THE CONTEXT OF LOS ANGELES
“When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I was surprised by the size and density within the residential lots,” says Swiss-born architect Roger Kurath, of Culver City’s Design 21. It is not unusual to see several single-family houses placed on one long, narrow site. This type of density is often the result of the increasing population Los Angeles is experiencing.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2000 to 2005, immigration increased by 16% to a current total of 35.7 million in U.S. Moreover, the majority of America’s immigrants come from Mexico, an estimated 27.5 million in 2005, compared to 10.4 million Chinese and 5.8 million Indians. By a wide margin, the Latino immigrants choose to live in the State of California and even more particularly, they choose the city of Los Angeles. In fact, the Latino population (4,613,450) is almost equal to the White population (4,968,846) in Los Angeles. In addition, millions of newcomers are expected to arrive in the next few years. This sudden and ever rising population growth has generated an evolving urban and architectural amalgam as well as a unique metropolitan phenomenon. There are more and more opportunities for density inside the city limits and ultimately this situation has begun to change the image, identity and form of the architectural landscape.
Los Angeles was once defined as a residential city, but today is becoming more of a metropolis. As Jeffrey Inaba and Peter Zellner state: “Los Angeles is undergoing a civic renaissance. It is completing a decade of architectural commissions that by all accounts are major public achievements (the Getty Center, the Getty Villa, the Los Angeles Cathedral, Disney Concert Hall and the Caltrans Building) […], but the more the city comes to approximate the scale and form of the world’s other metropolitan center, the less specific Los Angeles is becoming as an urban idea.”
With approximately 260 diversified areas, Los Angeles can be seen as an enormous urban village without an urban center. Each district is fairly disconnected and culturally they are distinctive communities. As Michael Webb observes: “Each neighbourhood begins to acquire a sense of plurality deriving from different cultural heritage.” Within this demographic growth and the mix of cultures, Los Angeles is entering into an era that calls for an architecture of difference. In the end, the unique culture of Los Angeles is created mainly by diverse cultural influence in the design of residential architecture. This context starts to change the way architects understand the city and, as we will see, has an important impact on the design of housing.
Since the average cost of a house increased form $209,000 in 2000 to nearly $480,000 in 2005, Los Angeles is facing a serious problem with housing affordability. The City’s housing prices have risen so high that they not only surpass the wages of working families, but threaten the City’s continued economic growth. As a result, many homeowners have added an additional dwelling on their property to accommodate relatives or renters and to take advantage of an extra income. On the other hand, there is a tendency to see more and more over-sized apartment complexes strangely situated within single-family neighbourhoods. Little by little, these large projects not only transformed the shape of the metropolis, but also failed to understand and honour the architectural identity that is the single family house as the base unit of urbanism which has formed the specific culture of Los Angeles. Thus, people need to recognize that the small scale residential work and medium density infill is not only a better solution, even ecologically, for housing the rising population of LA, but also has an important impact on the image and urbanism of the city.
In a circumstance like the one at the Reitz Residence, where a small 1920s bungalow sits alone on its property, most developers would tear down the existing structure to develop the maximum building block and thus, make the greatest profit. However, the owner and the architect, Roger Kurath, took a different view of the situation: “I wanted to create a residence that would symbolize an urban lifestyle, while preserving the old industrial vibe of the neighbourhood.” In keeping with his goal, Kurath kept the existing bungalow on the street side, built the additional house at the back of the property and placed a new public space to link the two contrasting structures and thus created a tight urban assembly.
PUBLIC SPACE IN LOS ANGELES
Compared to other American metropolises like Chicago, Houston or New York, Los Angeles is an architecturally experimental city. For over a century, architects arrived from all around the world to explore residential design. These architects thus contributed to the development of the social and urban reality of LA. However, the unique character of Los Angeles comes from millions of liberated, but isolated residents who did not have to follow any regulations and consequently have added their own presence to their dwelling and neighbourhood. Thus, more interest was devoted in the construction of single-family house than any eminent public buildings or civic spaces and eventually, the perception of each individual failed to develop great open space. However, since the explosive growth of newcomers, the natural and man made landscape begins to change. Michael Webb, an architectural critic, argues: “The mix of culture has produced a chaotic sprawl of generic dwellings with vulgar displays.” Despite this general sentiment, examples in some communities, such as the Latino, have helped to reconfigure abandoned parks, squares and other public spaces. In the local Latin culture, social activities begin in the daily exchanges that occur in the plaza, contrary to the general rule in Los Angeles that every outdoor space starts with the car. Los Angeles is characterized by its transportation systems and networks. The cars and freeways dominate the image of the city and strongly define the meaning of the public space. So, if for most Angelenos daily exchange originates with the interior space of their car, consequently one could say that any building typology in LA begins with the position of the car in architecture.
The Reitz Residence
In order to build an additional dwelling, Kurath needed to provide, by law, four covered parking spots; two for the existing house and two for the new construction. Since the property is situated in a cul-de-sac and street parking is possible, the architect refused to cover up the ground surface with parking spaces or an enclosed garage, like most people would do. Instead, the architect decided to reflect on the meaning and the function of the garage typology. By juggling with the building terminology, Kurath finally raised the new construction 10 feet above ground leaving the space underneath for the minimum amount of parking spots required by the zoning code. However, since the automobiles of the different families will mostly be parked on the public thoroughfare, Kurath converted the covered space into a multi-functional public room. The same way the Latino homeowners transform dead urban spaces into convivial social places, Kurath transformed an ordinary parking space to produce a pleasant and relaxed exterior stage for social gathering. This new kind of space becomes an urban manifestation of what is happening is the Los Angeles society.
However, the idea of lifting the house above ground so as to place the garage underneath is a common technique that continues, today, to shape the form of several small and large apartment complexes in Los Angeles. These parking spaces, which are normally closed-in on three sides, often make the space feel gloomy, uncomfortable and unpractical for any social interactions. However, the public space designed at the Reitz Residence generates a different environment. The area under the structure is completely open to the adjacent landscape making the exterior space brighter, agreeable and functional for various social activities. For instance, when the house was completed, Kurath carried out a happening to promote the project and something unusual happened: “Typically, in this kind of event, after visiting the building and taking a look at the best views, people immediately leave the property. But, that hot summer day, people were not leaving. Instead, they were all gathering and acting with each other in this protected open space. This situation was a special experience for me. Even if people were outside the house, I felt that they were still connected with it.” After all, this scenario proves that it is possible to bring, on a small residential lot, an urban life that acknowledges the external, such as the surrounding landscape and the social life between the two families. Consequently, the place normally associated with the automobile is re-domesticated, creating new territories that force people to communicate and interact with each other.
(Typical apartments with covered parking space below )
THE INFLUENCE OF THE URBAN LANDSCAPE IN THE SPATIAL ORGANISATION
The Reitz Residence
Located in Culver City, the Reitz Residence is surrounded by an interesting industrial history. Since the 1920s, Culver City has been a significant center for motion picture and later television production, in part because it was the home of MGM Studios. Also, it was the headquarters for the Hughes Aircraft Company from the 1930s to the 1980s. Since much of the architecture developed in the residential areas features small houses on small lots which have not changed in decades, it became important for Kurath to bring back this feeling of an industrial age. To do so, he created a loft space; a simple empty box that refers to the movie studios and warehouses that formed the initial urban fabric of the city. However, compared to these large scale industrial buildings which often disregard their environment, the position of the Reitz Residence as well as its spatial organisation is inspired by the green space that surrounds the property.
Once inside, elevated in the air, the occupants are protected from the urban animation of the street below. From there, the architect opens up the entire façade, which extends the entire width of the property, to give each communal space within the house, such as the living room, dinning room and kitchen, a unique view of the surrounding tree foliage embedded along the street. Like an urban version of the Villa Savoy, the Reitz residence utilizes the view as a way to engage and connect with the green spaces in the city. “Inside the house, the occupants are not feeling that they are living in an urban area, instead, they are experiencing a secluded life inside a tree house,” says Kurath.
On the opposite side of the house, the private spaces, such as the bedrooms and bathrooms are linked and hidden behind a long wall that divides the private and public domain of the house, while incorporating all the kitchen utilities. Designed as a continued piece of furniture, the central wall is entirely disconnected from the ceiling making the room feel bigger while maintaining adequate privacy for the bedrooms situated at the back. Thus, the natural and man-made screens are handled to shield the occupants not only form the urban activities, but also from the activities inside the house. The architect also used the space left between the ceiling and the wall to locate a sequence of operable skylights to bring natural light through both side of the partitions, while creating an efficient system to naturally ventilate the house. In the end, the spatial logic of the dwelling is developed around the idea of creating an open space where there is no boundary between the programs. One way to understand the interior architecture of the Reitz Residence is to visualize a room with a variety of furniture that can easily be moved to organize a different environment. To achieve this atmosphere, Kurath placed all the structural components in the peripheral walls so to eliminate the interior bearing structure partitions, making the inner space as flexible as possible. Thus, the interior walls are not only used to freely outline a mixture of fluctuating zones, but also to express more freedom in the spatial organization of the house
U.S. Census Bureau
 Jeffrey Inaba & Peter Zellner, Whatever Happens to LA? Architectural and Urban Experiments 1970-1990, 2005, pp.10-11
 Michael Webb, Brave New Houses, Adventure in Southern California Living, 2003, pp.8-11
 Michael Webb, Brave New Houses, Adventure in Southern California Living, 2003, pp.8-11
 Hank Koning & Julie Eizenberg, Whatever Happens to LA? Architectural and Urban Experiments 1970-1990, 2005, pp.27
 Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism, Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, 2001, pp.65