If Habitat 825 hasn't doomed the Schindler House to the deep canyon its critics worried about -- this is hardly the Los Angeles equivalent of the Met Life tower looming over New York's Grand Central Terminal -- its physical effect on the landmark next door is substantial. When you step from the interior of the Schindler House out into its central garden, you come face-to-face with Habitat 825's white northern facade, rising there above the stand of bamboo that divides the two properties. The first time you see it, the view is startling.
O'Herlihy won't apologize for that. He says he realized about halfway through the design process that his building shouldn't be afraid, as he puts it, to say, "We're here. We have a presence too." And he has a point. It would be naive to think that every single-family landmark in this city is going to have a park for a neighbor, which is among the solutions the MAK Center leadership proposed for the lot next door.
Development is going to come; West Hollywood in particular is in the midst of a surge in multifamily residential construction. At least in this case the developer and his architect had a sense of the stakes involved and responded with a mindful design.
But O'Herlihy's approach doesn't really lend itself to the architectural gymnastics required to pull off what he is trying here -- to produce a design resolutely sure of itself and ALSO politely aware of its neighbor's importance and fragility.
O'Herlihy's earlier work borrows more from Modernist models than clean-lined forms; it also picks up from those designs a certain self-contained attitude that doesn't look right or left but only straight ahead. On the front facade, in particular, O'Herlihy's somewhat strained attempts to make Habitat 825 resemble two separate structures run counter to that sensibility. This is a commission that required him to operate in the spotlight and out of his element at the same time.
A bigger disappointment, frankly, is that his design shows only faint sparks of real vision when it comes to exploring the relationship between residential architecture and contemporary Los Angeles. As a city and a region we are stumbling into a new age of density without any real sense of direction. Many of us are wondering if it will be possible to balance the amenities that have traditionally made life here so attractive -- privacy, space, climate -- with the demands of millions of new residents and the physical limits of a natural setting that is already severely taxed.
And without much guidance in this brave new world from politicians or planners -- let alone most developers -- it is left at least in part to architects to provide fresh, inspirational models of residential design.
The same was true in Schindler's era, when Los Angeles was just getting its bearings as a city. In addition to breaking new ground architecturally and structurally, Schindler's house laid out a vision for a certain kind of life here that is still tremendously influential. Its design was bracingly modern (and anti-Victorian) not only in its spare formal language but also in its attitude toward shared space and social mores.
But it has elements of romanticism as well, which is one reason Schindler's work captures the sensibility of California -- and Los Angeles in particular -- in a way that his friend and rival, Richard Neutra, could never quite match. (It also explains why Schindler was underrated for so many years by the keepers of the Modernist pantheon -- most of them in New York -- who saw that romanticism as a fatal weakness.) Schindler called his house "a cooperative dwelling for two young couples." It is an essay in communal living on a small, private scale.
Habitat 825 could have been an essay in communal living on a larger scale, for a new phase of the city's development. It might have extended the themes of shared space and shared resources in any number of compelling ways -- by pursuing inventive green-design strategies, for example, or figuring out how to give residents of a multifamily building some version of the magically instantaneous garden access that the Schindler House provides. Or it could have reshaped the largely generic condo model, blurring or even cheekily subverting the lines between personal and common property.
Some of O'Herlihy's forthcoming designs, such as the Artisan House Lofts in Echo Park, reflect more curiosity about those ideas than Habitat 825 does. And ultimately, showing real and sustained interest in those themes -- taking the spirit that animated Schindler's work and applying to the dilemmas facing present-day Los Angeles -- is the most meaningful kind of respect O'Herlihy could have paid to the house next door.