As a young architect struggling to survive the Great Depression, Robert Alexander had a very personal understanding of the need for affordable housing: He couldn’t find any.
“The 1930s were like the 1980s in the terrible shortage of affordable places to live,” Alexander said. “People were truly desperate.”
That sense of desperation led Alexander to the drawing board where the idea for a new community of affordable housing was born.
This year, that community--The Village Green--celebrates its 50th anniversary by seeking inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The prestigious designation would protect the community from haphazard alterations or intensified development.
The Village Green began as a model community that was to be called “Thousand Gardens,” reflecting its designers’ great regard for green space. The young Alexander had teamed with another architect, Reginald Johnson, a local designer with a prosperous practice of wealthy homeowners.
The community the men dreamed of would be not only affordable--the highest rent was $80 per month when it opened--but the community also would find new ways of addressing the already difficult problem of city traffic.
By 1940, after years of trial and error, the architects had designed Baldwin Hills Village, now known as The Village Green. The 629-unit community on Rodeo Road in Southwest Los Angeles was carved out of a bean field on the northern slopes of Baldwin Hills.
Almost since its opening, the Village has been the subject of recognition. In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art called it “one of the most significant works of architecture in the nation.”
In 1972, the American Institute of Architects gave the Village its prestigious 25-year award as “a notable landmark of innovative planning and design for the automobile age . . . (that) gives the project a clarity, serenity, and a harmonious unity rarely found in 20th century urban development.”
From the outset, the Village’s designers determined that the car would be a servant, not a master. And Alexander, now a sprightly 82 and retired in Berkeley, still flashes fire from bright blue eyes when he speaks of that radical, pro-pedestrian bias.
“To tame the car, we took our inspiration from the ‘superblock’ concept derived from turn-of-the-century British Garden City planners such as Ebenezer Howard,” he said. “The basic idea was to keep the 64-acre estate intact, not sliced up by streets. Within this superblock we created a series of garden ‘commons’ meant for walking and relaxing and getting together.”
Alexander and Johnson enlisted the expertise of noted East Coast planner Clarence S. Stein in designing the Village’s model layout. Stein, together with his partner Henry Wright, were responsible for the design of several pace-setting East Coast new towns.
Today, The Village Green, remains a serene haven for its 1,000 residents.
Shaded by giant sycamores, maples, olive trees and Chinese elms, the lawns that link the Village’s one- and two-story apartment blocks are cool and spacious. At a density of 10 units to the acre-- three times that of a standard suburban development--the Village seems as gracious as a gated enclave many times more affluent.
The design of the blocks that house the one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments is a bare-bones International Style whose plain off-white stucco walls, metal windows and low-sloped roofs have weathered the decades with grace.
Converted to condominiums in 1973, each unit has a private garage and a small patio walled off from the common greens. The rooms are simple without being mean and the finished surfaces are unfancy and long-wearing.
Construction costs, subsidized by the fledgling Federal Housing Administration, were minimal. This allowed the original rents to be fixed at a modest $80 a month for the largest, three-bedroom apartments.
Alexander says the Village was, and has remained, economically and physically attractive because it was created in a spirit of investment, not speculation. “We were investing in the common good, in architectural innovation, in the future of Los Angeles,” he said. “We weren’t out to turn a gigantic profit.”
Alexander become a temporary partner of Richard Neutra in the 1950s, and collaborated with the modernist master in the design of the UCLA University Elementary School and adjacent Nursery-Kindergarten School. His architecture was always distinguished by a lack of pretension and a humane sense of scale.
These modest architectural virtues were recognized in the citation accompanying the AIA award, which declared that the Village buildings’ “very lack of stylistic distinction has made them wear well, and the passage of time has given substance to their most positive virtue: a consistent simplicity of massing and detail.”
Another virtue the Village developed, by accident of location rather than intention, is its unusual ethnic mixture.
“The Village is one of the few areas in Los Angeles where we have total and peaceful integration,” said 49th District Assemblywoman Gwen Moore. “The mixture--equally white and black with a percentage of Asians--is unique in this section of the city.”
Dorothy Wong, a teacher who has lived in the Village for 11 years and now heads its Design Review Committee, said she chose the place for its easy racial mixture, its environmental serenity and its affordability.
“Many of the people who live here now--whether white, black or Oriental--tend to be professionals with limited means, like teachers and young architects,” she said. “The price of the condos, now starting at about $110,000 for a one-bedroom unit, is moderate by current standards. Where else in L.A. would you get so much green space so cheaply?”
Visiting the Village for the start of its 50th anniversary celebrations, Alexander remarked upon the relative absence of young families compared to the time he lived there with his wife and baby daughter when it first opened in the early 1940s.
“The place was designed to include a large percentage of children,” he said. “We created several kidlots that’ve now vanished. I think that’s a pity--though I see that some young families have begun to move back in.”
As the surrounding neighborhood became more socially tense and drug-ridden in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Village went through some difficult times.
Elderly residents, many of whom have lived in the Village since the 1940s, were frequently attacked by teen-age muggers racing through the pathways on bicycles. And in the early 1980s, there was a series of rapes.
Today, security guards patrol the grounds and escort residents from their garages to their condos after dark. A Village homeowners’ association oversees the pristine upkeep of the commons and enforces a set of rules governing such issues as exterior painting and planting in private areas.
“I feel we’ve reached a good balance across the board,” said architect Bernie Altman, a 13-year resident. “We have a balance between black and white, young and old, security and freedom, private rights and public good. In every way--social and architectural--the Village remains a model for multiple housing complexes in Los Angeles.
“If we achieve the listing we seek on the National Register, The Village Green’s next 50 years should be as interesting as our first half-century.”