Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

If you’ve ever looked at an aerial view of Los Angeles via Google Maps or on decent into LAX then you know: L.A. is a city of houses. Precarious mansions climb up the hills and fill in the canyons. Detached single-family homes sit side-by-side on modest lots across the basin. “Miles and miles of little houses, wooden or stucco, under a Technicolor sky,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in his diary in May 1939, aghast. British expat viewed L.A. as ugly and unreal when compared to East Coast and European cities — New York, London, Berlin — are dense with skyscrapers, office towers, apartment buildings, and tenements. But the reality is that this condition makes the city rich with possibilities for how to live.

“The house was and continues to be the most predominant building type in the city. It was just the sheer numbers that made it so the experiment could happen,” explains architect Michael Maltzan on the phone from his Silver Lake office. “The Experiment,” the early 20th century’s radical rethinking of art, literature, and how we live, found its expression in L.A. houses by Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames, among other greats. And the Case Study House Program created by John Entenza for Arts & Architecture magazine epitomized that expression from 1945 until 1966. The house’s impact on the city has been on Maltzan’s mind lately. At a recent press conference for Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., the Getty’s latest muli-institutional curatorial undertaking, he said that the story of modernism in Los Angeles is told in “the smallest building increment, the house.”

That small increment has had huge impact. No other city is dotted with so many influential modern homes. In other places it’s the civic and commercial structures that tell the story, but in L.A. it’s the residences. In many ways it’s a radical suggestion that the domestic sphere is the source of such cultural change. But take, for instance, Julius Shulman’s iconic photograph of Case Study House #2, the Stahl House by Pierre Koenig. The glass box cantilevered over the city grid below is the very definition of mid-century cool. It’s an aspirational image that is at once about architectural gesture — the dissolution of walls in favor for a glass expanse — and about lifestyle — the pleasures of post-war prosperity on view.

But if the incremental wonder of the single-family residence defined L.A. Modernism, you have to wonder about contemporary counterparts. Today, as the market trumps design, homes are defined more by real estate terms: sales, flips, and foreclosures, than by architectural experimentation.

“The problem within building culture in the United States and even more specifically, Southern California, is that everything is driven much the lowest common denominator of cost, which calculates out to the kind of plain stucco boxes seen everywhere,” explains architect Linda Taalman of Taalman Koch Architecture. She’s actively trying to transform how we live through design and construction practices. We are sitting outside in a café on Virgil Avenue. On the streets around us are endless variations on the traditional two-bedroom bungalow, each one painted a different shade of beige or off-white or peach. “The entire early work of Schindler and Neutra is about trying to reinvent something that would replace the stucco box and the balloon frame, which we still are not beyond,” she says of the construction technique that defines most housing stock. “In terms of construction, we live in the same world.” Her firm introduced the IT House in 2007 and has built multiple versions since. IT House is customizable building system made up of prefabricated glass, aluminum, and steel parts. Enclosed almost entirely in glass panes or sliding glass doors, the residence picks up on Modernist experiments in transparency and blurring the boundary between what is inside and what is outside. And built using techniques derived more from manufacturing than from construction, the IT House is the antithesis of the stucco box.

“There have been many movements that try to change the way we build and live, by proposing alternative reality utopia,” says Taalman. “They’re often an all or nothing approach. I’m interested in tweaking existing systems. It’s actually an incremental approach, which is much more subversive, because there’s small change embedded inside of the existing reality that we live in.”

Because the IT House is based on a construction system, it can be assembled in different sizes and in varying types of locations. That flexibility allowed Taalman Koch to create homes off the grid in the high desert, but also backyard editions, and small, studio-like structures that adapt to existing more conventional buildings, extending their usability. As such, the IT House seems almost like device. In a twist on Le Corbusier’s maxim that the house is “a machine for living in”, the contemporary home is an iPad or iPhone for living in. Transparent walls, which in the middle of the Twentieth Century blurred the boundaries between inside and outside, testing what is public and what is private, now seem commonplace in a social-media era where everything is broadcast through our devices.

Yet if Taalman embraces the transparency and connections to nature inspired by early Modernist homes, Maltzan’s approach is to turn the house in on itself. The seven-sided Pittman Dowell Residence sits high on a bluff at the edge of Angeles National Forest, but isn’t interested in a vista; all views face the interior courtyard. From the outside it looks like an all-white cocoon, on the inside all the rooms connect with a myopic bent. There’s a constant peek-a-boo between what is private — the bedroom and bathroom — and what is more public — the living room and kitchen.

The house shares the site with the Serulnic Residence built in 1952 by Neutra for his assistant. And both buildings share the same owners. Quintessentially a mid-century design, with huge expanses of glass, the Neutra home is all about exposure — to the sweeping view, sure, but also to the intense sun, wind, and fires that threaten to creep up the canyon.

The new house is its alter ego.

“The experiment is still viable, but the same ambitions of the modernists can be brought forward but need to be rethought in the contemporary moment,” explains Maltzan. “That romantic ideal of the connection to the outside is more challenging these days because in our contemporary life we are exposed or connected all of the time. We are more and more connected as a culture.” Isherwood, observant and arch, recognized this tension between the inside and the outside, the public and the private in domestic life. In the same diary entry from May 1939 he wrote: “A city without privacy, where neighbors share each other’s lawns and look into each other’s bedrooms.”

Maltzan grew up in the quintessential postwar suburb, Levittown on Long Island in New York. He thinks of L.A. as a larger, sprawling version of his hometown. Where Isherwood cringed at the tight proximity between houses, Maltzan is inspired. “Even as kids we understood the spaces in-between: side yards, back yards, as extensions of our social lives,” he recalls. “These are not emphatic or celebrated spaces — we can’t compare them to Central Park or the Empire State Building — but they underlie my thinking of what is dismissed or ignored in the city.”

To wit, Maltzan’s designed in-between spaces into Star Apartments, his third project for the Skid Row Housing Trust. His scheme stacks 102 prefabricated units on top of a retrofitted one-story retail structure. When finished this summer, the multiunit residential building will serve the Los Angeles’ homeless population. The project is dense, economically squeezing as many service and efficiently apartments it can into one structure, yet Maltzan optimizes the outdoor areas, adding recreational and leisure activities such as a jogging track and community gardens. “The tight spaces between units relate directly to my experience of the suburbs,” says Maltzan.

Star Apartments redefine and reinterpret house and home, reflecting L.A.’s changing identity. Last year, when the US Census Bureau published its population density reports, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim megalopolis surprised everyone with it’s top ranking as the densest area in the nation, coming in at nearly 7,000 people per square mile. The sprawl of cultural imagination is no longer the reality. As new zoning codes come into effect in the next couple of years, expect density to be the new normal. And with it comes multi-family buildings. “As much as the house tells you about the way individuals live, housing is an experiment in the way we are living as a collective. It is a microcosm of the city,” Maltzan explains.

For architect John Southern, who is just finishing a ground-up house in Silverlake, his third in Los Angeles, the question of density is very real. Recently he’s been scouting vacant properties around the East Side for a client. “All that’s left are the hard lots,” says Southern. The hills around Echo Park and Silver Lake are surprisingly dense — he’s seen sites that are steep, narrow, or have limited access. They are the remaining infill; difficult parcels that are left over in a city that’s been building houses for a century, optimizing each piece of real estate. To design for “hard lots” requires a tactical approach and negotiation with the City of Los Angeles Building Department. “The reality is there are not many large tracts left,” says Southern, adding that land, like most luxuries, is available for those who can afford it.

Structural changes at the municipal level will no doubt impact L.A.’s urban fabric. An update to the city’s zoning code was approved last year by the Planning Department and the City Council. The changes are anticipated to call for densification, especially around transit hubs, and favor multi-unit buildings that are four units and up. The first comprehensive revision to the code since 1946 will take place over the next five years. And the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance passed in 2004 allows developers to build several smaller, more affordable dwellings on a single plot of land, perhaps bringing back experimentation around a more collective type of housing that is somewhere between multi-family and single-family.

“Multifamily development brings with it a bunch of cool opportunities for experimentation, but you simply don’t have as much gray area as with single-family homes,” says Southern. “There isn’t as much of a chance for designing the intimate spaces that people make their lives in. It becomes more about dollars per square foot and the ability to make custom designs is exponentially reduced per the number of units.”

When Southern reflects on the icons of modernism and the homes built in the 70s and 80s by architects such as Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis and Frank Gehry, whose houses re-thought how we live and tested the viability of unusual materials, he’s struck by the impossibility of getting the same dwellings constructed by today’s standards. “With the single-family home in L.A. we are seeing the housing of the equivalent of peak oil,” he says. “The next generation of architects won’t be following in those footsteps because of zoning and economic factors.”

Still, there’s hope that shifts in the code will challenge designers to once again reinvent L.A.’s residential architecture, even if it means that the single-family house as we know it becomes obsolete. “I came here because it was the land of weird experiments in housing,” says Southern.

In a city of houses, the domestic dream lives on.