Letter from LA

Frances Anderton, 17 September 2019


I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, a fascinating time. It was a moment of transition between yesterday’s and tomorrow’s LA; the tail end of four decades of Reyner Banham’s LA of Four Ecologies, involving near-total car dependency, sprawling and zoned development, and a lifestyle centered on private, personal space, much of it very affordable.

This was a time when architects, many attracted by LA’s theory-free variant on postmodernism by the then-subversives -- Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, etc. -- were able to test formal ideas on affordable single-family homes or small commercial or art spaces, out of sight of the critical glare found in global cities.

Then came social, economic and physical upheaval -- the 1992 Rodney King riots, the 1994 earthquake, mass immigration. Out of strife came rebuilding, a greater engagement with the civic sphere, and the start of a huge infrastructure construction program intended to transfer the vast concrete LA River; and overlay a mass transit system on top of a reluctant Metropolis -- all in readiness for the 2028 Olympic Games.

Now LA is in boomtown mode, and seems to have join the pantheon of global cities, but housing has become a source of extreme tension.

Right now in downtown LA and on arterial streets there is an explosion of tall towers or medium-sized structures containing “market-rate” apartments. These multi-storey, multifamily buildings have ditched the personal back yard for the communal rooftop garden; and the once mandatory two parking spaces for a bicycle rack and a shared dog run on a terrace in the sky.

Some come in the form of glassy 30-50 story towers, developed by faceless conglomerates, mostly in the city’s downtown area, and mostly rather bland. A few have big design names attached: among them Herzog and de Meuron, Frank Gehry, Stanley Saitowitz, Rem Koolhaas and Bjarke Ingels.

Others are lower and conform to a building typology here nicknamed Five Over Two (two stories concrete, five stories stick and stucco).

At worst, these can be utterly generic.

At best, they are attracting LA’s most creative design firms -- LOHA, Kevin Daly, Brooks + Scarpa, Michael Maltzan, Koning Eizenberg -- who are making a mark in housing as they once once established themselves with houses. Projects like LOHA’s Mariposa 1038 tinker with the format to make more lively facades, using window designs, colors, murals, glazing and cladding treatments, and more interesting articulation of the facades, to break the uniformity.

LOHA's Mariposa1038 (c) Paul Vu

But these projects are appearing at the very same time that Los Angeles is experiencing an extreme crisis of homelessness. 

Almost 60,000 people now live on the streets of the Southland, many in “modern dome” tents (designed by camping enthusiasts in the 1970s who were inspired by Buckminster Fuller; they don’t need to be pegged into the earth) that can be set up on sidewalks throughout the region.

The jury is out on the exact causes of homelessness but the list includes the 2008 housing collapse, the 21st century opioid epidemic, the 1990s crack cocaine epidemic, the 1980s closure of state-owned mental institutions, the depositing of homeless people in LA from other cities; and the gentrification of much of Los Angeles housing stock, including much of the Skid Row area where the homeless once lived in SROs (Single Room Occupancy hostels) that are now converted into coveted loft living spaces.

So the above-mentioned architects are also trying to make the best possible “affordable,” or subsidized, housing, which is pieced together through complicated funding processes, can cost staggering amounts ($400,000 for the average “affordable” unit) and invariably faces intense pushback from Angelenos.

Because if anything denotes LA right now it is warfare over housing.

Almost every project, for rich and poor, involves a struggle; elected officials win or lose elections on the strength of their position on housing and you find an almost generational split between NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) and advocates for more housing, known as YIMBYs (Yes in My Back Yard).

And here we get to one of the most intriguing aspects of the design process. When Gensler and the clients started work on the stadium, it was for a team that at that point didn’t exist.

The tension is because 80 percent of LA’s residential land is zoned R1, for single family homes; these zones butt right up against arterial streets where high density development is intended to be built.

Notwithstanding the bike racks, the new housing invariably adds traffic to already jammed streets and Angelenos who live in the R1 areas push back, even when new projects come in alluring packages by the likes of Ingels, Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron or Gehry.

After all, many people moved here to get away from density and mass transit and to enjoy a lifestyle that would not involve being packed in like New Yorkers.

So the region is in the midst of a fundamental change, as it transitions from one form of lifestyle and landuse to another, ill-defined, fifth ecology. Reyner Banham would be quite surprised if he could see LA now.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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