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Apartments Go Outside the Box, Into Courtyards

Hacienda-like complexes make a comeback as more renters seek out interesting architecture.


After nearly seven decades of neglect, the traditional Los Angeles courtyard apartment complex appears to be experiencing a revival, with new projects inspired by the classic, hacienda-like complexes springing up in Pasadena, South Pasadena and West Hollywood.

If courtyard complexes catch on with renters, the building type could challenge accepted notions of apartment design at a time when an increasing number of middle-class professionals choose to live in urban locations and sometimes pay a premium for interesting architecture.

Courtyard housing reflects the city-planning goals of "new urbanism," a decade-old doctrine that promotes pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods as an alternative to urban sprawl, said architect Elizabeth Moule, co-principal of Pasadena-based Moule & Polyzoides Architecture and Urbanism.

"Courtyard projects are a more rational way of housing people and accommodating urban growth, while providing a better quality of life and a better quality of environment than most current multifamily housing offers," she said.

The most recent example of the courtyard revival is the 7 Fountains apartment complex, which opened last month in West Hollywood. As if to signal the reemergence of courtyard housing from its antecedents, the 20-unit building stands amid a designated historical district of courtyard buildings from the 1920s.

The $20-million building developed by Angel's Landing Development of West Hollywood looks more like a classic Hollywood villa than an apartment complex.

Asymmetrical in shape, 7 Fountains ranges in height from two to four stories, including two distinctive towers. Apartments are arranged around two large courtyards, which provide natural light and ventilation to all units. Each apartment has private entrances at the front and back, as well as front and rear windows. The garage is tucked out of sight of passing motorists and pedestrians.

"It does not look like production housing," said architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who designed the project with Moule.

Unlike the courtyard apartments of the 1920s, 7 Fountains apartments are "live-work" units that contain home offices, each with its own door separate from the living area. The units also contain fiber-optic cabling and other communications wiring.

In the view of Moule and Polyzoides, projects such as 7 Fountains and other buildings the firm has designed are an alternative to the undistinguished apartment complexes that Moule calls "six-packs," a derisive allusion to stacked, identical units. Recent designs include a small, 10-unit building next to the firm's Pasadena office and a 67-unit complex with Craftsman detail near the future Mission-Meridian light-rail station in South Pasadena.

Some renters may be attracted to courtyard housing because it shares common features with single-family homes, such as private doors at front and back that provide a sense of protective insulation from the street, said Berkeley architect Sam Davis, who has designed courtyard projects in the Bay Area.

Courtyards themselves, he said, are "really extended living rooms." The major courtyard at 7 Fountains, for instance, features a large, outdoor fireplace that has become an informal social center for residents, said developer Boyd Willat.

Courtyards allow designers to create unique apartment floor plans, Polyzoides said. The irregular contours of the 7 Fountains courtyards at 1414 N. Harper Ave. accommodate the varying sizes and layout of the units, all of which are different from one another.

Although some developers maintain that apartment buildings with varying sizes of units are not cost-effective, Polyzoides said his projects cost only 5% to 10% more than conventional apartments.

Developers of courtyard units must often resign themselves to building a lower number of units than allowed under zoning. Courtyards are a "medium-density," low-rise type of housing rarely containing more than 25 units, Polyzoides said. Building less than the maximum is contrary to the custom of "maxing out" lots with the highest possible number of units.

Willat built only 20 of the 38 units allowed for the 7 Fountains site, which fills two-thirds of an acre. He compensated for the comparatively small number of units by developing 7 Fountains as a luxury project with well-above-market rents: $3,500 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath unit to $6,500 for a three-bedroom, three-bath apartment.

Beyond high rents, the project offers other rewards to Willat, a former film art director. Borrowing a concept from the movies, "you create spaces that translate into emotion," he said. "This is architecture that creates a sense of restoration, an antidote to the metropolitan condition."

One renter who prefers courtyard living to other apartment alternatives is Jay M. Vogel, a lawyer who recently moved into a one-bedroom, 11/2-bath unit with a separate office at 7 Fountains.

Raised in New York, Vogel likes the communal character of the apartments. And having recently ended a long relationship, he said, "the one thing I did not want was to sequester myself."

Vogel also likes living next to a courtyard. "I like the fact that you do not get off an elevator into a cold, indiscriminate hallway," he said. "When you walk in the courtyard, you are transformed."

Harper Avenue has other attractions for Vogel, such as dog walking. The street, he said, is "the dog-walking capital of West Hollywood," adding, "I've met a lot of people that way."

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