by Maxime Moreau
edited by Darrel Ronald
CAR CULTURE IN LOS ANGELES
In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the image and identity of the architectural landscape is not only associated with the diversity of cultural influences, but also defined by the complex, extensive freeway networks that criss-cross the still fast-growing region.
Along with the beaches, palm trees, and movie studios, the freeways of Southern California –and automobiles– create the organizational logic of Los Angeles. Together; they represent one of the main trademarks of the metropolitan region. “Visitors to Los Angeles most often remember its freeways, either with admiration or disgust. The freeways (rather than individual buildings, or grand avenues or public spaces) remain ineradicably associated with Los Angeles. Because the freeways create the total context of Los Angeles and because they condition the perception of Los Angeles,” explains the historian Paul Zygas.
During World War II the city of Los Angeles needed a new transportation system in order to accommodate a growing population. At the time the city had favored an upgraded rail transit system serving its central city, but soon realized the success of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, built between Los Angeles and Pasadena in 1940. The highway’s efficiency convinced many that a freeway system could solve the region’s transportation problems.
The positive view of highways gradually changed, and during the 1970s the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had abandoned many planned freeways in the face of significant political opposition and a rising enthusiasm for mass transit. Yet the freeways continued to play an important role in Southern California’s transportation as well as an important source of inspiration for artists, film makers, architects, and others. This feeling persists today, that freeways are used to re-imagine the image and identity of cities like Los Angeles, in spite of the fact that the majority of the region’s infrastructures have difficulty keeping up with urban growth.
It is important to consider the relationship of other industries that have grown with the highway boom. Most dramatic is the rapid growth of the billboard business. Some of the most noticeable and prominent billboards in Los Angeles are placed along the highways and freeways. But today, because of environmentalist sentiments and the dearth of available land within the city, a large number of those billboards appear as free-standing structures hovering over buildings and public spaces. More than ever, the billboards intrude into the landscape, and have begun to influence a whole new group of architects that are generating new ways to manipulate the land, pushing forward new design strategies and building types, and generating new opportunities in how contemporary construction can be developed and integrated into 21st century cities.
(Billboard hovering over a bungalow on Venice Blvd. Photo by OFA)
(7 eleven. Photo by Christpher Plattner)
(“Prosaic materials, outsized structural forms, and exposed structural elements are referential to the work of Caltrans and evoke a feeling of being in, under or around the freeways themselves.” Click here to read the rest of this article. Photo by Christpher Plattner)
Moreover, one might look at the design of fast food outlets, stores and gas stations to understand that the car culture continues to thrive and test new market metaphors in Los Angeles.
(The grant tradition of the Drive-In Donut Hole, 1968. Photo by chrisgreen6719)
(Dry cleaner on Westwood; another realm of design, in the belief that it would bring in more business. Photo by OFA)
“The design of Helio House, designed in collaboration with Johnston Marklee and Big, embraces the paradox of creating a green gas station. Conceived as a ” learning lab”, Helios House was designed to stinulate dialog, promote educaton, and foster discussion on the topic of environmental stewardship,” writes Office dA.
(Helio House. Photo by Office dA)
James Steel writes that “The car Culture in Los Angeles underscore almost all social activities; the regular stop at the gas station is just one more ritual in the repetitive cycle from surface street to freeway and back again.
(Gas station in Beverly Hills. Photo by EncinoMan)
The Santa Monica Place shopping mall [and its parking structure] designed by the architect Frank Gehry is another great example that demonstrates that the Los Angeles building as billboard typology is alive and well. The mall’s name is spelt out in a large chain link letters […] which impart a frank but minimalist ornament to its roadside façade.
(Santa Monica Place. Photo by OFA)
The houses in the Hollywood Hills are billboards of another kind, representing their owners’s wealth and taste to the world.”
(The intersection of Hollywood Blvd & Western Ave in Los Angeles, with the Hollywood Hills off in the distance. Photo by my f_cking photos)
Moreover, as the region’s population and developments surge, so do the region’s public infrastructure and parking requirements. The limited amount of space now available inside the city –combined with the automobiles necessities- begins to not only to alter the form of every domestic development in Los Angeles, but to simultaneously change the historic character of neighborhoods and their daily lifestyles, and create critical environmental impact on the architectural landscape of the city. More than ever, the car strongly determines how a property is occupied, its form, and consequently how the inner space is organized.
“This is the first parking structure in the country expected to receive the U.S. The six-story, 882-space structure at the Civic Center features photovoltaic roof panels, a storm drain water treatment system, recycled construction materials and energy efficient mechanical systems. The structure also features ground-floor retail, art works on every floor and sweeping city and ocean views,” writes Jorge Casuso.
The Jamie Residence illustrates this discernable shift at the residential scale. Located in the Pasadena hills, this house is developed like a bridge, as a cantilevered box floating above the hill. The Jamie Residence challenges its surroundings while reworking the consideration of the public and private domain. In many ways this construction can be associated with the boom of the freeways and the Los Angeles building as billboard typology. Like the billboards, the house is highly visible itself and offers the greatest visibility due not only to it size, but also because it allows for a custom creativity through its extension from the ground. By floating above the hill, this house is like another kind of billboard and it amplifies perceptive sensorial experiences.
(Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
(Billboard somewhere in Los Angeles)
In 2005, the Jamie House was selected by the artist Olafur Eliasson for the show titled Meant To Be Lived In (Today I am Feeling Prismatic) to present the context of the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the relationship of the individual between the inside and outside. It is a predominant aspect of the social and environmental dimensions of daily life in Los Angeles. The house was transformed into a pavilion of light and color which relates, from a certain point of view, to billboard design: the idea to reconfigure both large and small open spaces, the experiment of light projections and reflections, the acknowledgment of the views, and the game of perception in the urban landscape.
The Jamie Residence not only revisits the classical tropes of modernist private residences of Southern California: shoe box on pillars (arcspace), but also illustrates the ascension of car culture and points up a strong disjunction between the traditional and contemporary conditions in the design of residential architecture in Los Angeles. After seeing the show, Meant To Be Lived In (Today I am Feeling Prismatic), combined with the previous ideas that were running through my mind, I sat down with Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena of Escher GuneWardena Architecture in their Silver Lake studio to talk about the meaning of image, identity and integration in the housing design of 21st century Los Angeles.
The notion of identity seems to be an important concept in all of your architecture. Can you discuss how the urban and architectural context of Los Angeles has influenced the image and integration of the Jamie House?
Our work varies investigations in different realms; some has to do with very ordinary issues like budget and engineering, while others have to be conceptualized so as to address more unique issues like context, site and nature. For example, we consider how to justify the residence within its context and how to build within the boundaries. These notions have an enormous power as an architectural icon. We do not start conceptualizing with a preconceived image of what a house should look like. Instead, we are more interested in a design approach where we need to examine a problem and throughout several discussions different concepts start to emerge. From there, these ideas are examined as a potential for formal qualities to develop our architecture.
In the design of the Jamie Residence, we did not plan to create the image at first. As the house evolved, it started to take some characteristics that people associated with powerful images like the case study houses. These people came to the conclusion that we were trying to create a dwelling based on similar explorations, but in fact that was not our intention. During the design progress, there were some engineering concerns that lead the house to take a particular form and this form was influenced by the same factors that informed the development of multiple houses built in the 1960s. From a certain point of view, there are some similarities between the Jamie Residence and the Case Study Houses. In the end, even if we are not trying to make any references with theses houses, there is no escape and somehow, in our subconscious, we retain the memories of these images.
(Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
We do not exist in a cultural vacuum; we are surrounded by what goes on and what has occurred. I think that it is untrue to say that one cannot be influenced by what happened before. In every project, we often look for analogies to compare our ideas against others explored in the past. For us, this process is a way to verify what we are doing and in the end, it might not have anything to do with architecture and it can be completely unrelated to the culture of Los Angeles.
When you talk about the notion of analogies, what are you looking for? What are you trying to represent or suggest?
We are very interested in how things are made, how things are put together. This is something that has to do with being Swiss. In Switzerland there is a very high culture of construction and architecture is dependent upon this culture. Therefore, it is impossible to talk about Swiss architecture without taking about how things are made. In Switzerland, architects are in a position where they can manipulate the construction process, but in Los Angeles the situation is different, at least on the economic level. In most of our projects, we get to manipulate a product and not necessarily a process. Within this context, we are forced to find the most economical way of achieving an idea. In the design of the Jamie House, we expressed that in a very straight-forward way, through the tectonics of the building. This is to say how the house is put together makes this concept legible as part of the architecture.
The two concrete piers and two steel beams mixed with the wood structure and the skin are all organized in order to express the different layers, systems and materials of the construction. Instead of manipulating these elements to become something else or to turn them into a preconceived form, we debated a type of honesty. What you see is what is there.
(Photos courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
The Jamie House sits on a complex and challenging site. How have the surroundings affected its figure?
We believe that architects have the responsibility to be careful about how they treat the land -even in extremely difficult situations. In this case, we did not want to place the house so that it would deny the site or transform it into something completely different. This residence is located on a hill site and for us it should remain a hill site. Consequently, the main idea was to be very delicate with the ground and make the house only lightly touch the hill. This inspiration was very interesting to us not just for economical and structural reasons, but also because this concept allowed the hill site to remain completely untouched. The two piers supporting the entire house occupy only 2% of the property. Moreover, each pier was drilled from the street in order to minimize the disturbance of the site during the construction process.
(Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
How was the house placed on the site?
The square footage of the house was completely determined by the planning code and dictated by the location of the set back; where we can start building. In addition, for economical and programmatic reasons, we placed the house as close as possible to the street. Further away the dwelling gets from the road, the higher the house gets. So, at some point, the height limitation dedicated the location of the house on the site. On the other hand, once we knew that the system on top of the steel structure would be a wood construction, the width of the building was determined by the size of the biggest floor joist that could be transported up to the hill. Thus, a lot of those very straight forward and mathematical themes combined with our considerations for the site, views, wind and the direction of the sun started to shape the parameters and identity of the house.
(Section courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
Would you say that the fact of lifting the house above the ground instead of sitting it on the site gave you more freedom to express something different in the spatial organization of the house?
The Jamie House is essentially developed like a bridge. Its spatial organization has to do with structural issues such as the position of the car on the bridge. From there, two questions were raised. First, should the car be placed at one end, which would make the structure unbalanced, or should the car be placed between the two piers and make the construction more stable? These questions began to give us some directions on the location of the automobile in the house. In addition, in Los Angeles, the car represents how people move through the city and how they get to their house. Within this context, it didn’t not make sense for us to develop a dwelling with a separate garage located somewhere at the back of the property or not showing it, since the garage is where the majority of people in Southern California enter into their house. Consequently, it became clear that the garage should be placed in the center of the house. Structurally, this solution makes a lot of sense and conceptual the analogy of the car is very strong; once people park their car they arrive at the center of the residence. We often compare this set-up to other countries where people leave their shoes next to the front door. However, the situation in Los Angeles is that people leave their car next to the front door. But, the fact of having the garage in the middle of the house raises other questions, such as how the space should be organized around it? With a limited square footage, we needed to accommodate other parts of the program. Besides, we are very interested in spaces that are non-hierarchical. In this case, the spatial organization of Jamie House represents this situation. The public spaces inside the house extend, continue and connect with the various living areas. The house is developed around a series of volumes that become storage containers: garage, closet, powder room and laundry room. The location of these walls-containers is very important, since this is how the interior spaces are organized and how the space flows.
(Plan courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
Another issue is that the house has views all around; it is not just oriented towards one side. So the question was how do you maintain these views? By placing the entrance and the garage toward the center of the structure it allowed the house to have views out from all of the different rooms.
As you said, the car is the center of daily life in Los Angeles and strongly defines and controls the spatial order of every house. From there, would you say that the Jamie House represents another kind of trademark in the region, in the same way that freeways do?
The car is a significant factor in the way the houses are shaped in Los Angeles. If you think that every new house developed in the city must require two parking spaces per unit, it starts to determine how properties are occupied and consequently their form.
What about the public space? Even if the house is lifted above the ground level, it still needs to deal with public space. So, can you talk about the progression between the public and private domain, the essence and experience of the bridge?
We had all sorts of ideas about the bridge and it almost became medieval. The bridge permits a certain amount of detachment from the ground that makes everyone highly aware of when they approach the house. Once on the bridge, people are elevated off the ground, so the act of getting to the residence becomes an act of leaving the ground. Also, we didn’t want to hide the fact that the house is floating in the air. In a way, this is what makes the project interesting to us.
There were two aspects behind the idea of creating this bridge. First, we talked about the house itself being a bridge, because structurally it is built like a bridge with two vertical piers and horizontal support. But also, the bridge is the consideration of the public to the private space, the separation from the street. For instance, several houses, designed in the 1960’s, in the hills of Hollywood and Pasadena sit right next to the street –people open the front door and they step right into the street and the same thing happens when they pull out with their car and so forth. Thus, the distance between the road and this house is informed by being able to receive visitors; to have two parking spots on the bridge. From there, the length of the automobile determines the division between the private and public domains.
(Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
As you described earlier, the program of the house is placed in different containers, but when looking at the plan, you see a large open space with no boundary between the programs. The plan almost reads like a series of furniture pieces that can move to organize fluxing space. Do you agree with this representation?
Yes! This is something that we are very interested in for all of our work; that is to say, how to find the quietest way to order the space and to organize the circulation. The Jamie House is planned around simple volumes that separate the formal areas (living area, dining area, master bedroom, master bath, study and powder room) from the informal (kitchen, family room, children bedroom and laundry). The division between the public and private space is based on the value of the views. The smaller spaces, like the bedrooms and study are looking towards the hill while the living, dining, kitchen and family room benefit from the dramatic views over the hills and the city beyond.
(Living room. Photos courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
So, the view that each occupant has is related to the size of its space. The views also influence the way people enter into the house. Instead of giving the views right away after passing through the front door, we force them to enter into a very narrow corridor. At the end of that space, people arrive in a large open space where they experience a unique panorama of the surrounding landscape. It is at this point, in this space (at the end of the lobby) that people see the whole length of the house (84 feet) from one end to the other; straight through each of the spaces.
(Dinning room with lobby, kitchen and family room beyond. Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
(Dinning room with view beyond. Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
Also, by carving the exterior terrace in and by pitching the connection between the dining and the kitchen we emphasize the separation between the formal and informal spaces. This pinch acts as a threshold inside the house. Consequently, moving from the public to the private space one really senses the compression between the garage and the exterior terrace even if the spatial arrangement is in reality open.
The notion of the views also has to do with the construction system and materials. In an early stage, we decided that the exterior siding should be developed with 4×8 concrete panels. From there, we had to figure out a way to use these panels without having to modify or cut them. Moreover, we had to find a way to organize the windows with the panels in order to form a system that values the views and function with the interior spaces; to find a certain balance.
(Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)
Finally, would you say that the idea of giving up the concept of a conventional courtyard with trees and grass, gave you the chance to do something different to engage with the landscape?
The opportunity to build outdoor space is an important idea in all our projects. There is always an outdoor space in each of our projects. So whether it is a courtyard, a balcony or a patio, we treat it as another room in the house.
The terrace is also a hybrid space. On one hand, it does read like a court built toward the sky, but at the same time it is developed like another room that enters into the house. The balcony becomes clearly another room of the house. Thus, it is from this space that one really experiences the nature. In this case, by opening the façade of the living and dining areas from floor to ceiling, people start to have a different experience; the interior space feels like huge outdoor deck. However, being on the balcony is a much more direct connection with the landscape; we can feel the wind, temperature and so forth.
(Exterior terrace designed like another room in the house. Photo courtesy of Escher GuneWardena Architecture)