Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today questions the future of housing

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Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today questions the future of housing

Stephen Phillips Architects (SPARCHS) displayed a four-unit townhouse design to both stand out and blend into its immediate context of single-family houses (Courtesy SPARCHS)

“How will we live tomorrow in L.A.?” That is the central question explored—and, in many cases, answered—in Low Rise, Mid Rise, High Rise: Housing in LA Today. The pop-up exhibition features conceptual, in-process, and recently completed work from more than 30 local firms, including Michael Maltzan Architecture, Brooks + Scarpa, Bureau Spectacular, LA Más, and Design, Bitches. Held in Culver City’s Helms Design Center, the exhibition was organized by Frances Anderton, the host of DnA: Design and Architecture, a weekly radio show broadcast on KCRW, and Stephen Phillips, the program director of Cal Poly LA Metro and principal architect of SPARCHS. “Currently there is a lot of public debate about the politics of housing and the crisis of homelessness,” Anderton wrote on her blog. “While this conversation takes place, housing construction continues apace, much of it ever higher and denser. And people will live in these buildings. This pop-up explores how designers are envisioning that lived experience.”

The exhibition, which is now only accessible via private tour through July 1, begins with speculative housing proposals by students from the Cal Poly SLO program envisioning a more thoughtfully designed housing infrastructure for the city. “The student work on display showcases our focus over the past several years,” Phillips explained during his introduction to the symposium, “to seek out more inventive, buildable, and sustainable approaches to mixed-use, mixed-income housing communities on a variety of scales and densities in various locations throughout the city.”

A pink foam model of mixed height housing in la
Students in the Cal Poly LA Metro Program presented images and models of their visions for the city’s response to the demand for increased density. Seen here is the project from student Kate Black. (Courtesy Cal Poly LA Metro)

The remainder of the gallery space is divided into three scalar categories: Low rise, which range from ADUs (accessory dwelling units) to four-story multifamily complexes, mid-rise affordable and market-rate housing, and high rise, which, in Los Angeles, reflects all projects over ten stories tall. While the projects range in size, they were each designed to promote an increase in housing density within the famously sprawled city.

Low Rise

A slanted accessory dwelling unit model
Byben designed the Lean-to ADU as a playful yet practical second housing unit for any backyard with a large enough flat lot (Courtesy Byben)

The majority of projects displayed fell into the low rise category, suggesting that the L.A. of the Future will be denser, if not necessarily more vertical. Several designs for ADUs, for example, demonstrate playful and creative methods by which the city’s housing can be increased in the backyards of single-family homes. Lean-to ADU, for example, is a modest 550-square-foot home with an ample porch designed to fit in any 50-foot-wide flat lot and is currently planned to begin construction in Pasadena this summer. Designed by Byben, the home’s tilting gesture was meant to be reminiscent of structures of the distant past notable for their resourcefulness, including the lean-to camping site and the rabbit trap box.

a diagram of a waterfront site with parking compacted
Bestor Architecture’s vision for transforming the city’s underused industrial zones puts parking structures within compact footprints to make room for pedestrian activity (Courtesy Bestor Architecture)

Bestor Architecture presented a bold vision for a variety of housing types and mixed-use commercial structures on the site of underused industrial zones along the L.A. River in Glassell Park.

“In a city that has not designed or built new streets for over thirty years,” the firm explained, “the act of remapping manufacturing zones and increasing streetscapes provides an opportunity to challenge both LA’s historic single-family zoning as well as the current planning default of the widely reviled and car-centric podium model.” The project calls for the creation of an automated compact parking structure that would allow the site to become pedestrian-friendly while still providing the legally required number of parking spots for its residents and retail spaces.

Mid Rise

Rendering of a row of four row houses
One-Full House plans to quadruple the housing density on a property that currently holds a single-family home (Courtesy SPARCHS)

A four-unit townhouse in Culver City titled One-Full House was designed by SPARCHS to increase the housing density and quadruple the value of a site currently occupied by a single-family home slated for demolition. The design’s distinct curves and pitches take cues from the geometry of its immediate surroundings to allow the development to fit within its context in a way that would satisfy the neighborhood’s strict coding guidelines. “By ‘right-sizing’ the neighborhood through increased height, density, and efficient use of front and backyards,” Phillips explained, “One-Full House maximizes the number of family units while maintaining approximately the same lot coverage as the existing one-story 1,400-square-foot home.” In addition to creating natural shading, private gardens, and roof decks, the arrangement of similar units on adjacent lots makes room for an amply-sized pocket park available for community use on the street-facing edge of the property.

A blue blobby housing block
The Monterey Apartments’ unique profile is a response to both the parameters of its immediate context as well as the Victorian architecture nearby (Courtesy WTARCH)

Warren Techentin Architecture (WTARCH) recently completed Monterey Apartments, a 13-unit apartment building near Highland Park designed to promote interactions and more intimate relationships among its occupants through a co-living arrangement. Each unit consists of four small studio bedrooms and a common kitchen/living area, and the building includes several community-building amenities, such as a gym, pool, spa, and backyard BBQ deck. The facade’s distinct profile was shaped to avoid the nearby power lines, while its Hardie Board Shingles are an homage to the Victorian shingle buildings at the nearby Heritage Square Museum.

rendering of a low-slung affordable housing complex
The street-facing exterior of Step Up On Vine reveals the details of its adaptively reused masonry structure dating back to 1928. (Courtesy Egan Simon)

Step Up On Vine (SUOV), a 34-unit affordable housing complex in Hollywood, was designed by Egan Simon for formerly homeless residents with mental illnesses, and includes several community gathering spaces, including a ground floor lounge, a yoga room adapted to remote learning, and a roof deck with views of Downtown Los Angeles. “Residents are afforded the opportunities to not just connect with nature and good health habits,” the firm writes, “but also vocational training in the cafe that is open to the community.” SUOV received LEED Platinum certification thanks to both its adaptive reuse of a 1928-built masonry structure and inclusion of energy-efficient features throughout, including shadow boxes along the facade that screen the interior from morning and afternoon daylight.

High Rise

Rendering of an intricate cluster of housing towers
LOHA’s addition to the historic 410 Rossmore Building double’s the property’s housing units while preserving the site’s historic character (LOHA)

Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA) presented a co-living building in the works that is also an adaptive reuse project. The firm will build an additional five stories of studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and co-living apartments above the historic structure at 410 Rossmore Avenue, an apartment building completed by the United States Army in 1944 in Hancock Park, to create a total occupancy of 225 residents. Several social spaces will be dispersed throughout, including a pool, a rooftop event space, several co-working extension spaces, and outdoor living areas on its many rooftops. The minimal detailing of the addition was designed to blend into its immediate context while responding to the historic building’s monumental massing.

Rendering of white boxy towers
Once completed, the Alvidrez will be one of Michael Maltzan Architecture’s most ambitious housing projects in the Skid Row District. (Courtesy Michael Maltzan Architecture)

Michael Maltzan Architecture exhibited the Alvidrez, a permanent supportive housing development in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles expected to break ground this year. Commissioned by the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), the Alvidrez will be the tallest cross-laminated timber structure in Los Angeles when completed, offering 150 units of affordable housing to formerly homeless residents across 14 stories. The building’s vertical forms end at different heights to provide eight outdoor roof terraces and provide natural light and ventilation into the individual units. Following its estimated completion in 2023, the Alvidrez will be among the most ambitious projects with the district, which features many of the firm’s previous projects commissioned by SHRT.