With some of the world's best beaches and gloriously warm weather year-round, Los Angeles shouldn't have much to worry about. But a recently released report tells a story of a sprawling metropolis that isn't quite the oceanside utopia it appears to be.
The problems revealed—municipal pension obligations, traffic, poverty, a sluggish economy—are not necessarily unique to the West Coast city, and a recent New York Times piece profiling the report seemed to exaggerate the situation. However, one issue that the report did not directly address is homelessness, which has been a precarious subject in Los Angeles for years.
Another recent report claims that the number of homeless in Los Angeles is actually increasing at a rate of 15%, while the American average has fallen by 6% since 2010. And it's not just the climate that's attracting the homeless. The early release of convicts due to prison reforms and the rising costs of living are certainly contributing to these numbers, which are especially troubling as federal funding in the housing sector and for homeless programs is either being cut or decreased.
This leaves a large homeless population vulnerable. One organization that is helping to curb the problem through architecture is the Skid Row Housing Trust, who have commissioned several permanent supportive housing blocks in Los Angeles' most downtrodden neighborhoods. They have commissioned three projects by architect Michael Maltzan, all of which are remarkable multi-unit residencies.
However, the projects seem to have more bark than bite. At just over 100 units, these are small scale remedies packaged as spectacular innovative works. A 100-unit building in a city with an estimated 57,000 people on the streets is just a drop in the ocean. Given the systemic, large-scale epidemic of homelessness, should we be looking at style over substance?
As Lyra Kilston of KCET asked in her fascinating history of Los Angeles Public Housing, "What if low-income housing was perceived as leading the vanguard of innovative, responsive architecture?" The problem with this statement is that it appears to be inverted, putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Take for instance, the Star Apartments by Maltzan near Skid Row. The project appears like an amazing Dutch slice of urbanism that could have been designed by Neutelings Riedijk, NL Architects, or OMA. But their stellar design seems to be a misguided architectural quest, more like a show-stopping Zaha Hadid museum than a successful urban intervention seeking to solve homelessness.
To reverse Kilston's question, we should be asking, "What if the vanguard of innovative, responsive architecture was perceived as leading in low-income housing?" Rather than using the noble cause of homeless housing to launch beautiful design, why not use creativity and innovation in design to tackle the problem of 57,000 homeless people? Instead of vastly underutilizing the site and producing a sexy building of 100 units, why not use these opportunities as compact design challenges? Creating more units quickly and efficiently does not necessarily have to mean a sacrifice in quality or aesthetic. And so in looking at the big picture, architects should really be asking: How many people can we get off the street for $19.3 million?