The online contact page of uxo architects, a Los Angeles–based firm, features the following provocative statement: “Progressive architecture is preceded by progressive practice!” It was this conviction that propelled Ashton Hamm to establish the design office in 2016 as an architectural cooperative, one of a small handful sprinkled throughout the United States. (Others include South Mountain Company, CoEverything, Oxbow Design Build, and Warrenstreet Architects.)
Though led by worker-owner Hamm with Matthew Ridgeway, a longtime member currently on ownership track, uxo architects gives its members equal governance and financial stakes in the company. Moreover, on every one of its projects, the firm partners with other cooperatives, including cooperative contractors, cooperative and community-based businesses, and community land trusts. Soon after setting up uxo’s first office, in Oakland, California, Hamm made connections with other anti-corporate outfits in the Bay Area, including various cannabis cultivators, the LGTBQQ+ youth organization LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center), and the Arizmendi Construction Cooperative. Uxo has formed a particularly productive relationship with the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which creates low-cost community-controlled land and housing by taking those resources out of the speculative market and is currently collaborating with a Northern California tribe-led community land trust on housing solutions.
The team found early success in 2016 with a home renovation in Oakland’s Cleveland Heights neighborhood, which it completed with the design studio Special Topics. With a limited budget, the project made extensive changes to a small home toward maximizing the efficiency of its compact footprint. “The challenge was reworking the spaces within the interior as much as we could,” said Hamm, referring to the bathroom, which was reconfigured to allow two people to use it at the same time. There was also the kitchen, remodeled so that on one end large sliding stacking-glass doors connect to an exterior terrace; on the other uxo installed custom-built cabinets and an accent wall of hexagonal mercury-hued tiles from Stone Source.
A larger commission later followed for a couple—a graphic designer and a chemist—seeking an addition to and interior remodel of their two-story bungalow in hilly Lakeshore. The renovation, which uxo designed with former worker-owner James Heard, resolved the home’s low ceilings and awkward divisions by adding a new entrance and foyer and replacing the two original staircases with a cubic staircase addition that exceeds the square footprint of the home. (Hence the project’s deadpan moniker: “house + square.”) The detailing of the addition tastefully reveals structural elements such as timber beams, slabon-grade, and a board-form concrete stem wall. “It was largely customization on-site,” said Hamm, “made possible by our collaboration with a contractor that could achieve the poured-form concrete and framing details we were looking for on the spot.” Flooded with natural light from double-height windows across two exposures, the interiors bear a resemblance to the living room of the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles by Richard Neutra, another California architect who forged bold new paths for the profession.
Hamm’s interest in establishing an architectural cooperative began in an undergraduate professional practice class at Virginia Tech and was furthered through active membership in the Architecture Lobby, a decentralized network of architects and architecture students united in an effort to improve labor practices. Through this work, Hamm began plans on a publication, still in development, that would outline a history of cooperatives within the profession and, crucially, provide resources for architects looking to found their own co-ops. “In the United States there is a rich history of cooperatives and economic cooperation since before the Civil War,” Hamm explained. “However, the success of corporations has come at the cost of many [other] cooperatives. Currently, there is little government support for co-ops
outside of the agricultural industry, and many people do not know the business entity exists.”
Following shifts in the organization during the COVID-19 pandemic, uxo relocated from Oakland to Los Angeles. In adapting its method of practice to a new city, it has encountered more bureaucratic red tape and fewer local partners, co-ops being something of a rarer breed in Southern California. The economic contractions of the past year have also hampered uxo’s plans for growth, Hamm admits, though she remains optimistic. “The movement here is, fortunately, growing,” she said, before adding that the firm continues its work up north. “We’ll always have a foot in both locations.”