When Rania Alomar was hired to design a new animal shelter for the city of Los Angeles, the architect was given specific instructions: Create a temporary home for animals that increases their comfort and, by virtue of its design, pulls people in and makes them want to stay and adopt a pet.
But can architecture really reduce euthanasia when the city's shelters are filled to capacity? Yes, Alomar said, if it's a "facility that people want to go to." If it's a place where "you want to come in and feel like you are in a happy space."
The $9-million South Los Angeles Animal Care Center is scheduled to open next month with 270 kennels, and the hope is that the facility will challenge the outdated perception of the animal shelter as dismal dog pound. It's a design experiment from an architect who has learned from experience: She designed an animal wellness center and a German shepherd rescue in Santa Monica.
The exterior of the facility is striking and conceptual, with a front facade composed of a series of green stucco "ribbons" and concrete panels with overlapping foliage. The modern design is a welcoming presence in a light industrial zone near South Western Avenue and West 60th Street.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of the facility is its layout: Imagining the psychology of people who will come to the shelter to "shop" for pets, Alomar has designed the building with a retail model in mind. Similar to shoppers at a mall who allow themselves to be sidetracked by small boutiques on their way to a large department store, the architect hopes visitors, through a series of displays, will be enticed to consider "alternative" pets such as reptiles or bunnies, or older dogs — rather than, say, puppies, which are often the first to be adopted.
Visitors to the new shelter will walk through an open-air gallery where every window features something different: a community room for education and outreach, a spay and neuter clinic, a reptile room, even an outdoor aviary. (The puppies are housed at the back of the gallery.) Through her design, Alomar is, essentially, marketing the animals.
"We wanted animal shelters that invited people in and made them comfortable enough to create a relationship with a pet," said Linda Gordon, a former liaison to the Bureau of Engineering for L.A. Animal Services who recently retired. "Rania captured the idea that we can have a different kind of setting to look at our pets, or potential pets, by having open-air kennels. This will cut down on disease transmission, smell and noise."
During a tour of the facility last week, some of Alomar's design choices were immediately apparent, such as raised puppy kennels that allow for better viewing, retractable roofs on the outdoor kennels and a series of plant screens that ensure that all dogs face something green instead of other dogs (thus reducing the ricochet affect of agitated barking). "So many shelters have outdoor awnings for people," Alomar said. "Why not the animals?" Not visible in the concrete kennel runs: radiant floor heating and overhead misters to help with climate control.
With a background in sports and entertainment, Alomar said she found designing for animals a refreshing challenge from previous projects such as Staples Center (one of the project designers, she focused on the exterior skin of the building when working for NBBJ).
"You have to change your viewpoint and look at things from the dog's point of view," she said. "You have to enter their world."
At the privately run Westside German Shepherd Rescue in Santa Monica, Alomar designed a facility to resemble a Cape Cod-style home. "I wanted it to feel like you are going to someone's home to adopt a dog," she said. Like the South Los Angeles shelter, the facility is laid out like a city with a main boulevard, in this case a wide boardwalk, with kennels or cottages on either side. The hope is that visitors will feel like they are adopting animals who have been cared for and not abandoned. Adding to the sense of calm, all of the walls and windows between the kennels were soundproofed.
Animal shelters are often controversial, as are the officials who run them. The city of Los Angeles has struggled to appease critics of euthenasia, who lobby for "no kill" facilities, and legions of rescuers and volunteers, many of whom believe more needs to be done to improve animal welfare.
Gordon said she is excited to observe architects and designers like Alomar working to build better shelters. "People are going to want to come to the shelter and take their time to establish a relationship with a pet They are going to want to come and stay."