Micro apartments in Los Angeles: ‘How Small Is Too Small?’
With condo buildings sprouting from vacant lots and talk of lifting height restrictions on its high-rises, Hollywood offers one of the best illustrations of Los Angeles’ push toward population density. In the heart of this quickly changing neighborhood, in an appropriately tiny storefront gallery, two exhibitions show the direction of L.A. through studies of micro apartments and multifamily apartments.
“How Small Is Too Small” and “By-Right/By-Design,” running until Aug. 4 at the WuHo Gallery, examine a future that, the exhibits propose, is already partially here.
A micro-unit, here defined as an apartment of 300 square feet or less, is already a reality in cities such as New York and Tokyo, and many Angelenos no doubt already live with even less. But increasingly architects and developers have created plans for tiny, efficient, well-designed apartments in hopes of catering to specific -- and growing -- audiences.
“A lot of things have happened in recent years in the dynamic of demographics that make this a viable option for people,” said Takako Tajima, who curated “How Small Is Too Small” with Katrina Stoll Szabo and Daina Swagerty. She pointed to the single, childless young professionals who now make up 28% of the population, as well as all of the baby boomers who are downsizing as they age.
A 300-square-foot apartment fabricated by Specialized Construction fits snugly in the 15-foot-wide WuHo Gallery, allowing visitors to try on a micro-unit for size. To create a feeling of transparency and an understanding of the structure, the micro-apartment has no drywall; instead, untreated dimensional lumber frames the elements, and fixtures such as toilets, sinks and counters have been made from fiberboard, helping to illustrate the flexible nature of the layout. Visitors can move about the floor plan, which feels spacious with sparse white Ikea furnishings.
The exhibition also shows the demographic shifts driving the micro-unit trend. Of particular note is a sobering jobs report for the Los Angeles region: The lowest-paying jobs are growing the fastest.
“When you look at that and then look at the rents, you say, OK, we really need to provide affordable housing,” Tajima said.
Tajima and her team mapped two hubs of this trend: One is a cluster of affordable housing projects in Santa Monica, and the other is a group of transitional housing projects in downtown by developers including the Skid Row Housing Trust. If Tajima’s theory is correct, the region will need many more.
At the front of the gallery, “By-Right/By-Design” is curated by architect and USC professor Liz Falletta, who juxtaposes historic and contemporary examples of multifamily housing in Los Angeles. The show plays out as a companion to the concepts put forth in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents initiative, which highlights how architects grappled with issues such as affordability and privacy during the postwar housing boom. In most cases, the single-family house with attached garage and lawn won out, but Falletta makes the case for L.A. as an innovator in multifamily living, citing examples including luxurious courtyard apartments such as Irving Gill’s Horatio West Court as well as Gregory Ain’s stylish yet affordable Mar Vista Tract.
Falletta demonstrates how changing attitudes paired with zoning modifications are finally bringing elements of those historic projects to fruition.
“I’m trying to take lessons from these and exemplify them through contemporary projects,” she said.
The show demonstrates how, for example, Gill’s design shares similar aspirations with the Heyday Partnership’s Buzz Court, a six-unit Silver Lake project on a tiny lot, constructed under the city’s small lot ordinance. “It’s only viable now because we have a new ordinance that changes our setbacks,” Falletta said.
Although Falletta and Tajima hope to inspire the designers, planners and developers who can build more of these kinds of projects, they also hope to spark a conversation around their viability: Can Los Angeles truly support this kind of high-density, low-footprint life? In some areas, such as Santa Monica or downtown L.A., the answer might be yes. But in other places, cities might need to improve transportation, add parks or other public recreation space, and build more walkable business districts before Southern Californians will give up those lawns and garages. These shows are not just an exploration of exemplary design, but also a provocation for the city to step up and support a new way of living.
WuHo Gallery, a facility that Woodbury University shares with the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, is at 6518 Hollywood Blvd. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.