Does ‘Avenel Cooperative’ Offer Clues For Cohousing in the Future? Rick Corsini has Answers

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Rick Corsini stands in the open plan living space of his condominium in Avenel Homes, a former Cooperative. Photo: Kyungsub Shin

This DnA explored Baugruppen, the Berlin-based cohousing projects that are filling a need for affordable home ownership coupled with living in a semi-collective way.

It’s an inspiring model that prompted us to ask: could it be realized in LA?

Avenel
Avenel Cooperative in Silver Lake, built 1948, by Gregory Ain for ten progressive families. Photo: Julius Shulman

One of the guests who gives a qualified yes is Rick Corsini, principal at Corsini Stark Architects.

While his own firm has explored ways in which to build relatively affordable homes in pricey neighborhoods through the small lot subdivision (such as Perlita Mews in Atwater Village below), he has an even closer connection to the cohousing topic: he has spent over 20 years living in, and he also helped restore, Gregory Ain’s famed Avenel Homes, a cooperative housing development in Silver Lake.

Perlita Mews
Perlita Mews in Atwater Village, built 2012 on a small lot subdivision, is, says Corsini Stark, “a hybrid of a traditional urban row house, a Mexican courtyard house, and a London mews — carriage houses organized along an alley.” Photo: Steve King

Avenel was created in the late 1940s by a group of ten families, all communists and leaders in the union movement, who brought on board Gregory Ain, a much-admired Modernist architect described by critic and fellow progressive Esther McCoy as “an idealist who gave the better part of ten years to combatting outmoded planning and building codes, and hoary real estate practices.” (Ain was blacklisted in 1949 for his socialist — not communist, reminds Rick — beliefs, and as a result was not included in the Case Study program)

Ain, whose residential projects include the noted Mar Vista Tract and the Dunsmuir Flats, designed a ten-unit housing cooperative with private gardens and flexible interior space. The houses were designed to fit families of four and proved so flexible that the residents stayed decades, with the last of the original couples, Carl and Dorothy Brant, remaining through to their recent deaths at 100. 

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Images of the same space show the flexible design of the Avenel homes, with pocket doors allowing one room to become two. Photos: Kyungsub Shin

Corsini points out that while “ideology partially drove” their desire for cooperative housing, so did practicality — they were middle-class families wanting to use their resources as efficiently as possible to build better housing for themselves, and in doing so, they were able “to break the formula of developer built housing.” He also says that despite a shared value system, they argued “about every little thing like everybody else does”– from who should pay for fixing the roofs to responsibility for taking out the trash. Such quibbling, he says, “is a pan-human issue.”

Despite quibbles, the design of the house was able to work, through its “inherent flexibility and its architectural characteristics” to serve several generations. There was no issue, says Rick, “of having a starter house, moving up to a bigger house, moving to an empty nest and then figuring out what to do after that. The type and value system of the original clients really prevailed through their life.”

Morrie Markoff was one of the first residents of Avenel Cooperative and remained there most of his life.  Photo: Kyungsub Shin
Morrie Markoff was one of the first residents of Avenel Cooperative and remained there most of his life.

With the passing of all the original owner-occupiers, that value system also passed, and Avenel became a condominium. Corsini took up residence in 1993, and spent the next ten years restoring it with fellow resident Gordon Olschlager. Now Avenel Homes is one of three post-war modernist buildings in Los Angeles listed on the National Register.

Avenel, was conceived, like Ain’s other residential projects, for lower or middle class families and, like countless post-war housing developments in the U.S., was financed through the Federal Housing Administration. So its example demands an answer: can lower or middle class families today achieve anything akin to Avenel in Los Angeles, or are they priced out completely?

If people are prepared to look “where noone else is looking,” says Rick Corsini, and if they can figure out the financing, then yes they can, adding that the optimum area to look for property is near transit lines in South LA. Meanwhile, he is working on figuring out how to build homes in the LA basin that are at least affordable to today’s upper middle class (homes on Small Lot Subdivisions in pricey neighborhoods sell for around $800,000). See examples below.

Gentry Avenue Small Lot town homes
Gentry Avenue Small Lot townhomes is currently on the drawing board.
Perlita Mews, Corsini
Perlita Mews in Atwater Village, built 2012, demonstrates, says Corsini Stark, that “sustainable urban density is achievable while maintaining and improving the desirable character of residential neighborhoods.” Photo: Steve King
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Perlita Mews is a community of 23 small-lot single-family homes, accessed along an internal alley. LA’s Small Lot Ordinance allows walls of houses to be built to the side lot property line. Photo: Steve King
Corsini Stark take inspiration from Ain -- and his mentors Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra -- in using devices like the interior courtyard to flood the homes with light. Photo: Steve King
Corsini Stark take inspiration from Ain — and his mentors Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra — in the interlocking, open spaces, and clerestory windows to flood the homes with light. Photo: Steve King
Atwater Union
Atwater Union is in the pipeline to be built alongside Perlita Mews — it’s an 11-unit small-lot subdivision with two and three-story units ranging from 1465 — 1675 square feet.
Southwestern Law School Graduate Residences, 2014, designed by CSA; photo:
Southwestern Law School Graduate Residences, 2014, designed by CSA; photo: Steve King
Southwestern Law School Graduate Residences, 2014; photo: Steve King
Southwestern Law School Graduate Residences, 2014; photo: Steve King
Rick Corsini in his yard
Rick Corsini in his yard. Photo: Kyungsub Shin