Zumtobel Group Award checks in with Michael Maltzan on his project Star Apartments, winner of the Zumtobel Group award in 2017. In this interview, they reminisce on how, in the course of 4 years, this project managed to successfully transform an entire district in LA, with benefits for the community and, most importantly, for the less fortunate.
“Star Apartments has set a new standard for architecture within the field of social housing, social and environmental sustainability as well as community and bottom-up processes.”
This is how the Zumtobel Group Award’s jury concluded their statement on Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments project in 2017.
“The transformation of this existing downtown Los Angeles one-storey commercial building into a six-storey apartment block for formerly homeless people not only defies all prejudiced thinking about achievable standards for social housing projects in troubled neighbourhoods, but it also comes along with a programme that is conceptually clear and rich for this particular context”, the jury added.
Michael, reflecting on the jury’s statement, what makes Star Apartments special for you yourself and for the residents? How has the project evolved?
Hopefully what makes Star Apartments useful, special, truly supportive for the people who live there, in terms of the architecture, is that the building is designed in a way to try and support really a wide range of residents needs and life across their day. What I mean by that is that somebody living there has the ability to have their own space, to have their own privacy, to have their own world, but can also easily connect to a larger community and be a part of a collective life, which is incredibly important. The building is designed to foster social connections and community development within the building, and that has been very successful for Star Apartments since its opening in 2014.
“It comes down to an ambition to try to prove that architecture can exist, can be present everywhere, no matter what the conditions are”.
What is the key message you wanted to share with Star?
One of the things architects need to be cautious of in any project but especially for a population like the residents at Star Apartments or, any of the other three buildings we've done with the Skid Row Housing Trust, is the tendency to make assumptions around how we think a group or a community should or wants to live. The building, the architecture can only do so much. It can't solve all of the challenges by any means of those individuals but it can do a great deal to allow for, to support those personal ambitions that people have, and to be a great vessel for their lives in the same way that we hope our own apartments and houses and homes are great armatures for life to take place, to be supportive as well as to be spirited in a way that helps us feel good about where we live and feel good about the community that we're a part of.
The whiteness of the building seems to make it shine like a star. Why did you choose this shiny white colour which sets the building apart from its surroundings?
One of the ambitions for the building was to be a kind of optimistic approach to the development in this area of the city, Skid Row, which has not seen that kind of optimism in any development for a very long time. It has historically been the centre for the homeless population in a place where people end up when they are at the very bottom of their situation. Star Apartments was intentionally trying to say something very different, that there could be a sense of the positive, that there was the potential for optimism. Some of that is in the programme of the building, making it more accessible and connected to the urban life around it. Even the aesthetics of the building, the very bright white colour, is meant to communicate a sense of lightness and a sense of brightness.
You mentioned the need of having a private retreat, a place to feel safe.
Yes, to have that choice. To have more control, which is the only way you can really have a more full and expanded life. If your life is constantly under threat, if being in a public situation is dangerous or demeaning, belittling, then you're not going to go that direction. Certainly one of the eye-opening realities when we first started working with the Housing Trust was learning the length of time the residents had previously been on the street. They were considered ‘chronically homeless’, which means those individuals had been on the street for five or ten years. They had lived a significant part of their life on the street, which in a way is a very public life. That constant lack of privacy results in a lack of control. The tendency is to become very withdrawn and private. They often develop a kind of psychological shell around themselves. Understandably, to protect themselves. In the buildings that we've done, maybe the most important goal, and probably the most fundamental thing that I have worked to achieve, is to create buildings that allow for opportunities for the residents to be private. Equally important is to push gently for residents to reconnect to a more public and social life, to start to help break down the barriers that they've put around themselves for protection. That intervention is subtle but present in most of the buildings we've done for the Housing Trust.
What is the idea behind the public realm at the Star building?
All of the apartments open up onto an outdoor walkway. It's not an enclosed corridor that you go down to your apartment. You're walking along basically a balcony walkway that is open to the interior courtyards of the buildings. The reason for that is that even by just walking from the front door to your apartment for that brief period of time, you are in that social community realm and it gives you the chance to see and be seen by others and to start slowly making you feel that it is okay. It's safe to be in that space, to be connected to other individuals. And out of that, the hope is that it starts to grow more confidence and more comfort, re-establishing those social, public, and communal capabilities. I think it certainly has been one of the very successful parts of Star Apartments.
For what reason did you preserve the existing one-storey commercial building?
When building Star Apartments, one of the things that was so unique about its development is that it preserved an existing one-storey building, which we renovated and then built the remainder, the largest portion of the building, basically on top of the existing building. That might not be so unusual in some other cities, but in in a city like Los Angeles where we never preserve any of the existing fabric of the city, Star Apartments was really quite radical. In addition to that preservation, the project uses an innovative new construction methodology, and integrates social services, community recreational facilities, and residential units into a unique building programme. The reason to preserve that ground floor was to do a couple of things. The client wanted to have at the street level ground floor retail spaces that would be open and connected to the neighbourhood. This was an opportunity to engage the city with a building in a more normal way. And that was very, very intentional – to connect the community and the population of the formerly homeless who are living there back into the city and its urban life, through the building, at the ground floor. Secondly, we were able to reuse the roof of that existing one-storey building, which had been originally all parking. That space became a new community and collective social space that has a little bit of everything from community kitchen, community garden, jogging track, basketball court, community rooms, and classrooms. That space is meant for the residents who live in the building, but also residents of other Skid Row Housing Trust buildings in the neighbourhood who don't have those kinds of amenities. Star’s supportive services are truly supportive of a community that goes well beyond the 102 people who live at Star Apartments.
Tell me, are you somehow in contact with the residents?
Yes, I talk with them fairly frequently because I come back to visit. Of course, with Star Apartments and a number of the Skid Row projects, people are very interested in those buildings. I get to visit by touring people or bringing people to see the building. I get to see how it's continued to develop and evolve. I inevitably get into conversations with the residents and most times it's quite informal, but it's always really informative because nobody there is shy to tell you what they think about, what they love, what they would change, what their problems are, and what their successes have been. It always feels very vital, it always feels like you're walking through a neighbourhood and people are out and very interested in talking and engaging. I think that's another indication of one of the successes of the building that the spaces outside of everybody's apartments feel like a common community, neighbourhood space, people feel very comfortable in them, and that is where they connect with everybody.
You said there had been similar projects with the Housing Trust. Was the concept the same for all?
We've completed four buildings with the Housing Trust. Star Apartments was the third. Each one services a slightly different community in a different area of the city. This is intentional, to be present in the city in a more realistic, broader way, that they're not all isolated to one district but meeting the homeless population where it exists, which is, frankly, everywhere. In each one of those projects, the fundamental goals are very similar – to provide very good, safe, stable housing for formerly homeless individuals, to provide supportive services in those buildings, and to make a place that builds community. Each time we've worked on one of these projects, we've evolved them with the Housing Trust in response to a lot of feedback from the residents of the other buildings. As a result, each building is repeating what has worked well, but experimenting and trying out things that feel like they could be done better. For instance, a small thing that might seem so prosaic in Star Apartments, we changed the location of the laundry rooms based on the residents’ requests. Even with a population that you can say shares certain characteristics, they all come from chronic homelessness, their personalities, the community they form, the way they live, the way they hope to live is not exactly the same in each building. And that means each building is inevitably unique because of how you respond to that.
You considered the environmental footprint right from the beginning. Which benefits did the new construction method bring?
The challenge was how to build practically on top of this existing building in a fairly quick way and also in a situation where, because of where the building was sited, there wasn't going to be really very much room to support construction. It got us thinking about making the majority of the building using prefabricated modular units. There's an enormous amount of construction waste that tends to go on in conventional ways of building. By building modular units in a factory you're able to control and reduce the waste to almost zero because you use everything. That's a huge benefit when you think about the environmental cost of a building over its full lifetime. To begin really right from its start by reducing its impact so significantly. It makes for a building that is already starting from a much better place, a much better set of metrics when it comes to its environmental footprint. Another thing that we found was that building in the factory tended to create units which are more durable, and have a better level of a finish because they're being built in more controlled situations. And that, of course, also will have a positive effect on the long-term environmental impact of the building.
Hopefully, Star Apartments serves as a stimulus for many other projects, worldwide.
Star Apartments helps to create and foster a better, more positive, more progressive city and urban life for all of us, everyone in the larger community of a city, all of the inhabitants, all of the residents of that city, no matter who they are, no matter what income they come from, no matter what histories they've had. We all deserve the ability to live in a good positive part of that city and that the architecture of these buildings, which in many ways is the architecture of the city as a whole, should be fantastic and have very high aspirations and ambitions, for everyone. If we do that, if we approach all projects in that way, I think we all benefit. The city becomes more positive, more accessible, more spirited, more vital for everyone and I think that's a real responsibility and it's certainly an important ambition in my mind for architecture.
Natalie Kreutzer, Editor in Chief, Zumtobel Group.
Architect: Michael Maltzan Architecture
Location: Los Angeles, USA
Photography by © Iwan Baan and Ron Eshel (Portrait)
courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture and Zumtobel Group
Thanks to Natalie Kreutzer, Editor in Chief, Zumtobel Group