Patrick Tighe Architecture teamed with John V. Mutlow Architecture to design La Brea Affordable Housing—a newly completed sequel to the Sierra Bonita Apartments, which Tighe built four years ago for the same client, the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC). The first was a pilot project for the City of West Hollywood’s Green Building Ordinance, and it launched a plan to upgrade and densify the scruffy east end of a city whose west side, bordering on Beverly Hills, is choking on its success.
Tighe made his reputation with a succession of dramatically skewed houses and studios that drew on his experience at Morphosis. Sierra Bonita was his first affordable housing project, and he and Mutlow have applied the lessons they’ve learned on past jobs to this latest effort. It’s a five-story block with 32 wood-frame studios and one-bedroom apartments sitting atop a concrete and glass podium. Located a mile south of Hollywood Boulevard, the new facility provides a humane refuge for homeless LGBT youth and people living with HIV. More than a hundred such blocks are needed to meet the current demand: there were about 3,500 applications for these few accommodations.
At street level, there is parking and a narrow garden for residents to the rear, and a storefront office for the non-profit AIDS Project Los Angeles. The client wanted the building to have a strong street presence, and the architects have achieved that by wrapping the building’s exposed corner with looped ribbons of white lacquered steel. Assembled from short sections of flanged plate, they enclose the lobby, give the block a distinctive signature, and mask wire-mesh balustrades. Their sweeping curves mediate between the rectilinear storefront and the fretted aluminum plates that clad the upper stories along La Brea Boulevard. Comprising ten custom patterns cut with water jets and randomly arranged, they also serve as a decorative sunscreen that frames inset balconies. The balcony reveals are painted aqua, in tones that lighten as they ascend.
The facades demonstrate the architects’ skill in exploiting a budget of $160/square foot, employing durable materials and imaginative design to better effect than most market-rate apartment blocks. The interior is even more imaginative. The corner lobby soars five stories to the roof and the openings between the steel ribbons pull in light, cooling breezes, and glimpses of sky. When it rains, the furnishings can be sheltered and water drains from the concrete floor. At the upper levels, apartments open onto a densely landscaped courtyard, which is oriented north-south and gives every apartment natural light and cross ventilation. It provides a sheltered gathering place in winter, and a cool, shady retreat in summer. Bamboo plants rise to the height of the building from sinuous concrete planters, which incorporate benches. A communal room, warmed by millwork and armchairs of reclaimed wood, opens off the second level, beside a laundry and social services. Solar panels, a gray water system, and a white vinyl roof membrane combine with passive strategies to achieve a high level of sustainability.
To reduce costs, the living units are stacked, but each has a full bathroom and kitchen, plus storage and an 80 square-foot outdoor space. The WHCHC is funded from different sources, and each lender has a different set of requirements for access, materials, and open space, challenging the architects to reconcile conflicting demands. Large cities, from LA and San Francisco to New York, are notoriously over-regulated and that constraint, combined with a shortage of Federal and State funding, slows construction of affordable housing to a trickle. Many architects, from Rob Quigley in San Diego, to David Baker in San Francisco are eager to contribute more. In LA, Tighe and Mutlow join Michael Maltzan, Koning Eizenberg, Kevin Daly, Frederick Fisher, and others in reaching out to the needy only to find themselves frustrated by inflexible rules and a dearth of funding.