At any given time, the easiest way to tell which projects are getting the most attention inside the Silver Lake offices of Michael Maltzan Architecture is to look at the top of a long, low bookcase that bisects the main workspace like the hands of a clock striking 6. Piled high with designs in progress, it offers a glimpse of the firm's collective mind at work.
One afternoon last week, it was covered with plans and cardboard models of the New Carver Apartments, a drum-shaped, six-story building that will be constructed over the next year and a half in downtown L.A. Carver, which will hold 100 efficiency apartments on a site in the shadow of the 10 Freeway, a few blocks southeast of the L.A. Convention Center, is the second project Maltzan has designed for the Skid Row Housing Trust. The first was the Rainbow Apartments, an 89-unit building that opened in November on San Pedro Street, in skid row.
The distance separating the two sites -- just two miles -- belies the difficulty of the current effort to move the homeless beyond the circumscribed boundaries of skid row. As downtown continues its fitful evolution, with projects such as Frank Gehry's pair of towers on Grand Avenue moving toward realization, the pressure to "solve" that neighborhood's homeless problem, or at least disperse it, will grow only more intense.
And the parcels of land outside skid row that social service organizations can afford are likely to look a lot like the one where Carver will soon be going up: noisy, gritty corners of the city where worried neighbors are essentially nonexistent. Unlike the Hope Gardens site near Sylmar, a possible site for a homeless-service center that has caused homeowners who live a full mile away to cry foul, this seems unlikely to produce a NIMBY backlash. Drivers on the 10 will effectively be its closest neighbors, their headlights creating patterns each night on apartment walls and ceilings.
But in working together a second time, Skid Row Housing Trust and Maltzan's firm have managed to bring a measure of genuine optimism, however hard-earned, to the relationship between architecture and the city's chronic homeless problem. Though its design is still a few weeks away from being finalized, the Carver project already shows clear signs of surpassing the Rainbow Apartments in both practicality and sophistication. It has largely avoided the steep learning curve that architect and client struggled to climb during their first collaboration.
Perhaps most surprising, in purely architectural terms it is among the most compelling projects in Maltzan's busy office, where the projects underway include a commission from JPL in Pasadena, a state historic park near Chinatown (with Hargreaves Associates) and a house for Michael Ovitz. It suggests that once the budget gets tight enough, architecture in its most basic sense -- the straightforward arrangement of space and light -- is really the only thing that can allow this kind of project to succeed.
Shaping the Rainbow
Former Skid Row Housing Trust Executive Director James Bonar, himself an architect, first approached Maltzan after seeing his work for Inner City Arts, a downtown nonprofit that serves at-risk youths. Along with the Midnight Mission building down the street, Rainbow was among the first free-standing buildings constructed in response to the growing homeless encampments downtown. Skid Row Housing Trust, now run by Bonar's successor, Mike Alvidrez, has continued to cement its reputation as a supporter of thoughtful architecture. A building it commissioned from Koning Eizenberg Architects, the talented Santa Monica-based firm, will soon go up next door to Rainbow.
Maltzan's early versions of the Rainbow design were full of what can only be described as architectural optimism. A key element was a brightly colored metal sunshade, twisted into a eye-catching pattern and designed to line the walls of the building's interior courtyard. For Maltzan, the shade operated as a visual shorthand for the goals of the project as a whole: to bring a sense of vitality to the complex despite its small budget and location near the epicenter of the city's homeless crisis.
But by the time Skid Row Housing Trust was ready to build, the shade was gone, a victim of the severe cost-cutting required to build the 43,000-square-foot facility for $10 million. So were the expanses of glass walls at street level, meant to bring a level of transparency both literal and symbolic to the building. And so, for that matter, were the brightest hues of the color scheme, toned down due to worries that residents with schizophrenia might react violently to them. Negotiations with the Community Redevelopment Agency, which helped arrange funding for the building, further complicated the design process.
Inventiveness on the fly