At once vulnerable and inviolate, a disappearing architectural species and the most protected building type in the city, the single-family house continues to play an outsize role in debates over architecture, planning and growth in Los Angeles.
As deeply engrained as it is in the city’s psyche, the single-family suburban vision of Los Angeles can change to embrace a denser, more urban cityscape if the political will can be found to make it happen, a panel of architects, historians and critics agreed – mostly – at the fifth session of the Third Los Angeles series.
Los Angeles has long been a center of modernist experimentation in multi-family housing, said series creator Christopher Hawthorne, architectural critic for the Los Angeles Times, pointing to the evening’s venue: architect Rudolph Schindler’s 1923 house and studio, today’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood. But policy changes are necessary to allow for new, creative housing solutions to emerge – such as Blackbirds in Echo Park, a project made possible by the city’s new small lot subdivision law that allowed five hillside lots to be used to build 18 units around individual and communal spaces, said project architect Barbara Bestor.
Lack of vision is not the issue, agreed architect Mott Smith. Much of the challenge lies in a city Planning Department that isn’t on the same page as Building and Safety, which is responsible for enforcing the zoning code. Policy change also is essential to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing, added Maria Cabildo, co-founder of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation. “Small lot development isn’t reaching working class families,” Cabildo said. “Every time the city or county creates entitlement or increases in density, it should ask for a public benefit. Unless we legislate that, affordable housing is not going to happen.”
To bring about real change, policy will have to be addressed not just in Los Angeles but in all of the county’s 88 cities, said author and historian D.J. Waldie. “The politics of suburbia seem to mitigate against major changes in those neighborhoods,” Waldie said. “They’re not going to look significantly different from the street.” What will bring a greater kind of density to the suburbs is the drive to capture more jobs by allowing more home businesses, he said.