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Readapting Los Angeles
The City in a Building; imagining new forms of housing in Los Angeles
Two weeks ago, I wrapped up teaching at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Teaching back east has allowed me to bring graduate students from New York to the West Coast to study new housing solutions for L.A.
Post-pandemic, the visiting professorship also gave me an excellent excuse to get out of California after 2 years of staying put— something that, in turn, has helped me revitalize my interest in academically examining the housing crisis in L.A.
The fall ‘21 studio was dedicated to designing low-rise micro-housing projects for South L.A.
This spring, we tackled converting commercial buildings into housing and public uses. Working in groups, students developed adaptive reuse and conversion concepts for a 1960s four-story office building in West L.A. They added multigenerational, co-living, and micro-housing while bundling up community-centric spaces like coops, crèches, senior centers, and micro-farms.
Today I am posting their proposals.
A big shout-out goes to this soon-to-be graduating cohort: Christine Chan, Tony Chen, Equere Dickson, Ivan Gatev, Karan Kaura, Phillip Liu, Ayesha Nathani, Joe Pignataro, and Kang Wang!
Many buildings in Los Angeles have a quality of impermanence, or a provisional nature, sometimes making the city appear like a big Hollywood film set. Because L.A. seems so provisionally assembled, we tend to tear down buildings almost as quickly as we put them up.
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Unlike London, Paris, Tokyo, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco or New York, L.A. generally does an abysmal job of preserving its architectural and urban history. Over the last century, vast swathes of the city were destroyed to make way for new freeways and skyscrapers, erasing communities and obliterating L.A.’s physical and cultural heritage.
The cultural amnesia that Los Angelenos practiced in the 20th century may have to do with their obsession with newness and perpetual modernization. It also had a partly technical explanation. Until the 1972 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, many L.A. buildings were not designed for significant seismic action; some may never be salvageable. Much of the city still needs to be retrofitted, especially its older non-ductile concrete framed office buildings. In parallel, we need to preserve and rethink how to repurpose existing buildings— not only because there is a social value in preserving history but also because the environmental costs incurred in terms of managing embodied energy— the sum impact of all greenhouse gas emissions attributed to new construction and a building’s life cycle including its destruction— are significant.
The waste generated by new construction and demolition is reason alone to find intelligent ways to preserve, upgrade, deconstruct and reuse what we have around us already. And, promisingly, converting or part-converting older office buildings into residential or mixed-use re-developments may help to make a significant dent in our ongoing housing crisis.
Although there are many challenges to this office-to-housing process— mostly to do with zoning as well as complex seismic retrofits (and the costs of integrating new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems) the value in moving beyond a throw-away design and construction culture will ultimately outweigh the upfront investment needed to upgrade the many vacant commercial buildings spread across Southern California.
Conservancy and Local Histories
Although adaptive reuse may seem like a novel idea for L.A., it has a reasonably long history dating to the 1970s when three trends began to reverse the local habit of destroying the city without considering how to renovate it intelligently: historic preservation, energy conservation, and adaptive reuse. Early preservation efforts, such as the popular renovation of Downtown's landmark Bradbury Building and the Los Angeles Central Library, lent weight to the movement. At the same time, the OPEC energy crisis sparked an interest in energy efficiency. As a result, the 1974 Warren–Alquist Act directly led to the formation of the California Energy Commission, establishing some of the nation's earliest energy efficiency standards for buildings.
Although some don't often think of L.A. as a city that cares much about its history, there is an impressive preservation and adaptive reuse track record to build on. Look no further than the Los Angeles Conservancy, which started in 1978. You may be surprised to discover it has the biggest national membership of any local preservation organization. In 1999, the Conservancy was instrumental in helping to push the city to pass the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, making it easier to convert vacant and underutilized buildings for new residential and hotel uses, leading to the rebirth of Broadway and, in part, to the establishment of the L.A. Arts District. A decade and a half later, the L.A. City Council adopted the Hybrid Industrial Live/Work Ordinance, creating a new zoning classification for live-work units and hotels in existing industrial areas.
The process of conserving and upgrading our urban fabric sparked not only a renaissance in thinking about the city's history but, one might argue, also led to the invention of a new local, formal architectural language and vocabulary- specifically the so-called "Los Angeles or Santa Monica School of Architecture" that began to develop in the late 1970s. Moreover, it can be argued that many L.A. architects (notably Frank Gehry, Coy Howard, Franklin Israel, Eric Owen Moss, Morphosis, Studioworks and others) gained national and international recognition precisely because of their early work renovating existing buildings.
They broke with a local tradition by not proposing tabula-rasa, futuristic versions of L.A. Unlike the historical avant-gardes of the 1920s (Neutra, Schindler, Ain) or the 1950s (the Eames and the Case Study group) who produced "newness," the L.A. School architects often repurposed and augmented existing structures. They developed innovative adaptive reuse techniques and applied them to existing houses, warehouses, and even entire districts, thereby excavating Los Angeles' past to help build alternative models for its pressing future.
In the first few weeks of instruction, we analyzed nine legacy projects that sparked the careers of Gehry, Israel, Morphosis, and Moss.
In parallel, we carefully reviewed a few texts about the now historical period from roughly 1978-1992. Instead of uncritically reading these projects as wholly avant-garde or ahistorical, e.g., as presented in numerous magazines and newspapers of the time, we tried to re-conceptualize them as models for our adaptive reuse and preservation studies.
The case studies were modeled in great detail as a series of virtual excavations revealing their intricate adaptations of the original structures. Later these case studies would serve as catalysts for engaging and enlivening our semester-long conversation about how to reinvigorate existing buildings.
We tried to think about how these case studies radically helped revitalize and extend L.A.'s history, demonstrating a "healthy" co-presence of the new and the old. We were especially interested in how these architects introduced new forms to inhabit an existing warehouse (Bright Associates) or altered single-family homes with additions and subtractions (the Petal House, Venice III), or how one scheme integrated the skeleton of an older bank building into a restaurant (Kate Mantilini.)
The “patient” selected for the studio’s upgrade efforts was a four-story office building in West L.A., within walking distance of the Little Osaka community along Sawtelle Boulevard, one of the longest continuously inhabited “Japantowns” in North America. Built in 1961, the concrete frame, infill concrete block, glass, and steel office building is flanked at its rear by a lighter twin: a lightweight four-level steel and concrete parking garage. The latter is connected to the former by a bridge over the rear alley at the third level.
Although the original design for the building was executed with a classic late 1950s glass curtain wall with infill metal spandrel panels, the original façade was replaced in the late 1970s with a brown semi-reflective, energy-efficient brown glass. The newer curtain wall is a relative of Cesar Pelli’s and Norma Merrick Sklarek’s brown glass San Bernardino City Hall of 1974. Like Pelli and Sklarek’s better-known Pacific Design Center, San Bernardino City Hall, the office building in West L.A. was re-designed as an environmentally sealed bubble behind a taut, seamless reflective glass curtain wall. So, as we learned, the office building was already partly retrofitted for energy conservation purposes.
The City in a Building
Applying lessons learned from the case studies, the studio jumped into developing various ideas for converting the office building to address how new remote work needs, multigenerational households, aging in place, affordability, innovative structural retrofits, and energy/resource management might influence a retrofit.
Initially, the studio had to assess the building’s structural capacity for another four stories of additional living spaces. They also studied integrating urban agricultural production, energy generation, rainwater, and greywater capture. In parallel, they investigated recycled materials, innovative structural solutions, and rapid construction techniques.
Another concept pursued was that a large building doesn’t need to be mono-functional just because of its size or zoning— it can hold any number of programs in one volume. So, like an adaptive reuse tornado sweeping across West L.A., we tried to imagine architecture as a supernatural force swirling disparate and disconnected areas of the neighborhood into one structure— as if our familiar horizontal L.A. landscape could be condensed into a single vertical building: the city tapped and bottled into a building.
When the water cycle (evaporation, condensation, precipitation) is interrupted, a drought occurs, a phenomenon that often threatens desert cities like L.A. Extending the metaphor for a moment to the life of a city, similarly when the housing cycle is broken, a housing crisis emerges because a vital asset has not been captured and preserved. When we destroy a building rather than recycle or upcycle it, we not only interrupt local history but we lose a physical, urban resource.
In the same way that we need to capture, recycle and store water to avoid future climate crises, architects, planners, and urban designers need to advocate for preserving our existing urban fabric and its radical transformation through recycling and upcycling to avoid future housing crises.
To achieve the goal of managing our urban resources, we will need to test and model new forms of design practice that will challenge received ideas about preservation versus adaptation by contesting and reinventing static zoning, land use, and planning regulations.
As this design studio began to demonstrate, large older office buildings, like clouds in an otherwise vast and empty desert sky, are vital resources that must be harvested for their potential to house us and generate new forms of architecture, transforming L.A. into a more vertical, well-integrated urban setting.
The course was co-taught by Ron Elad, a Principal in the LA office of global engineering firm Buro Happold and Stephen Slaughter, Undergraduate Chair of Architecture at Pratt. Ron helped us to examine the challenges of converting older, non-ductile concrete framed structures to new uses. Buro Happold folks Nolan Bumstead, Karl Hirschmann, George Riley, and Paulina Szpiech acted as consultants to the studio, addressing decarbonization strategies, energy management, and façade systems design.
We also benefited from conversations and construction site visits with Shawmut Design and Construction with Holly Brown, Kevin Piraino, Ali Shams, Greg Skalaski, and Shaun Yingling. Simon Ha, a partner at Steinberg Hart and the leader of their Development Studio, graciously shared his firm’s efforts in the adaptive reuse arena.
Finally, we visited Morphosis, Gehry Partners, and Eric Owen Moss Architects. Special thanks go to Thom Mayne, Tyler McMartin at Gehry Partners, and Eric McNevin at EOMA for taking time out of their busy schedules to spend time with us.
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