Homeless housing: windows to creativity

Times Staff Writer

At any given time, the easiest way to tell which projects are getting the most attention inside the Silver Lake offices of Michael Maltzan Architecture is to look at the top of a long, low bookcase that bisects the main workspace like the hands of a clock striking 6. Piled high with designs in progress, it offers a glimpse of the firm’s collective mind at work.

One afternoon last week, it was covered with plans and cardboard models of the New Carver Apartments, a drum-shaped, six-story building that will be constructed over the next year and a half in downtown L.A. Carver, which will hold 100 efficiency apartments on a site in the shadow of the 10 Freeway, a few blocks southeast of the L.A. Convention Center, is the second project Maltzan has designed for the Skid Row Housing Trust. The first was the Rainbow Apartments, an 89-unit building that opened in November on San Pedro Street, in skid row.

The distance separating the two sites -- just two miles -- belies the difficulty of the current effort to move the homeless beyond the circumscribed boundaries of skid row. As downtown continues its fitful evolution, with projects such as Frank Gehry’s pair of towers on Grand Avenue moving toward realization, the pressure to “solve” that neighborhood’s homeless problem, or at least disperse it, will grow only more intense.


And the parcels of land outside skid row that social service organizations can afford are likely to look a lot like the one where Carver will soon be going up: noisy, gritty corners of the city where worried neighbors are essentially nonexistent. Unlike the Hope Gardens site near Sylmar, a possible site for a homeless-service center that has caused homeowners who live a full mile away to cry foul, this seems unlikely to produce a NIMBY backlash. Drivers on the 10 will effectively be its closest neighbors, their headlights creating patterns each night on apartment walls and ceilings.

But in working together a second time, Skid Row Housing Trust and Maltzan’s firm have managed to bring a measure of genuine optimism, however hard-earned, to the relationship between architecture and the city’s chronic homeless problem. Though its design is still a few weeks away from being finalized, the Carver project already shows clear signs of surpassing the Rainbow Apartments in both practicality and sophistication. It has largely avoided the steep learning curve that architect and client struggled to climb during their first collaboration.

Perhaps most surprising, in purely architectural terms it is among the most compelling projects in Maltzan’s busy office, where the projects underway include a commission from JPL in Pasadena, a state historic park near Chinatown (with Hargreaves Associates) and a house for Michael Ovitz. It suggests that once the budget gets tight enough, architecture in its most basic sense -- the straightforward arrangement of space and light -- is really the only thing that can allow this kind of project to succeed.


Shaping the Rainbow

Former Skid Row Housing Trust Executive Director James Bonar, himself an architect, first approached Maltzan after seeing his work for Inner City Arts, a downtown nonprofit that serves at-risk youths. Along with the Midnight Mission building down the street, Rainbow was among the first free-standing buildings constructed in response to the growing homeless encampments downtown. Skid Row Housing Trust, now run by Bonar’s successor, Mike Alvidrez, has continued to cement its reputation as a supporter of thoughtful architecture. A building it commissioned from Koning Eizenberg Architects, the talented Santa Monica-based firm, will soon go up next door to Rainbow.

Maltzan’s early versions of the Rainbow design were full of what can only be described as architectural optimism. A key element was a brightly colored metal sunshade, twisted into a eye-catching pattern and designed to line the walls of the building’s interior courtyard. For Maltzan, the shade operated as a visual shorthand for the goals of the project as a whole: to bring a sense of vitality to the complex despite its small budget and location near the epicenter of the city’s homeless crisis.

But by the time Skid Row Housing Trust was ready to build, the shade was gone, a victim of the severe cost-cutting required to build the 43,000-square-foot facility for $10 million. So were the expanses of glass walls at street level, meant to bring a level of transparency both literal and symbolic to the building. And so, for that matter, were the brightest hues of the color scheme, toned down due to worries that residents with schizophrenia might react violently to them. Negotiations with the Community Redevelopment Agency, which helped arrange funding for the building, further complicated the design process.


Inventiveness on the fly

The process of seeing so many key design elements sliced away, familiar to any architect but perhaps unusually extreme in this case, led Maltzan toward a kind of improvisatory design strategy at the Rainbow building site. When a faulty window was about to be sent back to a supplier -- it wouldn’t open -- Maltzan intercepted it and had it installed high on one wall inside the community room on the second floor, bringing natural light into the space from an unexpected source. And even as features of his design were cut or altered beyond recognition, Maltzan was forced to include others that seemed wasteful. The city required dozens of parking spaces, even though virtually none of the Rainbow residents own cars.

The result of that back-and-forth is a building that turns a rather blank face to San Pedro, barely enlivening a forlorn block, but is full of surprising energy inside. A broad staircase points the way to the courtyard, and open-air corridors lead to five floors of apartments, all of which include windows on at least two sides. Architecture aside, there is little doubt that the building serves a pressing need: According to Skid Row Housing Trust figures, more than 500 people applied for its 89 units.

The constraints at the site of the New Carver Apartments, which will house elderly and disabled residents, have proved even more intense. Most buildings constructed this close to a freeway, such as motels, use expensive, thick windows to block out traffic noise. But the budget on this building simply won’t allow materials of that quality.

Maltzan’s response was to give the building a circular form, reducing significantly the percentage of the building that abuts the freeway directly. The shape also cuts down on the surface area the building needs relative to its floor space, providing a big savings on materials and construction costs.

Maltzan is working on a dramatic sunshade for the interior courtyard, just as he did at Rainbow. But this time he is trying to incorporate it into the building’s structural system, so it can’t be value-engineered out at the last minute. He is also trying to design the surface parking spaces so they can serve double duty, landscaped to provide a garden or exercise area.

For a while, Maltzan thought about making the Carver building perfectly round. Eventually, though, he figured out that shape wouldn’t allow room for all 100 units. So he extended an arm of the building to the northwest, its form following the curving line of the building site as it turns the corner from 17th Street north onto Hope Street. In plan -- as seen from above, in other words -- the design looks like a circular form beginning to uncoil.

That simple gesture, among other features, promises to give the building architectural depth to go with its obvious interest in efficiency and service. A complete circle would have conveyed a false sense of perfection. And it would have created an unfortunate symbol: a group of formerly homeless residents, and those who assist them, shut off from the city.

The design Maltzan settled on accepts the impossibility of solving the homeless problem with a tidy approach. It suggests a group of struggling people closing ranks to support one another -- but also beginning the tough process of reaching back out toward the larger world.