West Hollywood is an interesting beast. The area has natural tar pits which have been bubbling away for over 10,000 years and, which to this day, continue to fossilise all manner of flora and fauna. It is home to some of Los Angeles’ top design showrooms. It used to boast the city’s best nightclubs (with the remains of music dinosaurs like The Whisky, The Troubadour, and the Viper Room still on display there).
It is also known as a beacon of liberalism in California. There are tough green building bylaws, its council enacted anti-discrimination laws (around 40% of the city’s male population identifies itself as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – LGBT) earlier than any other city in the Los Angeles District, and they are staunchly pro-choice.
Nestled among this context is the La Brea Affordable Housing project by architects Patrick Tighe and John V. Mutlow. The 4650m² mixed use building was erected with a combination of private and public funding to offer low-cost apartments to homeless LGBT youth and those with disabilities and HIV-AIDS. Over 3000 people are said to have applied for a chance to rent one of the 32 units that range from studios through to two-bedroom apartments.
“A lot of these kids had been living on the streets for years and it was a big transition for them to live here, in a place of their own,” says Tighe.
The medium-density project sought to give these marginalised youth a centrally located residence (to minimise need for cars), within the welcoming context of West Hollywood. Easy access to the various community and health service facilities in the neighbourhood was essential.
La Brea project also allowed for ample and highly landscaped communal spaces. The apartments are all arranged around a shared interior courtyard populated with bamboo clusters. The perennials were chosen to create a cooling microclimate on the ground floor and communal rooftop spaces. The communal areas’ blatantly architectonic forms and cold concrete palette contrast with the delightfully landscaped evergreens. Its tension is refreshing and restrained, utilitarian and contemporary.
The most immediately striking feature of this building is its strong flowing facade: “We wanted to challenge notions of affordable housing and what it looks like. It is a grand gesture that signals there is movement, and a lot of activity that goes on inside the building,” says the architect. It could be read as surgical bandages – both concealing and giving glimpses at that which lies behind. It is certainly not shy, but proudly and sculpturally stands its ground on a very visible corner on the City of Angels.
Yet, the most impressive of the building’s accomplishments is its strong sustainable ethos. “The building exceeds all of the green ordinance requirements,” says Tighe, who insists it was fundamental for them to make a building that was truly environmentally responsible.
La Brea project is entirely off the electricity grid, relying on solar energy and pumping some of it back to the Los Angeles’ network. The gardens are all irrigated with wastewater from the laundry room. All storm water runoff is filtered (first by a mechanical filter and then by planters) before being allowed to drain into the ocean. Building materials have all been chosen to minimise pollution and cut maintenance needs. The water-jet cut, metal screen shielding all the balconies (every unit has them) protect the apartment from unnecessary heat and filter breeze into the space.
As far as state housing goes, La Brea project is a refreshing take on what medium density state housing can look like and accomplish.