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Blackbirds: Barbara Bestor's Housing Experiment Lands in Echo Park

Exterior_Blackbirds.jpg
Exterior Blackbirds | Photo: Laure Joliet.

Post World War II, decades of economic depression and global conflict had left the nation's built environment insufficient to shelter the influx of both military veterans returning from overseas and a burgeoning influx of immigrant populations. The dominant discourse surrounding the crisis was flavored by "magical thinking," either naïve or unrealistic, and by anxiety.

Newspaper classifieds were filled with desperate advertisements: "No sympathy or charity. Wanted: Just a home. Whatever you have to offer. We aren't perfect, just normal people. Veteran, wife and child. Won't you please call us?"

In early 1945, however, the announcement of the Case Study House Program cut the confusion and initiated Los Angeles as a housing laboratory. Delivered in a no-nonsense tone, it challenged the city to roll-up its sleeves and build the future: "Perhaps we will cling longest to the symbol of 'house' as we have known it, or perhaps we will realize that in accommodating ourselves to a new world the most important step in avoiding retrogression into the old, is a willingness to understand and to accept contemporary ideas in the creation of environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking."

Seventy years later, Los Angeles is in the midst of another housing crisis. Not only are there not enough houses, the vast majority of the city's residents are priced out of those that are available.

The Stahl House (Case Study House No. 22) by Pierre Koenig.
The Stahl House (Case Study House No. 22) by Pierre Koenig.

The Case Study project was an experiment to address these similar issues. By declaring the sponsorship of the design and construction of prototype housing, Arts & Architecture magazine deployed the Case Study House Program to solicit concrete solutions to the unprecedented shortage of housing stock. It set the terms, requiring its homes to meet a budget, respond to occupant needs, use the best of the modern building techniques and technologies, and comply with policy restrictions. It enlisted the most esteemed local architects, including Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames, employed product manufacturers, and insisted that the models were open to public review and improvement prior to replication.

By the time it wrapped up in 1966, the program had sponsored 36 iconic homes. Small in numbers, dramatic in effect, the houses were a radical success. The prolific media attention surrounding them played a significant role in a building boom that, through the injection of ideals, flavor even today's American home ownership dreams.

Today, those dreams -- locked in a tug-of-war with this era's challenges -- are showing their age. The rhetoric around the contemporary housing conundrum is pulled and stretched across a variety of competing interests. In the rapidly changing enclave of Echo Park, however, Blackbirds, a new residential experiment, takes a projective stance.

Built on the site of five former single-family residence parcels, the nine structures that contain 18 independent houses is the work of an aspirational team -- Barbara Bestor Architecture, Mia Lehrer + Associates, and LocalConstruct. Blackbirds interprets the city's controversial small lots ordinance, a 2005 amendment to the Los Angeles Municipal Code promoting densification, as a platform for challenging expectations. While KCET has found critics who decry large-scale housing complexes on small lots, Blackbirds takes a more subtle approach. It takes advantage of the policy's minimized lot sizes and setback requirements, not to capitalize on a unit count, but to create communal spaces. It attempts to expand attentions on infill housing to include a design conscience.

Barbara Bestor is a celebrated architect who is well known for a popular array of residential and commercial projects around Los Angeles. She already has made significant contributions to contemporary lifestyle expectations. Her designs, which include Beachwood Café, Silver Lake's Intelligentsia, and most recently the Beats by Dre building, carry forward the California legacy of seamlessness among art, craft, and living. With Blackbirds, she is moving her ideas to the scale of community.

Photo: Laure Joliet.
Blackbirds | Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.
Blackbirds | Photo: Laure Joliet.

Citing the balancing act of trying to address the housing shortage while upholding the city's unique character and fabric, Barbara Bestor, the project's architect, states: "I was struck by the quest in "Silicon Valley" [the HBO comedy] to find a compression algorithm that maintains very high quality... high quality architectural compression is sort of our goal when it comes to these strategies for densifying Los Angeles."

The compression algorithm is the means of a computer science quest to minimize data size without compromising information. Bestor's architectural compression algorithm adheres to a similar intention for lossless residential downsizing. Blackbirds represents an ambition to deliver within the compact all of the amenities and perks standardized by the home-ownership value system.

Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.

She achieves her goal by setting up many components of the development as dual purpose, and multi-user. Site terraces, in an endeavor to respect the outlines of the original hillside, step the new houses into the existing topography and invite residents to transform the resulting platforms into shared gardens. The requisite parking count is met in a central hard-surface court that anticipates a second life as a plaza for events, gatherings, and games. Slips between the buildings connect the properties to each other and to the neighborhood. "The communal areas encourage spontaneous group activities; there's potential for anything from a party, to a farmer's market, to a political rally," Bestor explains.

Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.
Illustration: Bestor Architecture.
Illustration: Bestor Architecture.

New arrangements for communal living, however, come up against current legal limitations. A proposal for pedestrian thru-stairs that would run through the site and stitch the development edges to the center remains unrealized due to liability concerns.

Policy structure, in general, precludes many of the enablers for improving the conditions of the built environment. The small lots ordinance, responsible for a mounting explosion of higher density conditions and through which Blackbirds was conceived, is itself a key example. Both citizens and developers are hemmed in by the regulation's lack of adequate design-quality incentives, a citywide distribution strategy, economic enforcements, or transportation-infrastructure provisions. Communities are experiencing congestion, gentrification, and displacement, as well as loss of neighborhood character. And, the trials involved in navigating unresolved procedural hurdles discourage developers from expending additional efforts at design and community building.

It, in fact, took four years to make Blackbirds possible. LocalConstruct, the project developer, engaged an architect and embedded design into its process, while also navigating disjuncture in city agencies, political resistance, and community apprehension. As the company co-founder, Casey Lynch, states, "There are easier ways to make money." Yet, he says they want the extra effort to serve as a precedent for other developments, to demonstrate that providing high quality housing in Los Angeles is still possible. "The standard approach to today's development is too formulaic," he says. "We live in one of the world's biggest, most innovative cities. We should be providing good design."

Still, Blackbirds has received some negative feedback. "The criticism is largely about density, in general," Bestor explains. "In the end, we got the support of most groups."

Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.

Indeed, the design of the development is conscientious of the existing conditions. Orchestrated to preserve and take advantage of sweeping views, the houses clear visual corridors not only for each other but also for the neighbors. The dispersed composition masks the housing quantity and creates intimacies across the site. The folding roof planes disguise where one residence ends and another begins. The contrast of the black and white colors pushes and pulls the focus of the eye, creating a difference that breaks up scales.

Speculating on what structures could have been built there -- on land zoned for far denser with the capacity for many more units -- Bestor says, "We're proud of Blackbirds."

The landscape, designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates, then weaves all of these elements together with the larger scene. Chosen for their seasonal behaviors and attractiveness to pollinators, a mixture of water-wise shrubs and trees frames the architecture and offers a porous face to the development boundaries. Beneath the vegetal shade, a series of strategically placed, body-friendly boulders act as outdoor furnishings for passers-by.

For Lehrer, who also is a member of the re:code LA zoning advisory committee, an expert group preparing for a comprehensive overhaul of the city's 69-year-old planning code, Blackbirds is a small move in a grander vision for a version of home ownership that is civically minded. She thinks that such out-of-the-box thinking for the common good is the way forward. Her version of this bold new world is a green network, as dense in planting as it is in building, of shared resources and amenities, interconnected by a vast pedestrian, biking, and public transportation system. She imagines a future in which "the urban forest takes precedence over the individual oasis."

Illustration: Bestor Architecture.
Illustration: Bestor Architecture.

A Contemporary Case Study: Tomorrow's L.A.

The quandaries of the current era, not dissimilar to those that compelled the launch of the Case Study House program, are immense. Beyond the housing crisis, resource and mobility infrastructure is stressed. The ongoing drought exposes the region's environmental precariousness. All too frequently, the fallout from these pressures is most immediately suffered by the most vulnerable populations, too.

Los Angeles's advocacy groups address the issues as distinct causes: density by planning officials and urban strategists; affordability and livability by community and social welfare organizations; transportation by anti-car activists; sustainability by green energy, waste, or water agencies. Like the Case Study House Program, on the other hand, today's architects, like Bestor, are trying to shift the cultural consciousness by resolving multiple complexities in one tangible package.

Blackbirds, while not a comprehensive solution to the city's dilemmas, provides an idea, around which pieces of the puzzle might come together. While it does not take on the economics, remaining presumably locked in the inflated pricing cycle beyond the reach of most, Blackbirds takes the image of the separate, self-contained single-family home and pushes architects to think collectively, giving form to a vision of a community-focused future.

The Bailey House (Case Study House No. 21) by Pierre Koenig.
The Bailey House (Case Study House No. 21) by Pierre Koenig.
Photo: Laure Joliet.
Photo: Laure Joliet.

 

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