The A+D Museum, Los Angeles.
© Tom Bonner/Courtesy A+D Museum The A+D Museum, Los Angeles.

It seems to me that no other city in the world worries as much about the form of its houses as Los Angeles. Housing is an issue everywhere, especially for the vast majority of people who cannot afford an adequate version of it, but the solutions tend to be financial or legal; the answers to how you reduce the cost to inhabitants, and promote diversity have little to do with the height, shape, or style of the housing blocks in which these issues play. In L.A., the inefficient use of the plots and what many people perceive as the ugliness of the landscape that unfolds between the Angeles Crest and the Pacific Ocean, coupled with environmental concerns in this unstable terrain, has produced at least a hundred years of experimentation. To courtyard housing, the Case Study Program, and stripping down of houses to their construction materials by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and those that came after him, now add the experiments currently on display at the Shelter exhibit at the Architecture and Design Museum in their new gallery and art district East of downtown.

The A+D Museum, which just moved down to L.A's arts district—the area around SCI-Arc, the new Hauser & Wirth and Maccarone super-galleries, and L.A.’s version of Brooklyn loft culture—has shown a remarkable ability to give the city what it has never had: A place where architecture experimentation is on display in a manner that ties it directly to social issues.

In this case, Shelter, on view through November 6th, it is the standard problem of the under-utilized standard lot and the necessity of addressing the power of nature to sweep over and under all the gimcracks of human construction, but also the new issue of how to offer an alternative to the pedestrian residential high-rises that might be the solution to L.A.’s low standard development patterns.

Truth be told, the ideas both MAD Architects and PAR developed in this arena are not very convincing, taking the form of twisted and torqued structures, balconies festooning vertical tubes, and ideas about “vertical courtyard housing” that do not offer much of an alternative to the standard structure.

Backyard Basics, a proposal for ADUs at the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.
Courtesy LA-Más Backyard Basics, a proposal for ADUs at the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.

Also not particularly new is the LA-Más proposal to legalize “ADUs” (Additional Dwelling Units)—the illegal or semi-legal structures into which whole families cram themselves, especially in L.A.’s poorer neighborhoods, where such garages and shacks are common. Finding a way to regularize and improve such structures has long been a dream of both architects and planners, and LA-Más proposal is an elegant one, especially since it avoids too much utopian thinking or outlandish technology.

Frogtown Interventions, a proposal for the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.
Courtesy LOHA Frogtown Interventions, a proposal for the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.

Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA and his namesake firm, Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects (LOHA), showcase ideas of structures that could both house people and retain and store water when it comes in the deluges that are common after long droughts is more playful in its forms and fanciful in its technology, though certainly worth exploring. The notion that we could build homes in backyards and in areas now reserved for flood control in a manner that they would absorb water is worth considering, if for no other reason than because it would break down the barriers between infrastructure and their large scale and the complexity of housing, while also making the relationship between technology and nature visible.

Five Normal Houses, an examination of housing typologies at the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.
Courtesy Bureau Spectacular Five Normal Houses, an examination of housing typologies at the A+D Museum's Shelter exhibit.

I was most fascinated by Jimenez Lai’s unpacking of the traditional styles in which housing appears in L.A.: the Tudor, the Spanish Colonial Revival, the Neo-Classical and all the other aspirational appearances that stretch over the same stick construction and stucco or Dryvit skins. Lai, with his studio Bureau Spectacular, mashes these up, twists and contorts them and uncovers new ways in which they could not only appear, but open up new spaces. He then went further, looking at tropes such as the pool fetish that is so central to the area’s image of residential bliss, designing a high modernist box eaten out by kidney shaped pools on top, inside, and below the living area.

Los Angeles certainly could use such inventive thinking, and the images the exhibition produced were strong enough to be able to participate in the wider debate about the area’s future. Three things, however, were missing: the true inventiveness architects have exhibited in designing for private residences in the Southland; the ability to get these images out into the press and public debate; and a look at what I think is the central problem for housing in Los Angeles, namely the replacement of the “dingbat” model of two story housing, as well as of many other structures, by the soulless blocks of Type 3 or Type 5 construction that is threatening to turn not only California, but all of America, into a landscape of storage boxes for people to match the big box retail, office blocks, and storage facilities that are already our everyday monuments.