Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

What is the aesthetic of nothing? Not in terms of a meditation on minimalism, or the luxury of pared-down colour palettes and clean lines, but nothing itself. How do you design with the fewest possible resources for those who have so little and need so much?

This question rumbles in my head as I get off the 134 Freeway and drive wide, San Fernando Valley boulevards lined with new condo buildings on my way to the Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village in North Hollywood – 39 white, red, blue, and yellow tiny homes for the unhoused on a sliver of land between a metro rail line and a busy street. It’s not much of a site, a stingy slice of previously undeveloped municipal property in a sprawling city, but to those who live there it is everything. And it is also nothing.

Nothing demands everything. Let’s consider this the brief behind the Chandler project, designed by Los Angeles-based firm Lehrer Architects and Ford Construction with the Bureau of Engineering (BOE) for the City of Los Angeles as a pilot programme to address the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. Just as survivors need refuge after a national disaster, here in the shadow of multi-million-dollar homes perched high in the Hollywood Hills, architecture is deployed as triage. Every component of the design is value-engineered down to the essential; even the schedule snipped into rapid response mode. The North Hollywood project was designed and built in a seemingly impossible 13 weeks.

This need for speed reflects the scale of the crisis. According to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, there were 66,436 unhoused people in LA County pre-Covid, an increase of 12.7 per cent over the previous year. There’s no hard data yet to account for people experiencing homelessness on account of pandemic lockdowns, job losses, and evictions – but the impact is obvious at street level. Tents and makeshift lean-tos line the sidewalk block after block along Skid Row, the area that historically provided food and medical services to the unhoused. Encampments crop up in public parks and freeway underpasses.

Los Angeles’ struggle to house all its residents stretches back decades. The city is a beacon for many: migrants looking for a better life, actors hoping to catch a break in the industry, queer teens fleeing the Midwest, or people simply caught up in the spell of palm trees and balmy breezes. But the need for affordable housing chronically outstrips what is available. Lack of supply drives up rents. And housing precarity isn’t confined to those we traditionally think of as being in poverty – many middle-income workers are just one lost paycheck away from finding themselves couch surfing or living out of their car. First-time homelessness was reported by some two-thirds of those polled in the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, with more than half reporting economic hardship.

Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village is part of the “A Bridge Home” initiative of the LA Mayor’s Office. Previous bridge homes opened as communal shelters – multi-bed facilities for upwards of 100 homeless people, a model rendered unsustainable under Covid conditions, which made shared facilities less than ideal. Chandler is the first of 17 projects conceptualised under the tiny house village model and five of those are currently under construction around the city. Each uses small, individuated homes manufactured by the Seattle-based company Pallet, a contracted vendor chosen by the Mayor’s office. The homes are quick to construct and provide a combination necessary during a pandemic: privacy and safety. Lehrer Architect’s Alexandria Park Tiny Homes Village, 103 tiny homes in a park in North Hollywood, is scheduled to open this spring. In total, there are nearly 2,000 beds in the pipeline.

“The sense of urgency on the part of the city was very real – palpable in a meaningful way,” says architect Michael Lehrer, weighing the need to bring a design sensibility to the Chandler project against the intensity of a 13-week time frame. “The schedule was not realistic, but we made it realistic.”

Under its A Bridge Home plan, the BOE can construct temporary housing on land leased or owned by the city. Each of LA’s 15 council districts are supposed to identify parcels, but what makes a piece a land suitable is arguable. Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) sentiments combined with access to services and infrastructure create spatial chokeholds, squeezing out everything but properties that emerge as weirdly shaped leftovers – diagrams of valuelessness.

When I arrive at the village, I park in front of a large, neighbouring warehouse emblazoned with bold letters: LASHIFY. It’s the headquarters for a company that makes luxury eyelash extensions. When its corporate logo looms into view, it’s a cringingly ironic reminder of the uncomfortably vast wealth gap in Los Angeles.

Chandler’s site was previously a dirt lot: long and wedge-shaped with a thin tail that runs along an adjacent rail line. It sits across from a large public park, where homeless people tend to congregate, and near public transit, but it had no sewer connection or sidewalk. Two of the priciest components of the $3.487m project were a new 550ft sewer line extension, and levelling the existing street and adding concrete barricades in order to create safe and accessible entry to the site. Figures given to the Los Angeles Times by the BOE note that $1.5m was spent preparing the site prior to construction and another $651,000 for the sewer connection. Perhaps the largest take-away from these numbers is that nothingness comes with a price tag. If a council district is miserly when it identifies locations, everyone pays.

“Site selection is crucial; we are doing a better job to choose sites,” says Marina Quinonez, senior architect at the BOE, whose office is responsible for assessing site feasibility and working through the rats’ nest of permitting and life-safety bureaucracy prior to engaging a contractor and architect for each project. Moving forward, she notes, sites will be paved, with close attention paid to the availability of utilities.

“Better, faster, cheaper isn’t intuitive,” says Lehrer. “There is an experimental quality to these projects. The City of LA knows we need to do a large variety of these. You will do something wrong before you do something right.”

From aerial photos, Chandler resembles a fragment of 1980s graphic design. Bright yellow slashes. Green and white stripes. Confetti of red umbrellas. Meanwhile, the programme is basic: rows of tiny homes, a hygiene trailer with bathrooms and showers, and a long prefab building that houses administration and laundry. Communal activities take place at the centre of the site, where there’s an open-air dining area and a small, fenced dog park. At the narrowest end, dozens of 60-gallon garbage cans are provided for residents to store belongings that don’t fit in their allotted house.

Lehrer Architects’ chromatic, eye-catching aesthetic acts like razzle-dazzle, the camouflage used to hide battleships in plain sight. It would be easy to scoff at the playful design, to accuse it of trying to gussy up nothingness with a bit of bold colour. And while that’s somewhat true (alas, there’s only so much that paint can do), it’s not the only truth. According to the design team, changing the paint colour doesn’t add significant cost to the project as the asphalt would need to be sealed anyway. The bright patterning does, however, distract from some of the inherent challenges posed by the location, programme, and code restrictions. That line of green and white stripes, for example, cuts a wide swath across the site, demarcating a fire lane that must be kept clear. Such an imposition, necessary of course for safety, hollows out the site interior, pushing everything towards the chain-link fencing edging the property. Lehrer’s design uses paint to break up the space. The white (and a couple of red) fields align with the walls of the tiny houses, so that a patch of paint seems to stretch from each home. This porchlike gesture goes a long way in extending the footprint given to each resident. And like a porch, flowerpots, folding chairs, and muddy sneakers have cropped up at entrances.

The challenge in a project designed to serve unhoused residents under emergency circumstances is between providing what Quinonez lists as “privacy, community, and dignity” and doing it as efficiently as possible. It’s a conundrum encapsulated by the 8-by-8ft Pallet shelters used at Chandler and other tiny house projects in development. The prefab homes are designed as a kit-of-parts that can be assembled by two people in less than two hours. For approximately $9,000 apiece, each one comes with heating, cooling, and a smoke detector. There are two beds, some shelving, and an escape hatch. Windows are smallish and residents have already decorated them with a variety of makeshift curtains.

Nerin Kadribegovic, an architect and partner at Lehrer Architects, refers to the 64sqft shelters as “pixels” – little squares arranged according to code and site constraints. “They are Monopoly pieces, little drawings of home,” he says. “They are the essence of home.” But is that enough? As spaces, the homes are cell-like. Under Covid, the county health department mandates one person per unit, but occupancy is meant to be two. Belongings – bags of clothes, shoes, papers – accumulate on the floor, shelves, and the extra bed in a demonstration of just how much and how little is necessary to live on the streets.

Chandler is run by aid organisation Hope of the Valley, which provides meals, laundry, Covid testing, and case management, including helping residents find permanent housing, employment, and substance use treatment. Most of the residents are from a 3.5-mile radius around the village. They have lives and friends in the neighbourhood, so are free to come and go before the 10pm curfew. Still, on-site case manager Christopher Hernandez notes that some stay inside, preferring privacy. The ability to lock one’s own door and crank the air conditioning is a universal luxury in Southern California

Privacy, community, and dignity are laudable goals for these projects. Out of this trio, it is community that seems the most difficult to achieve through design, especially since this housing is meant to be transitional. Laurie Craft, chief programme officer for Hope of the Valley, says that ideally the organisation would like to house residents within three months of entry to the programme. “We know that many people are not housing ready in three months, in those cases we extend their stay and continue working with them,” she says.

Lehrer Architects’ design, based on the programme requirements given by the BOE, is thin on amenities that might foster community. A cluster of picnic tables with umbrellas stand at the centre of the project. Spaced apart for social distancing they connote individuation more than collectivity. A Hope of the Valley staffer mentions that folks tend to eat meals at separate tables as a precaution.

On a spring morning, a handful of residents are outside their units. The sun is already blazing and there are few shaded outdoor areas that might draw people away from the AC. I notice that a store-bought canopy has been erected for the security guard, who sits under it in a folding chair. She looks warm in her black uniform and baseball cap. A bearded resident in a wheelchair slowly rolls himself over to a shadow cast by one of the houses. According to Quinonez, a generous, permanent shade structure comes with extra expense and fire code complications that are beyond the scope and budget for the project.

Indeed, the issue of community might be structural, not about design or aesthetics at all. One of the earliest and most famous tiny house experiments in service of homeless populations is the Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, a cluster of some 30 ground-up homes where residents are self-governed. They elect leadership and follow a set of collective membership rules, while a nonprofit board provides funding and oversight. Community is constructed through shared action. At Chandler, on the other hand, residents are subject to the protocols established by Hope of the Valley, some of which manifest in built form. They must adhere to a curfew, take a Covid test and agree to be searched before entry, and put any banned items in a locker outside the front gates.

One resident, Carolina, grew up in the valley and lived in a tent for 10 years before moving into a home she shares with her boyfriend. At Chandler for six weeks when we spoke, she kept referring to the world beyond the white-striped, chain-link fence as “out there” – an ambiguous, somewhat fearful expression. For her, the rules of inside were worth the exchange for food and security. She had gained a little weight from regular meals and had gotten some plants to decorate.

“A tiny house is better because you can lock the door,” says Carolina. “Nobody touches your stuff. You are safe.”