A Dream for Low-Cost Housing in Los Angeles That Went Astray : Planning: Architect Richard Neutra designed an innovative community of low-income housing in the late 1930s that could still work for the city.
As Los Angeles burned in late April and early May, the images of violence on the TV screen called up counter-images of 50 years ago, when Richard Neutra, California’s greatest modernist architect, designed the “Amity Village” housing complex for Compton. In many ways, this ambitious but unbuilt scheme epitomized the high aspirations and the countless broken promises for improving the quality of life in South-Central Los Angeles.
Though perhaps best known internationally because of his elegant villas designed for Hollywood figures, such as director Josef von Sternberg, and members of the L.A. Establishment, including physician Philip Lovell, Neutra was particularly interested in designing low-cost housing for middle- and lower-income groups. He had learned such social democratic ideals in his native Vienna, and later in Berlin where he worked for Eric Mendelsohn, in the early 1920s.
Yet Neutra’s greatest architectural heroes were the Americans Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, and Irving Gill in Los Angeles. Neutra emigrated to the United States in 1923, worked briefly in Chicago, where he communed with Sullivan, and in Wisconsin where he worked for Wright. In 1925, he moved to Los Angeles, where he shared quarters with his old Viennese school friend, Rudolph Schindler. It was here that Neutra encountered Gill’s epochal low-cost housing courts that would so influence him.
As a “practical visionary,” Neutra’s interest in designing for “people in groups” was first developed in innovative apartment complexes in Hollywood and Westwood in the late 1920s and 30s, but it reached its consummation in his low-cost housing proposals for Southern California in the late 1930s and 40s.
Neutra had corresponded with the socialist Upton Sinclair on such issues--and had supported Sinclair in his controversial 1934 bid for governor. Yet Neutra’s dreams of subsistence homesteads for cooperatives of unemployed workers and for low-paid migrant farm laborers came to naught in the early and middle 1930s. One of the most poignant of these plans was housing for Riverside County dairy workers--where Neutra proposed recycling discarded wooden fruit crates as both module and insulation for handsome low-cost modernist structures.
Though these were never built, Neutra’s persistence paid off in the later 1930s, in contracts from such federal agencies as the National Youth Administration and the Works Progress Administration for housing in Florida, Texas and California. The most ambitious of these was Amity Village in the Compton. In an article for Sunset Magazine, Neutra wrote of the proposed housing in the persona of a new owner, “Margaret,” a wife and mother who was telling a friend about her house. “The main thing,” Margaret wrote, “is the amount of gratification you get out of every square inch in your layout: how much living can be enjoyed in every part, how much enjoyment you get from each morsel of its design.” She appreciated in the T-shaped configuration, the variety Neutra achieved by alternating curving walls with right-angled ones, as rooms opened to garden patios.
“Practically we don’t live on a street at all, but in a park,” Neutra’s alter-ego, Margaret, continued, “Does it all sound big and luxurious? It isn’t really. Ingenious arrangement gives us the illusion of unlimited space.”
In 1941, as Amity Compton moved from the conceptual phase to the final stage of construction documents, cost constraints forced compromises in both spatial configuration and architectural amenities. The more expensive curving lines became orthogonal ones. The one-story “houses” became one-story duplexes and two-story apartments, with continued provisions for indoor-outdoor living via patios on the lower levels and balconies above. Yet wooden siding still imparted a modernist gestalt. Indeed, however compromised the designs were, there was no doubt that “Amity Village” was to be built. The hundreds of detailed working drawings, now in UCLA’s Neutra Archive, leave no doubt that all signals were go. There was, Neutra’s son, Dion, recalled, “an atmosphere of great excitement that things were going ahead.” Amity-Compton would solve immediate problems and serve as a model for future developments.
Yet, Pearl Harbor redirected even these plans, and the government decided Amity Village should be relocated to a different site for different people. Instead of the relatively flat plains of Compton, it was to be built on the hilly slopes near the Los Angeles harbor. Suddenly, the imperatives had shifted from housing middle- and working-class Angelenos to providing homes in the war-time emergency for defense workers. With virtually no architectural changes except for adjustments to the steeper grade, “Amity Compton” became “Channel Heights"--a housing development that, in time, came to seem a model of its type.
The 222 residential structures documented what Amity Compton might have been. Clustered in three large super-blocks, they housed 600 families. Most buildings faced the street at oblique, 45-degree angles, and offered residents a variety of views. The “finger-park” cul-de-sac planning, as at Compton, provided both privacy and a sense of community. The two-story, four-family units, alternating with one-story duplexes, were built of stucco and redwood, with interiors painted in soft blues, greens and yellows. “Sturdy simplicity and cheerful color,” one critic noted, “is the keynote of the interiors.” All units had a living and dining room, kitchen, bath and utility and storage areas, with bedrooms raging from one to three. The average cost was $2,600.
In addition to the residential flats, Channel Heights, like Amity Compton, offered store and market buildings, as well as a crafts center, nursery and school buildings and a community meeting and recreational center. Residents decades later recalled it as the “most pleasant environment” they had lived in.
In the postwar years, the government sold Channel Heights to private “developers” who allowed the rental units to fade and deteriorate. Yet, as late as 1980, when most of its units had long since been demolished, visitors still sensed this was something unique. Amid the squalid ruins of the once-modern village, a sense of place and urbanity remained.
In the 1980s, but more compellingly at its peak, Channel Heights suggested what Amity Compton might have been and still could be. The tragedy was that, after the war, the plans for Compton were not resumed. When such programs were reinstituted for Los Angeles following the Housing Act of 1949--as at Chavez Ravine’s Elysian Park Heights--the ambitious social visions fell prey to McCarthyite cold warriors, who fought them as examples of “creeping Socialism.”
How such housing in the ‘30s and early ‘40s might have changed and improved the lives of central city Angelenos will never be known. Still it can serve as a poignant model of what yet might be done for a long-impoverished area to obviate the need of what novelist James Baldwin called “the fire next time.”