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Bringing the “Social” Back to “Housing”

Architecture is a Social Act

Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects - LOHA

Bringing the “Social” Back to “Housing”
By Lorcan O'Herlihy -

Twenty-twenty proved to be a challenging year in which to be social. Between pandemic-induced social distancing and American’s fear of anything that might infer Socialism, the very essence of the word social has been brought into question. We are still social beings, and 2020 both heightened our awareness of the need for physical human contact while providing us infinite ways to work around it. As a nation, we have also experienced social unrest. Triggered by the murder of George Floyd, deep inequities within our society have been blindingly brought to light. If anything, 2020 has shown us what has always existed beneath the surface, prompting us to reconsider how we navigate our cities and how they can be adapted to better fit the needs of all.

As architects, it is critical to engage policies and initiate conversations that are relevant to a rapidly changing world. Architecture is a social act. It is a tool with which we can connect to politics, economics, aesthetics and to ideas around smart growth, and thus promote social equity, human interaction and cultural evolution. Our approach needs to be more bottom-up, more nuanced, and more considerate of the cultures and ecologies already present, in order to avoid displacing people, as was done all too often in the past, and instead make our cities and neighborhoods inclusive across age, race and socio-economic strata.

If cities are the scaffold, then housing is the platform of our social framework. Discussions on the future of urban architecture and design pivot on the question of housing for all. What has long been considered a right and not a privilege in most countries is today profoundly threatened. There simply is not enough affordable housing to accommodate the unprecedented growth of our cities. By 2050, 70% of the world population is predicted to be urban. Addressing this growth, and finding homes for this exploding population, has become one of the most significant challenges of our time.

In bringing together two ideas, social and housing, we can find inspiration for how to approach this uncertain future. If social equity and human engagement can be restored as synonymous to the need to be housed, we can point society toward some answers to the vexing problem of where and how we shall all live.

Yet, if we are to think about the terms social and housing, we find a disconnect - an ideological split that for decades has been growing wider. The term “social housing” has always carried an enormous stigma in the United States. At least from the 1970s, when cities across the nation were suffering unprecedented fiscal crises, public housing was publicly transformed from a social good to a social bad. What generally comes to mind are the failed housing projects constructed in the post-WWII era, planned low-income communities that had become more blighted than the ones they were meant to replace and improve.

Public housing, as it was called for decades, has now been rebranded in the United States to supportive or affordable housing. Simply put, it serves a small portion of the population in the greatest need - formerly homeless veterans, the elderly and people with disabilities, to name a few. Affordable/supportive housing in the U.S. is defined much more narrowly as a portion of the unhoused than public housing is in Europe. Historically, this was not the case. From the 1930s through the early 1960s, housing was considered a right in the U.S., and the federal government underwrote the costs of affordable housing developments. Not just the poorest of the poor but even the middle-class had a right to decent, government-supported housing. This legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” had its last gasp in the 1970s, when the U.S. abandoned public housing in favor of underwriting private developers and the free-market housing policies that continue to this day. And from an aesthetic point of view, much of the supportive/affordable housing in the U.S. still immediately conjures up that same expectation of cheapness both in design and construction - and blight - that public housing did; a throwaway for people whose lives are considered less virtuous because they have fewer means.

The Social Agenda That Was

Yet, there are examples in pre-1970s America of conscious efforts to build social housing that was truly social. Here in Los Angeles, Viennese émigré Richard Neutra took up Modernism’s mission of making the world a better place by designing everything from small apartment complexes for “people in groups” to huge social housing projects in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
While many of his social housing ideas for working- and middle-class Angelenos were never built, one was. Conceived as “Amity Village”, a planned community for Compton (a working-class city 24 km south of downtown L.A.), Neutra’s project was instead built in coastal San Pedro. Renamed Channel Heights, it provided housing for World War II veterans returning to work in South Bay defense plants.

Neutra, and housing officials alike, saw Channel Heights as a model for future housing in the southland. Each of the 222 residential units was nestled into a park-like setting. The T-shaped configuration of the one-story duplexes and two-story apartments spilled out to garden patios on the ground floors, with balconies for the floors above. “Finger parks” at the end of every block added to the already plentiful outdoor spaces; the development had a market, crafts center, nursery, and school buildings, as well as a community space and recreational center. The units cost $2,600 each, which is about $68,000 in today’s money. Decades later residents would describe Channel Heights as the “most pleasant environment” they had lived in. Eventually, the tract was sold to private developers, who left Neutra’s vision to rot. By 1980, it had disappeared.

A number of other federally-funded public housing projects, underwritten by the 1937 Housing Act, were built in Los Angeles before the United States entered World War II, and just after.
They were each, in their way, fine examples of the principles espoused by the Progressive’s Garden City Movement - large green areas separated from street traffic - and were racially integrated to boot. But new construction of public housing in Los Angeles began its fateful demise - its metamorphosis from good to bad - less than a decade after Channel Heights was built. The fear of “creeping socialism” in the U.S. put social housing on the chopping block, and ironically, it was Richard Neutra’s (and his partner, Robert E. Alexander’s) master plan of Elysian Park Heights, that reversed the city’s embrace of fair housing for all.

Elysian Park Heights was a 93 ha public housing project 3 km northwest of downtown. It was an ambitious effort to bring thousands of units of desperately needed post-war housing to the city. Neutra and Alexander believed they could create a very dense neighborhood while preserving the “human warmth and pleasantness” of the existing hillside community, a largely Hispanic neighborhood of shacks and stick-built homes. The effort to house 3,300 families required nearly 20 large 13-story towers flanked by garden plots, combining the austerity of other massive Modernist Utopian projects such as Le Corbuier’s Ville Radieuse and Neutra’s own Rush City Reformed, with a Southern Californian ideal of indoor-outdoor living. Alas, three years after the project was conceived, and shovel-ready with thousands of pages of construction documents prepared, Elysian Park was denounced by real estate developers, the city’s Chief of Police, the Los Angeles Times, and vigilantly anti-Communist politicians, as a “socialist plot”. In a fury of McCarthyism, the plan dissolved, and the land was eventually handed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who left New York for Los Angeles and built a private stadium where public housing was meant to be.

Taking Back Modernism’s Mission

What these plans could have done for Los Angeles’s housing, we shall never exactly know. But one thing is clear: we find ourselves now in a crisis far deeper than the one we faced a generation ago, following the war years. And there seems no solution in sight.
The unhoused population has been growing steadily - nationally and locally - over the past decade. In Los Angeles alone, the numbers have swollen to over 60,000. People living under bridges, in alleys, and on sidewalks has become commonplace, and is not just confined to urban cores. The problem is spilling into more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs, making it tougher for Americans to deny that the problem exists. Like the racial inequities that were revealed after George Floyd’s death; what was once hidden, is now in plain sight.

So, in asking how architecture can play a role at this critical moment, I believe that our task as architects today is to take a more humanistic approach to the built environment, by engaging with the fate of our cities. As architects, we need to take back Modernism’s mission to make the world a better place and to solve larger social ills. It is no longer about simply designing buildings as isolated objects. It is about engaging all the forces that are shaping our world.

The growing problem of homelessness is not just about a need for shelter, it is about a wider social problem of belonging by giving people ways to establish roots in the neighborhoods in which they live. It is about giving them a status as citizens, with a clear stake in society. Designing these spaces is not just about aesthetics or function, but about humanizing those who have been dehumanized. More broadly, it is about society acknowledging others less fortunate than themselves and sharing in their common plight.

Therefore, we need to start by putting the “social” back into “social housing”, by creating housing that is both socially equitable and social in its purpose. Two examples from our new book Architecture is a Social Act are illustrative of this argument. Both challenge the very notion of what affordable housing can be. Equally important, is how these projects can accommodate our new social reality, post pandemic, through a more humanistic and holistic approach to architecture, one that allows us to truly pivot from being more than architects simply designing stand-alone buildings, to urban strategists speculating on the fate of our cities.

Shifting Perceptions - MLK1101

The first project, MLK1101, is in the neighborhood of Exposition Park, just 5 km south of downtown Los Angeles. The area was once Ground Zero for redlining, the deliberate segregation of blacks and other minorities prevented by banks from owning homes in white neighborhoods. Formal redlining ended 50 years ago after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, but new boundaries are now being thrown up in this poor section of the city. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the global phenomenon of homelessness is hitting Los Angeles particularly hard. While nearly everyone seems to want to solve the problem by giving the homeless a decent home, no one wants to risk their sense of security and their own neighborhood by allowing the unhoused in. Essentially, the homeless are victims of a new kind of redlining.

In 2014, we were approached by affordable housing developer Clifford Beers Housing to design a 26-unit supportive housing complex on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, a five-minute walk to the Coliseum, home of the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics, and another ten minutes to the University of Southern California. The apartments are for formerly homeless veterans, the chronically homeless and families too poor to find decent housing at affordable prices. The site was a vacant, unimproved lot on an aesthetically impoverished block, next to a McDonald’s, a strip mall, and a mélange of two-story apartment complexes from the 1920s through the 1980s. The boulevard itself is overly wide, starved of greenery, and burdened with fast-moving traffic.

These kinds of streets are typical of Los Angeles, and are particularly common in South L.A., where many of the main arteries are bleak and uncared for. MLK1101 was envisioned to demonstrate how architecture can bring beauty and stature to challenging sites throughout the city, and to demonstrate how good architecture has the power to restore pride to marginalized people and to the neighborhoods in which they live. This project was our opportunity to shift the perception about what homeless housing can be.

These ideals ran in tandem with the developer’s mission to house the homeless by considering the whole person (physical, behavioral, and social) as well as the circumstances and wellbeing of the whole family. Rather than ghettoizing specific populations of people living in poverty, its approach is to create an environment of inclusiveness, where individuals with physical- and mental-health issues can live together with non-special needs households, and most importantly, not in isolation.

For residents, it was important to feel part of the neighborhood, so the building was designed to be as open and porous as possible, while being safe and secure. The city’s mandatory parking requirement (as silly as it may be for tenants with few or no cars) forced us to lift the residential quarters above street-level parking and retail stores. It ended up working to our advantage, since putting the apartments one story up provided the privacy and security residents wanted, while also shielding them from street noise and pollution. Directly above the commercial space, at the western edge of the building, is an inward-facing community room, capped by a planted, folded roof that mimics the ridge lines of nearby 1920s bungalows. The sloping roof creates a green commons, giving both occupants and passers-by a visual and respiratory relief from the clamor of the fast-food drive-through that shares the eastern boundary of the property. Social equity and the wellbeing of residents, rather than being treated in isolation, were our priorities. The solution was an L-shaped building that allowed openness and generous amounts of natural light - both of which, as any homeless advocate will tell you, are key to healthy minds. Instead of the poorly-lit hallways of typical single-room-occupancy housing, where homeless people often end up living, all the apartments are reached through airy exterior walkways. As the building climbs in height, the walkways grow wider, shading the floors below and emphasizing the overall openness of the project. This design lifts the weight of the regimented, repetitive balcony arrangements of typical Los Angeles “dingbat” apartment buildings, introducing welcome variety in their place. As you move through MLK1101, the space continuously enlarges and the vista always shifts.

In addition to being socially responsible, the project is environmentally accountable. It incorporates passive and active enviro-friendly techniques, such as a living roof, cross ventilation throughout the units, as well as solar water heating, electric vehicle charging, high-efficiency windows, high-efficiency heating, cooling and other appliances and fixtures. The building was certified LEED Gold.

Last but certainly not least, there is a cascading stairway entrance (“the stoop”), outdoor benches and gathering spaces as a way to break down the public-private divide and create a place for people to gather and be a part of their surroundings. A simple space like a stoop - little more than a set of stairs, that serves as a place to rest or mingle - will allow the new residents to become active members of their neighborhood as opposed to being relegated in their living quarters, just as they were when they were living on the streets or stuck in temporary shelters. Maybe someday the stigma of homelessness will become as foreign to those living at MLK1101 as to those living around them, who feared “the other” coming into their community.

MLK1101 responded to the housing crisis when it seemed acceptable to take years, not months, and millions, not thousands, to build a residential unit. In the four years that it took to build, homelessness in the city, increased by an order of magnitude, on an upward curve that has swamped the streets with unsheltered people. We have learned a valuable, if difficult, lesson. We must provide housing faster, more cost-effectively and more creatively.

Testing New Terrain - Isla Intersections

This leads us to our second project, Isla Intersections, which has its origins in the 2011 recession, when then-Governor Jerry Brown shut down California’s 400 state-funded Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs). Created in 1945 to combat so-called urban blight, the agencies doled out funds to boost economic investment, 20% of which was earmarked for low-income housing. During that 60-year run, the state sent roughly $1 billion per year to cities, in part to purchase and consolidate landholdings and build new housing. Fast forward ten years, and California is experiencing the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. Brown’s shuttering of the redevelopment agencies not only starved cities of capital to build new housing, but also left them holding countless parcels of vacant land they could not use.

Since then, California municipalities have been slowly releasing thousands of those properties and empty acreage to individuals and developers. In 2018, the City of Los Angeles made available hundreds of city-owned parcels to affordable housing developers. Many of these sites are difficult, lying along heavy traffic corridors and toxic areas such as freeways. In other instances, the sites are made up of composite parcels cobbled together from odds and ends, leftover and untouched for decades. It is in this kind of liminal space, fraught with ambiguity, that we see opportunity, and a significant next step for the future of housing in the city. Figuring out how to make just one of these tricky spots work for low-income housing has the potential to unlock a wave of thinking around converting hundreds or maybe even thousands of other sites.

Our foray onto this troublesome yet exciting turf has us working as both architects and urban strategists in our third collaboration with nonprofit developer Clifford Beers Housing. Isla de Los Angeles Supportive Housing and Annenberg Paseo is a 3,251 sq. m, 54-unit housing project and adjacent promenade on a 1,840-sq-m triangular site in South Los Angeles, and unites a traffic island and a former railroad right of way. The location is challenging in more ways than one. Not only was it never officially a land parcel (there are no power or water hook-ups), but it is located in South L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood, one of the region’s most impoverished and polluted communities. The project is 52 m from one of the world’s busiest interchanges, the meeting of the 110 and 105 Freeways. That sinuous, looping confluence of concrete, where a dozen soaring overpasses and roadbeds meet, cuts through a dense, low-lying neighborhood. It is a visual signifier of Los Angeles and a huge health hazard, adding hundreds of cases of asthma and uncountable cancers to the surrounding neighborhood.

These facts make up the physical and economic geography of our Isla project. There are other more immediate exigencies.
Los Angeles needs 568,000 new units of affordable housing in the coming decade, and needs them to be built quickly and cheaply. The irony is that “affordable housing” can take five years to build and can cost more than half a million dollars per unit (that is roughly the cost of a single-family home in a low- to medium-income neighborhood). By using disused land, our project takes one of the key expenses out of low-income housing: land cost. Next, modular container construction allows concurrent work on- and off-site, condensing construction time to two years, as well as being (in principle) a more sustainable approach to building.

But challenging traditional building methods and turning out low-income housing for less money in less time were not our only goals. Isla Intersections aims to make an unlivable spot livable. The project is organized along the spine of South Broadway - a thoroughfare that was once the backbone of black Los Angeles - as a series of 16 staggered boxes. Each box is assembled out of three 6-m-long by 2.5-m-wide shipping containers, which are welded together to form a single 44.6-sq-m unit. Each open-plan unit is compact and efficient, with an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) kitchen and bathroom, and a living room that doubles as a bedroom.
The units are stacked and arranged into towers that are connected by a series of walkways to create a single unified building. These towers are intentionally scattered along the pie-shaped edge of the property, enclosing a sequence of pocket parks that provide surprising moments connecting the landscape to the private residences.
The result is a communal outdoor space within the building.

The aim was to create something that was compartmental but solid, strong enough to withstand the demands of the project’s location but permeable enough to engage the residents on a human scale with outdoor activities and places to work and socialize. Thus, northward along Broadway, we shifted heights, stair-stepping from five stories to two as we approached the single-family neighborhood across the street and the adjacent west-facing Annenberg Paseo along the pedestrian-friendly Athens Way. This reduced roofline strengthens the connection between the building and the paseo, which runs between the project and a stretch of freeway interchange - a “slow space” that favors pedestrians and bikes, not cars. While the project is predominantly residential, the ground level along the paseo will provide a number of storefront spaces for retail, job training and support services, as well as for administrative offices.This marketplace and paseo will also serve as a “green lung”, helping to filter diesel particulates and air pollutants up to 40%.
The landscaping is site-specific, with trees, shrubs and vines chosen for their ability to clean the air. Green roof terraces, too, will ease the sea of concrete enclosing the site. Rooftop farms and edible gardens will supply pop-up farm stands, providing fresh produce at weekly farmers’ markets. This project also has the chance to become part of a larger network of urban farms in the area, whose mission is to preserve the tradition of farming in South Los Angeles, bringing affordable produce to what many consider a “food desert”. Indeed, just 1.6 km east of Isla is Stanford Avalon Community Garden, a 3.6-ha urban farm located under 11 blocks of powerlines in Watts neighborhood, which was founded after a group of locals battled city officials for the right to keep their urban farms.
Isla aspires to build on their legacy, harnessing the potential to be part of a much larger green lung that can potentially wind its way through the city.

At a time when the city is desperate for answers to the housing crisis, we as architects can have a say in how things play out over the next decade.

Forging a New Path

These two projects are case studies for how we should approach housing. It is essential to steer away from the old social policies that relegated the poor, the homeless, and even the middle-class caught in a housing crunch, to the status of social pariahs who barely deserved a roof over their heads. We need to erase those policies and attitudes that built instant slums rather than genuine neighborhoods.
By recognizing our failures, it is possible to forge new paths. In a way, Isla Intersections is particularly poignant. Its design and purpose is all about untangling a web of urban planning policies that is at the center of the problem, and in turn, is an example of how we can reverse this trend through thoughtful design that is about people not politics or money.

Isla sits at the confluence of one of the largest freeway interchanges in the world, in a city dominated by the automobile, which makes its presence even more symbolic. A housing project, located on one of L.A.’s first “slow streets”, Isla is like a deliberate jab at the policies that build those freeways there in the first place. L.A.’s freeways were designed not only to move cars more “efficiently” through the basin, but to destroy existing neighborhoods and impose physical barriers comparable to a form of social apartheid. Isla helps undo this terrible history. Isla asserts a right-of-return, of planting roots, of tying streets and sidewalks back together, of creating an identity even in the shadow of cars whizzing by overhead at 110 km per hour.

The future of Social Housing in a post-Covid-19 world will consist of discovering these small openings. Rather than looking for sweeping, wholesale answers, we should be combing the streets to find the opportunities that exist block by block, even house by house. If successful, we can help relieve some of the massive social isolation that the pandemic has wrought, and restore our cities in the bargain.


This article contains excerpts from LOHA’s recently released book, Architecture Is a Social Act, published by FRAME.



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