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Small, Cheap, Brilliant : Courtyard apartment complex in Escondido uses a lot of imagination to overcome size and cost limitations


In our brief history, Southern Californians have been extraordinarily inventive in creating original housing types that have been copied across the United States.

We've come up with the California Bungalow, the Ranch House and the Bungalow Court. Of these, the Bungalow Court has proved to be the most fruitful invention, and its derivations continue to be built throughout the Southland.

Like all good ideas, the concept of the Bungalow Court is simple: a cluster of individual houses or apartments enclosing a communal courtyard or garden. The aim is to increase the density of housing without entirely losing the individual sense of a home with distinct boundaries provided by a regular house on a separate lot.

From its beginnings in such Pasadena projects as the Bowen Court Bungalows in the first decade of this century, through the splendid Spanish Revival 1920s courtyard apartments of West Hollywood, on through the so-called "dingbat" apartment complexes of the 1940s and '50s, the Bungalow Court has provided a model for multi-household living that balances privacy with a sense of community.

(The Bungalow Court also spawned another original and now widespread building type: the motel. Alfred Heineman, the architect of the Bowen Court Bungalows, designed the 1925 Milestone Mo-tel in San Luis Obispo, America's first true motel.)

One of the best recent examples of an imaginative courtyard apartment complex is Sunrise Place, an eight-unit group of two-story apartments for low-income, mostly Latino families in a suburban section of Escondido, a city of 109,000 about 40 miles north of San Diego.

Commissioned by the nonprofit North County Housing Foundation and financed by loans and grants from a variety of public and private sources, Sunrise Place draws its architectural inspiration from such Southland examples as Rudolph Schindler's 1923 Pueblo Rivera Courts in La Jolla and Irving Gill's 1919 Horatio West Court in Santa Monica. Like Sunrise Place, these complexes use bold geometries and skillful detailing to overcome the constrictions of their sites.

Designed by the young husband-and-wife team of Rene Davids and Christine Killory, based in San Diego, Sunrise Place, completed in late 1993, has already won several prestigious national design awards. The architects' larger Escondido housing project, Daybreak Grove, was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 10 best architectural designs of 1993.

Daybreak Grove is an excellent project, but Sunrise Place is especially brilliant in the manner in which it overcomes the constrictions of its deep, narrow-fronted lot.

On this tight site, Sunrise Place's architects showed great skill and sensitivity in maintaining the essential balance between private and shared space, while creating a distinctive design that also blends in with its neighborhood.

The site, 65 feet wide and 220 feet deep, fronts onto a suburban side street in a district developed in the 1980s close to an industrial area where many of the local residents work. The complex is flanked by a market-rate apartment complex and senior citizens' project; a school and a church are across the way.

The Sunrise Place layout is composed of two long buildings containing a mix of two- and three-bedroom units. These parallel blocks enclose a 20-foot-wide communal courtyard planted with palm trees that is the social heart of the complex.

Aesthetically, the two separate buildings are conceived as "bridge" structures running most of the length of the site from front to back. The central sections of these bridges are painted steel gray; terra cotta and yellow stucco walls punctuated by windows project out varying distances to enliven the long elevations.

"We feel that the strong colors and distinctive architecture give the residents a sense of identity in a visually jumbled neighborhood," Killory said. "Apart from socially sensitive planning, bold design is the best thing architects can bring to these kinds of commonplace, and all-too-often ugly, buildings."

Parking for 12 cars is contained in a vine-covered gray steel pergola situated on the front of the site to act as a buffer between the apartments and the street. At the rear is a children's play area and vegetable garden surrounding a free-standing structure shaped like a Mayan ziggurat that contains a tiny outdoor theater set over a Laundromat.

The apartments are minimal--the two-bedroom units are 682 square feet, the three-bedroom units are 900 square feet--but inventive layouts reduce the feeling of being cramped. Flexible unit plans provide space for an extra bedroom, small office or larger living area and clerestory windows set above the sloping roof-lines generate air currents that provide passive cooling on hot summer days.

The heart of each apartment is the kitchen, adjacent to the open-plan living-dining room. Kitchens overlook the courtyard so that busy mothers can keep an eye on their kids at play.

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