New Apartment Architecture – and what LA can learn from other cities

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As Los Angeles gets taller and denser, more of us will be living in apartments. We look to other global cities for design inspiration, and hear from an L.A. architect who is embracing an apartment-centric future right here.

More than 7,000 apartments are under construction right now in downtown Los Angeles, and others are going up in Hollywood, Koreatown, Culver City, Santa Monica and elsewhere in the Southland.

But architecture critic Michael Webb says not enough of them will be lovely to live in. 

Webb is an architecture critic and author of the new book “Building Community: New Apartment Architecture.” (read an excerpt from the book here)

Image Not AvailableIt’s full of stunning photographs and descriptions of some of the best apartment designs in the world. He hopes it sends a message, that living in an apartment or condo, at any income level, can be great.

He was inspired by his own experience living in the classic Strathmore Apartments in Westwood Village, designed by Richard Neutra.

“It was built in 1937, on spec, very inexpensively, one of a group of eight arranged around the courtyard. It’s really a bungalow court on a hillside with steps instead of a path leading through it.

And it is so well-planned that even though it was done very cheaply it has become highly desirable. Charles and Ray Eames lived there for nearly 10 years in the 1940s when it was new and it always attracted interesting people,” Webb said.

“And what is great about it is that it’s at once very private – I don’t need to see or hear anybody – and yet when I step out the door there’s nearly always somebody there to say hello to or borrow a cup of sugar or invite to dinner or whatever. And it’s my family.

My family are my neighbors and that I think is the ideal of how apartments should be: that they’re private and communal at one and the same time.”

Webb says what makes an apartment pleasant to live in has to do with both the exterior experience and the interior experience.

“It’s all about light and space. And I find that most new apartments, and a lot of old ones, are boxy, claustrophobic, they only look out one way. There’s no cross ventilation. The light comes in from only one direction and they’re just not very pleasant places to live,” Webb said.

This is a topic that matters right now, especially as Angelenos consider Measure S, the ballot initiative that might stymie some of the region’s future apartment growth.

Webb took his quest for the perfect apartment around the world and selected 30 buildings, from tree-filled flats in Turin, Italy to micro-housing in Seoul, South Korea and the towering Sky Habitat in Singapore. He also found some gems in our own backyard.

One of those happens to be across the street from Strathmore Apartments, and was designed by LOHA, or Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects.

Lorcan O’Herlihy, left, points out to Frances Anderton the Strathmore Apartments designed by Richard Neutra. In the background is SL11024, designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (photo:Avishay Artsy.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

LOHA has designed some of the most innovative multi-family buildings in Los Angeles, with eye-catching bright colors and new materials. They also differ from generic apartment buildings in a more important way: they emphasize communal spaces and connection to the public.

For example, at a condo development in West Hollywood called Formosa 1140 Lorcan persuaded the developer and the city to give over some of the privately owned site to create a public pocket park for the neighborhood.

It’s an approach Lorcan calls “Amplified Urbanism”: “Los Angeles has been known as a privatized city for many years we think there’s a new paradigm here in the city and we want to be involved with that process to help to redefine the city and create these third space, the space between the public and private where you start to engage social and civic in a very important way.”

(He has explored his ideas in a newly published book called Amplified Urbanism, featuring essays by David L. Ulin, Christopher James Alexander, Judith Lewit Mernit and Linda C. Samuels.)

DnA met up with Lorcan O’Herlihy at one of his latest projects. It has a sci-fi sounding name: SL11024, referring to its address at the corner of Strathmore and Levering in Westwood Village.

Imagine a white and apple-green, ship-like structure, with a skin of perforated and opaque metal panels, with multiple open decks for residents on its prow at the corner of the site.

A bulkier development had been planned for the site but neighbors fought the design. That’s when O’Herlihy was tasked with figuring out how to get the same number of dwellings (31 units) into a less dense building that still managed to incorporate open space for the residents.

“How we were able to do it was to stay away from the idea of the conventional box with a hallway down the middle. There were so many issues with those type of buildings. You have the very unpleasant experience inside the hallway. You have light from only one side. You don’t have any cross-ventilation.

What we did with this project was we pushed the building apart so that all the units or a predominant number of the units were accessed from the outside,” O’Herlihy said.

“What’s really exciting about that is it provides cross-ventilation, light from multiple sources, and also opportunities for people to engage each other and to meet and chat. And that’s equally as important… And so these buildings work much better as a living organism with that strategy.”

The architects were able to achieve a flow of light and air in the apartments by creating an open corridor between units (photo: Frances Anderton.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A big challenge now for architects is that land is so expensive and landowners and developers feel they have to maximize the use of the land to drive a profit. O’Herlihy says architects can still maximize the price of land while creating shared communal spaces, and pleasant uses of light, ventilation and other factors that make an apartment building desirable.

“That suggests going vertical,” O’Herlihy said. “Some of the greatest cities in the world — Tokyo being one — have a variety of type of scales to it which works really well. We think that, from our practice, that that’s that’s possible here in Los Angeles. I don’t fear density. I think there’s an opportunity to look at it and make sure you do it well, and that’s extremely important.”

SL11024 is stridently modern, with an industrial, hard aesthetic. It’s slightly at odds in Westwood, which contains many Spanish-inspired, romantic structures built on hillsides. But O’Herlihy says people were receptive to the look of the building.

“Absolutely, they had no issues with it. I’m proud to say that when I presented it to the Westwood Community Design Review Board, they were very supportive of the project… we are in 2017. We are at a new age. And I think architecture should be contemporary. I have never been an advocate of doing architecture that was trying to emulate other periods of architecture or times. And change is good. It’s something that I’ve always embraced and I think it’s important.”