If there’s a better city for residential design than Los Angeles, the world’s architects have not found it. From the historical pastiches of the early 20th century, to the modernist movement, to the pioneering designs of some of the world’s most famous contemporary architects, LA’s varied terrain, blank geographic slate, and utter unfamiliarity with tradition has resulted in some of the most notable single-family homes in the world. What the city now needs, though, is much more than sublime boxes and clever uses of industrial materials.
LA is built-out and a housing crisis is raging. Rents have crept up for years, due in part to chronic under-production of housing. Last summer, a UCLA report confirmed that LA is the least affordable city in the country, as a function of average salaries and average rents.
In April, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the housing crunch by presenting a wide-ranging agenda for economic and ecological sustainability called pLAn. One part calls for the creation of 100,000 units of housing by 2021. At least 17,000 of those units are to be located within 1,500 feet of a public transit stop. The city currently has 3.8 million residents and 1.4 million units.
pLAn seeks action through a variety of policies, collaborations, and funding sources; some of them already underway. Through the re:code LA effort to revamp the city’s zoning code, Garcetti has called for the completion of the city’s long-delayed community plans, updating land use to match current residential priorities. He has also pledged to streamline permitting for transit-oriented developments and secure funds to preserve and subsidize below market-rate housing.
Los Angeles’ community of architects, developers, and planners have long been united in asking the city for more opportunities to build (often over the objections of homeowners groups and others who favor slow growth). Within this alliance, it is largely up to architects to figure out what the new, larger Los Angeles will look like and how it can grow.
The most straightforward approach—which the city has endorsed in places—is to erect large residential towers, presumably on high-capacity transportation corridors. That’s happening in downtown, Mid-Wilshire, and elsewhere. But many of the city’s architects favor more subtle approaches that acknowledge the city’s diversity.
“Los Angeles is a city of many cities, and it’s very difficult to have top-down strategies,” said Lorcan O’Herlihy, founding principal of Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects. “(By) incrementally embedding socially-conscious interventions and gestures, including buildings, throughout the city, you can have great smart growth.”
Attractive small apartment buildings not only offer more opportunities for creative design, but they also have a better chance of gaining neighborhood acceptance with a scale that is more in line with the character of LA.
Kevin Daly, principal at Kevin Daly Architects, cited the city’s history of courtyard housing and small modernist buildings that can fit relatively seamlessly into existing neighborhoods.
“The more tailored the housing is to the unique conditions of that project, the greater chance you have of real success of building community and connecting to the larger context,” said Michael Maltzan, principal at Michael Maltzan Architecture.
Some architects advocate an even smaller approach—one that might be invisible to homeowners, who are often on the front lines in the fight against density, traffic, and aesthetic offenses.
For every single-family home in Los Angeles, there’s typically an underused garage or vacant patch of grass that could accommodate an accessory dwelling unit. By adding one or two residents per lot, these units would, supporters say, exert zero aesthetic or traffic impacts on the city’s residential neighborhoods.
“For Los Angeles…our DNA is in the single-family house,” said Dana Cuff, director of cityLAB and professor of architecture at UCLA. “I think as architects it’s our burden and basic ethical responsibility to try to enhance and solve housing problems in the single-family zones.”
Cuff noted that if 20 percent of the city’s 500,000 single-family lots included ADU’s, that alone would reach the mayor’s goal. As well, an embrace of alleyways could create brand new front doors.
These design solutions need to be legal before they are implemented. With the mayor issuing such a bold plan—and directing all city departments to do their part to realize its goals—architects are hoping the city will update its regulations accordingly on issues such as setback requirements, parking regulations, height restrictions, floor-to-area ratios, and density in transit-oriented neighborhoods.
“There’s definitely going to be a lot of collaboration required both between departments and between different facets of the city government,” said Ashley Atkinson, planning and housing specialist for Garcetti.
If the city succeeds in streamlining its administrative process and reconciling its planning and building codes, architects and developers may be significantly freer to go about their work. Will Wright, director of government and public affairs for AIA/LA, added that the city needs to provide for more by-right development and minimize the negotiation among developers, stakeholders, and city council members.