Sam Lubell and Danielle Rago Rethink How We Live in Los Angeles

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Sam Lubell and Danielle Rago, co-curators of Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles at A + D Museum. Photo by Aspen Arnthors.

Notwithstanding its acres of poorly planned, developer-driven residential building, LA’s signature contribution to global architecture has been in the design of the home, from its century of experimentation with the single family house and, less celebrated, multifamily dwellings.

But in a time of rising population and escalating land values, does that experimentation live on? Answering that question is the goal of ‘Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles,’ an exhibition opening Thursday night at A+D Museum, in its new location in downtown LA.

The show features actual and speculative projects by emerging and established Los Angeles firms — Michael Maltzan, Barbara Bestor, Bureau Spectacular, LAMás, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, MAD Architects, PAR and wHY — who are rethinking housing in different ways.

‘Shelter’ was curated by Sam Lubell and Danielle Rago, and they came to KCRW recently to tell us why it’s time for a call-to-arms in housing design. They are also featured in this review of the show, with the LA Times’ Carolina Miranda.

DnA: What did you want to convey with Shelter?

Sam Lubell: Shelter grows out of the idea that Los Angeles is becoming a different place than it was even ten, twenty thirty years ago. It’s a place that’s much denser, it’s a place that has much more respect for the public realm. And it’s also a place that has a lot of new challenges: environmental challenges, cost challenges.

But the residential realm of Los Angeles — which is really the most famous and the most storied realm in terms of architecture and urbanism in Los Angeles — has not kept up with those changes. And our goal is to help come up with new models to inspire people to really rethink how we live in Los Angeles.

Danielle Rago: I think in a way it’s calling out to a different generation of architects and designers — or those who have been practicing — to look at other issues facing the city other than just the single family home as a model. Looking at multifamily and looking particularly along new lines of potential development like the Los Angeles River and the Metro extension on the Wilshire corridor.

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Backyard Basics: Rethinking the Granny Flat by LA-Más

DnA: So give us an example of a project and what kind of problem it’s addressing. 

DR: For example, LA-Más, their project is looking at the Frogtown area, and it’s called ‘Backyard Basics: Rethinking the Granny Flat.’ And it’s looking at the granny flat as a housing model that has been prevalent in this particular neighborhood in Los Angeles.

The designers are really interested in community outreach and trying to find a happy medium between what the residents want and what the developers who are coming into the neighborhood are after, which is density, and increasing population. The residents themselves want to keep the landscape generally the same.

So they’re proposing a solution which ultimately creates multi-family housing using the single family module on a shared lot. So, using an existing single family lot and single family homes to create multifamily housing options. The granny flat then becomes an extension of a multifamily housing larger system that’s kind of plugged into the Frogtown area along the river.

DnA: And what would make these different from the granny flats that already exist in LA?

SL: That’s true. People think of L.A. as being such a single family-specific city, but a lot of interesting solutions actually have been done in L.A. a long, long time ago, and the granny flat is a good example. There’s much more hidden density in L.A. than people realize.

LA-Más is making not just one granny flat but maybe making two or three and sort of putting new configurations on them and really trying to experiment with that idea and also talk about ownership–who owns those granny flats and can you share them between several houses? So  it’s looking at an idea that’s been in Los Angeles for a long time, but expanding on it and rethinking it.

DnA: And expanding on the number of grannies, it sounds like.

SL:  You can have lots of grannies, a whole family of grannies if you wanted.

And it may be shared among several residents, so it’s  a good example of how we want to rethink housing models in L.A.

L.A. is still very innovative as far as its housing, but I think a lot of it is still (oriented) towards single family homes and the multifamily and small lot development that we’ve seen is in its infancy stages and hasn’t gotten to the innovative level that it that it really could.

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Blackbirds, a cluster of homes on small lot subdivisions in Echo Park, designed by Bestor Architecture; photo by Laure Joliet

DnA: By small lot development I assume you are talking about the Small Lot Subdivision ordinance, which actually has been somewhat controversial. 

SL: I think the idea of the small lot subdivision is an interesting one: being able to build more density on smaller lots in urban areas.

But people say that it’s so regulated that it’s really limited the innovation and design and that developers take that model and just build out exactly as the regulations call for.

I think people want a model that’s much less regulated and a little bit more flexible, and a model that we’ve looked at of an existing project is one called Blackbirds which is in Echo Park, and it’s by Bestor Architecture.

They are trying to rethink the small lot subdivision with new typologies, new architecture; they have shed roofs, they have different sort of cladding and they also make a shared space of an area that could just be a boring parking area but also becomes a communal courtyard, and it’s landscaped and has various levels of grade so it becomes sort of this interesting community space.

And there’s also methods of what she called ‘stealth density,’ which is combining each of the buildings. Some of them look like a single family unit but there may be more than one unit within there. It’s playing with the idea of what you think a neighborhood or a development would look like.

DnA: But in reality this intended public space in the middle hasn’t yet grown in– the landscaping isn’t there–and it’s currently an area where cars park and drive around. So it feels a little bit more like a cul-de-sac right now than a shared space. 

More to the point, though, those Blackbird houses are cool but quite expensive; each home costs in the neighborhood of $900,000, and one of the goals, as I understood it, of the small lot subdivision was to enable smaller properties that would cost less. Right now the biggest challenge confronting so many Angelenos is the unaffordability of property and these small lot subdivision houses are not addressing that, it seems. 

SL: It’s a real, real challenge to be able to really play with the subdivisions in a way that you make something interesting. You really have to fight with these regulations, and it adds tremendously to the cost.

There’s got to be a lot of rethinking the model to being able to make this more affordable solution — and also being able to really allow L.A. to experiment again without having to worry about cost.

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Tower on the Wilshire corridor designed by wHY

DnA: Is the affordable piece something that you addressed in thinking about this exhibition? Were you looking at different ownership models in terms of putting together this exhibition? 

DR: Some of the firms addressed them more explicitly than others.

wHY architects were particularly interested in the affordability of the units, and the units that they’re proposing run along Wilshire Corridor. It’s about a six-mile stretch, and they’re occupying public land just adjacent to the street and bike lanes and creating mini pod-housing models that can be inserted into this infrastructure where and when needed. By allowing for our smaller units, arguably the pricing would be a little bit more affordable than some of these larger scale residential projects.

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Rendering of speculative towers with interconnecting by MAD Architects.

DnA:  One of L.A.’s great contributions to to the design of housing and homes is the design of the internal space — the flowing internal plan, the opening up to the outdoors, to light. Were you also looking for examples of really good interior space?

SL: It’s definitely a challenge that needs to be addressed as well, and there’s one example from PAR. They are working on a tower on Wilshire right near LACMA and they are interested in making a tower in which the floor plates are rather long and horizontal. So you get almost a single family experience. You have windows completely surrounding you, and you feel completely surrounded by the elements.

But, it’s obviously a stacked apartment unit, meaning you sometimes you get less vertical height in order to make up for the cost of that. But you get that feeling of being in the open and being in a Los Angeles setting.

Another one that’s actually for a similar site is a firm from China that has an office in Santa Monica now called MAD, and they are doing sky gardens within their tower that they’re building. It’s a sort of a popular thing, especially in Asia now, to do these kind of courtyards in the sky, but they’re doing a conglomeration of towers. So those sky gardens reach across separate towers so it really feels like you’re in a real landscaped garden, although xeriscaped, not necessarily wasting water, which is another challenge they are working on.

DnA: MAD is building an actual condo development in Beverly Hills that has these sky gardens. And people are already saying, hang on a sec, we’re in a drought. 

SL:  And that’s the challenge, which isn’t impossible. I mean you can do drought tolerant, you can do plants that make sense. I think in L.A. you can still grow things, and make them work in this environment. But we’re definitely interested in that concept of exploring how to increase density, how to make things more affordable, but how to respond to a city that is no longer on a single family model but take advantage of why the single family model is there in the first place.

DnA: There’s a lot of condo and apartment building at the moment and it’s going up very fast and I was wondering, are you confronting that development and saying there’s a lot of not very well thought-through living space here and we want to show there’s other ways of thinking about it?

DR: I think by including the context wall in the show which is calling out specific recent innovative projects that we’ve seen in Los Angeles, in addition to the speculative work that we’ve asked of the six. L.A. based firms, we’re bringing attention to that in a way that is not directly or obviously critiquing what is out there — but is showing that there is potential for more.

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Star Apartments by Michael Maltzan Architecture.

DnA: In the show you include a project by the architect Michael Maltzan and it’s his Star apartments in Skid Row in downtown made of storage containers — an interesting and provocative project. But the project of his that’s getting a lot of attention is his One Santa Fe development, in the arts district. Is that on your context wall? What do you think of that in terms of what it has to say about a changing city?

SL: I’m a big fan of Michael’s work but we had to we had to make a choice and we did choose Star. This is a call-to-arms and we really want to push the housing process forward and we really felt that Star just for the reasons you were talking about — the construction methods and trying to save on cost because they were really constrained on that project — represents the sort of innovation we’re looking for.

The thing that is innovative about one Santa Fe is it’s such a large project and it sort of blends architecture and urbanism. So it’s its own kind of self-contained city.

And it’s got another sort of parking lot-slash-public space that at this point hasn’t really started to work the way they hope. But that could change, just like in Blackbirds. So it’s still sort of a work-in-progress. And certainly Michael is thinking that way, but I think the scale of that is almost too large to make it work in some respects. The way he’s managed to weave urbanism into the architecture — building bridges, courtyards and a variety of different types of spaces within a gargantuan project — is an interesting idea but we felt that Star Apartments represented the sort of innovation that we didn’t have in the rest of the exhibit.

We’re trying to show innovation in building, we’re trying to show innovation with environmental techniques, how we can deal with water issues which is something that Lorcan O’Herlihy deals with quite a bit with the aquifers and the natural water sources around the L.A. River. So we’re trying to pick out projects around which we can create a call to arms to not do the same old thing.

DnA: You’re not showing projects that you would say are not the solution — like for example there’s a lot of discussion about the Italianate multifamily housing by the freeways by the developer Geoffrey Palmer.

SL: Our goal with the show is really to inspire people, and in my opinion those projects do not do that for me. They upset me, urbanistically. I understand that I can’t claim to speak for everybody because obviously there are people that like them and they sell and they’re quite popular. But on an urban level they do not help the city in any way, they’re sort of large ugly fortresses that have no architectural innovation. They’re a kit of parts that could be in any city in the country or any mall. So we’re looking for things that really are innovative and will inspire people to make positive changes.

DnA: If 50 years ago the signature home was a single family, glass and steel house, and you were to be fortune tellers and imagine we are looking back at LA from 50 years in the future, what would be LA’s signature home from now? 

DR:  That’s a really good question. I don’t on see it as being a single family home. Maybe it’s like a single family unit that’s been multiplied. But I definitely see it more as a multifamily solution. Maybe it’s built at a smaller scale than these large developmental projects that are going up now that take on urbanism issues.

SL: I agree, I think people come to Los Angeles to enjoy the weather and the active indoor/outdoor lifestyle. I think the housing that’s especially effective here is not repeating models that are done in places like New York or Chicago or other big cities. So it’s taking advantage of those but still there’s a way of building in density into that and making them more affordable and making them more communal. So how do you build that sort of density but not ruin that sort of lifestyle? And any project that can combine that in an effective way I see as the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Shelter opens Thursday night, August 20, at A+D Museum, and will be on show through November 6. Check out Frances’ conversation with Steve Chiotakis about Shelter, here.