for another firm to handle the interior of a project this large, but House Robertson ought to have taken more cues from KPF’s facade. Save for a large, open spiral stair—spatially promising at first glance, it reads upon closer inspection as an uninspired cousin to the escalators that once traversed the original department store.

Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum; Michael Bodell
 

Contemporary architectural discourse has already moved passed the computationally driven exercise of simply wrapping buildings as a means of expression. The really hot projects in the academy right now embrace a kind of complex geometry that migrates from exterior to interior in ambiguous ways, challenging how a building interconnects with both its external context and its users. There’s an opportunity for that moment in the concourse, and where the ribbons wrap to form a shallow brise-soleil on the roof deck, but without a material link from interior to exterior, the projected facade never gains spatial muscle, despite being cantilevered several feet off the primary volume of the museum.

“It makes better sense, of course, to acquire an existing disused building and impose your commercial personality on it with symbolic garnishes,” remarked Reyner Banham on the topic of iconic roadside architecture in Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. But Banham was referring to a burger stand, not a museum. The Petersen board has a track record of searching for an iconic personality for their building by adding such “garnishes” to Welton Becket’s original structure, and the newest offering does little to improve the museum’s connection to the city beyond. While the Petersen’s founding mission may revel in the grand days of car culture, L.A.’s moved on to bike lanes and rapid buses, and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Purple Line Subway extension. Looking east down Wilshire Boulevard, one imagines subway riders emerging from below and skipping the Petersen Automotive Museum entirely beyond perhaps the quick selfie; it’s architecture and collection the vestige an urban idea that Los Angeles just doesn’t need anymore.

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Creating Community
Iwan Baan

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.

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Star Apartments
Iwan Baan

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.