Johnson House, Johnson Fain Architects
by Maxime Moreau
THE EVOLUTION OF LOS ANGELES
The image and identity of Los Angeles architecture, especially its housing typology can best be understood through the evolution of the city as a cultural entity.
Los Angeles always has been a metropolis with great distinctions and as Michael Webb has stated: “Los Angeles has lured the struggling and the ambitious from all around the world.” For architects, the city is a unique territory to test news forms, programs and arrangements as well as to explore audacious and eccentric building design.
For all newcomers in search of a new life or identity, Los Angeles has been a dream land. After World War II, and for many years after, millions of people moved from other parts of the Unites States into the metropolis. What these newcomers wanted more than anything was to own a single family house on a piece of land. More specifically, a one or two story home with openings on four sides with a front yard, backyard and garden. This phenomenon generated a whole new industry. Then, between 1950 and 1980, this all changed as Los Angeles experienced a considerable decrease in population. People began moving outside the city so as to live the suburban ideal. According to the architect, Scott Johnson, “This situation generated a race to produce single family houses.” During the second half of the 21st century, Los Angeles grew as a suburban city; a city of private houses without any significant public spaces or civic amenities. This social and urban phenomenon changed the way residential architecture was conceived and developed. The agglomeration of individual homes outside Los Angeles city created a multi-town townscape with many disconnected cities. It is precisely at this time that the suburban single-family house, the base unit of urbanism in LA, became the point of departure in the organizational system of the city. Also, during this time, several federal funding programs were created for the construction of freeways in order to connect the suburbs to the city and to themselves. The development of the freeways coupled with the expansion of the boulevard became the substitute for the urban public space. “Things like the roads and sidewalks became the public space of the city,” says Johnson.
However, throughout the last two decades, more people have started arriving from other parts of the world. This situation has created a shortage of available space inside suburban cities. A lot of these areas were already so densely developed that no more open ground was left for these immigrants. Moreover, city officials began to realize that it was not cost effective to change the infrastructure of the “track house” fto accommodate large scale housing developments and all the services that must be built around them. In the end, paradoxically the model of the suburb upon which LA was initially built could no longer support its growing population.
From there, the exodus of the population to the suburb reversed around the 1990’s. Since then, people have shown an interest to move back into the urban center forming a more diversified and younger demographic population. Los Angeles is getting denser and consequently, there is a tension that now exists between the need for more people to find a place to live and the desire of the Angelenos to keep the low density of the suburbia alive. In the meantime, the real estate escalated so rapidly that it became extremely difficult for people to own a house. However, a lot of these people were able to purchase a condominium or an attached unit in a multifamily building or duplex with a rentable unit. These urban typologies made the city a desirable place to live. Opportunities have changed and within this context every possible space was filled. Empty lots, backyards, guest houses and garages, were all getting transformed to accommodate the growing population as well as to generate an additional source of income for their owners. Today, urban infill has become a widespread solution for people who want to own a dwelling. Consequently, the identity of the domestic architecture as well as the urban character of LA is starting to shift from its original shape. Dwellings now demonstrate a sense of plurality and a cultural cross over, which can be seen in the different traditions which the identity derives from its cultural heritage.
THE JOHNSON HOUSE
Today the conventional urban linkage, or how buildings and open spaces have been connected, has been broken, rethought and reconnected. Historically, most bungalows in LA had the public space on the ground floor looking out to the courtyard and in some cases to the guest house or garage. But now, with more people and consequently more cars to fit on same size lots, the rules have changed. The automobile has certain dimensional requirements and these lots, which are generally 50 to 60 feet wide, are now too small and too narrow to develop regular high-density infill. Thus, the cars began to unglue the relationship between the architecture and the ground. From there, architects have set up new forms in order to work within the restrictions they have; in this case the parcel size.
The Johnson house, designed by Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain Partners, is an excellent example of this trend. Located into the commercial heart of the Larchmont Village, the residence is one out of a large number of typologies in one of the oldest and most historically significant neighborhoods in Los Angeles: “It is bordered by some of the most well preserved older homes in the city, ranging from 1920’s California bungalows to grand old estates, such as one may see in the English countryside. It is also surrounded by a variety of wonderful ethnic restaurants, sidewalk cafes and upscale boutiques. The Larchmont Village serves as a Main Street retail district to Hancock Park, Windsor Square and nearby Paramount Studios.”
This residence approaches the size of all the other properties in the district, but with every foot of the ground used for parking and services the Johnson House breaks all the rules for this area.
Designed as a long floating box, 60’ wide by 140’ long, the front and side yards are used as outdoor multi-functional rooms such as a carport. Like many apartments built during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the vehicle stand underneath the house. However, this system creates a strange condition. The living areas, terrace and pool are un-expectantly lifted on to the second floor.
On the other hand, even if: “The rule in Los Angeles is that every outdoor space starts with the car,” there is in some degree, more pedestrian traffic in the city, and especially on the Larchmont Boulevard. This situation starts to re-define the meaning of the single-family house in urban area. More and more architects, like Scott Johnson, are offering a certain degree of social interaction within the city. The Johnson House beautifully illustrates this new genre of residence that not only recognizes the advantage of the public realm, but also is influence by it.
Thus, the architect used the front yard to introduce a series of open spaces that organize the sequence and program of the entire house. The facade, wrapped in corrugated metal, is pierced with a 2 story glass curtain wall. From there, the living areas, such as the kitchen, dining room, living room, media room and gallery, are organized toward the public thoroughfare. The glass opening allows the occupant to connect with the activities on street below. Like Johnson explains: “The house explores a range from very private to very public space in favor of the more public. Whenever a space is determined not to be completely secluded it is moved toward the street.” Conceptually, this residence is designed like a lateral extrusion from the public space, the front part of the property, to the private, the rear part. So, the house emphasizes the fact that any space that does not require or need to be completely private can open up and unite the life outside the walls with the semi-public life inside the house.
However, like more conventional dwellings, this house needs to provide some very private spaces. Thus, the master bedroom, the only private space located on the second floor, is developed like a sound proof chamber and it is separated from the living room by the pool terrace which is situated at the back of the house. The study and children’s bedrooms are on the third floor and have expansive north-facing windows.
One advantage that emerges from raising the living areas on the second floor is that the light starts to carve and shape the structure so to eventually illuminates each level. This idea demands architects to rethink and re-align the principal elements of the house, like the location of the space, utilities and circulation areas. For instance, instead of having a traditional leafy yard, the architect took advantage of the position of the living area and developed an outdoor terrace within the building that framed the endless views of the Hollywood mountains. Thus, rather than connecting with a traditional yard, the occupants feel as if the city is the backyard. For Johnson, this situation is very positive: “Life has changed, and when you have to design a single family residence, stack it on a narrow lot on a commercial street, the entire notion of a home has to be re-thought. The image of the conventional house typology is transformed by cultural events, such as the magnitude of the automobile. This is the new identity of Los Angeles; it is all about diversity.” Furthermore, this arrangement redefined what a social space is in Los Angeles and describes what happens in its society. Like the Standard Hotel rooftop, the Johnson House rewrites all the rules.
In contemporary society, more things are merging and connecting together. The idea of living/working, working/playing, entertaining/retail, etc has begun to mean different things in different contexts. Like Johnson explained: “In America, the concept of ‘’family formation’’ used to be a clearly define idea and people believed in it, but today it is a reforming idea.” The concept of space is now defined by the acknowledgment of the art of modern living. This idea is also valid at the scale of the materials. The formal language of a house which conveys an image to the viewer can take the envelope as a point of departure for a series of surprises. The materials of a building can be reconfigured to mean something different depending in which context they are employed. For instance, the Johnson House can be seen as a collage which affects the appearance of contemporary dwellings.
Designed with a rational approach, the building is wrapped with white plaster, corrugated metal and pierced with a large steel curtain wall on the public space. The house is essentially an industrial box. In some way, it is a generic typology that could be applicable as a system to any number of sites along the Larchmont Boulevard, but in reality, in its context, the Johnson house is an operation to what is there. For the viewers, this residence is a very unusual structure. “A lot of people look at the house and wonder if it’s a YMCA or an office building, because there is something different than a traditional house,” says Johnson. The way the materials are combined together creates a certain ambiguity on how people read it. Moreover, this residence doesn’t have all the reassuring elements and signs that say house; it doesn’t have brick, framed windows, shutters or a traditional front yard. In the end, this residence is not formed by a specific style, instead it is a novel representation engendered by its context.
‘’The Los Angeles house sits on a tight urban lot and draws upon the implicit grid of the city to define the building. The footprint of the house per se corresponds almost exactly to the long-standing pattern or residential lots, which in turn gives it a strong relationship to the street grid and neighboring.”
The grid is an important concept in the city as well as for architecture. At the scale of the city, the grid can be developed as a guide line to set up the scale of a district (to disaggregate buildings and parcels), to connect buildings and open spaces together, support views corridors or as a strategy to generate open-ended structures, freedom and flexibility within the context. In architecture, “The grid is an open semantic form” and it can be use as a design tool to organize and articulate different spatial concepts, like opening up the house rather than defining it by individual rooms.
For example, in the Johnson house, the grid is visibly embedded, but at the same time it is fractionalized in a way that it creates ambiguous borders within it. The principal elements of the plan are carved away and dematerialized. Some elements are opaque, partially open, translucent, colored, and transparent and a few walls do not hit the ceiling. “From the street, if you walk through the curtain wall you arrive in a rectangle space, which is the living room, then you pass the steel staircase that slices up through the center of the house, then you pass a series of colored boxes, one which is the fire place, another rectangular space, the dining room and a 12 foot high glass sliding door to finally arrive outside on the terrace and to the cubic pool beyond,” says Johnson. Thus, the order of the house is taught as a progression through a series of translucent layers that officially elaborate the grid, but at the same time manipulates it. The progression from the front to back, from the public to the private describe all the ambiguous conditions that separate or suggest the transition from one thing to another. This architecture not only acknowledges the ambiguity of life, but also confirms that the operation on the DNA of the house participate to define it image and identity.
Finally, the Johnson House can be compared to other models, like the Villa Savoie of le Corbusier. The Villa Savoie, is a formalized object that is situated on an un-differential plane, so the house really is an art object. However, the Johnson house is a more direct response to the real condition that poses itself upon the dwelling. The way the cars have to work, the idea of the common garden facing a very busy street, the way the public spaces go through the entire lot and the idea of carving a quadrant of the house, on the second and third floor, to let the light come down into the structure are all essential elements that pose themselves on the house. Like Johnson says: “In a particular urban environment, a dwelling has to respond to these contextual constraints to be successful.” Thus, the Johnson House is an honest respond to the tangible urban conditions of Los Angeles. In a certain way, it is a custom formula, a custom machine that challenges the important idea of what an urban house should look like, where it should be located, and its relationship to its surrounding context.