Underlying the recent Forum discussion series, “Living on the Edge: Towards an Architecture of Housing” was a question: to what extent is the single-family house still appropriate as a model for thinking housing in Los Angeles? The recent competition sponsored by MOCA, in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition of the “Case Studies” houses, adhered to the premise that mixed income, multifamily housing is the issue of today. The Forum’s discussion of the Case Studies houses, held at MOCA with Robert Winter, Tomas Hines, David Gebhard, and Elizabeth Smith, reviewed the powerful appeal of the bungalow in Southern California and of its highly formalized exemplars in the work of Neutra and Schindler. According to some of the historians present that evening, the Case Studies houses should not be romanticized into models of the single-family home in Southern California. They suggested that the vitality of the developer bungalow or the sophistication of Neutra and Schindler ran the risk of becoming pallid excercises in “good taste” under the tutelage of John Entenza, and that the one truly powerful exceptions, the Eames House, occupied an ambiguous and subsequently unexplored position within that programme. According to David Gebhard, the majority of the case studies houses did not occupy the landscape as imaginatively as many regressively “styled” houses, and the architects involved in the program paid lip service to social purpose, but never attempted to make multi-family dwelling the object of their designs.
After these fascinating but mixed reviews, the second Forum evening attempted to outline the scope of the housing crisis in Los Angeles today. The dimensions of disenfranchisement and the social costs of political decisions were most particularly explicit in Jennifer Wolch’s descriptions of general downward mobility in the housing chain and in Gary Squier’s account of the economic consequences of the decision to seismically upgrade Los Angeles’ masonry building stock. While George Bush was blathering on television about “a thousand points of light” and claiming that one should not confuse the issue of housing and the problems of the homeless, the genuinely political nature of the housing crisis was vividly illustrated. On that evening in particular, the questions of architects’ responsibilities, of their attempts to balance formal and social concerns, were subsumed into a more general issue of political priorities. As a member of the audience pointed out, the issues that architects should address are not so much “how to do it for less,” but “how to do it well,” but the issue that we all face is the scope and force of our political will.
On the third evening of the series, Dana Cuff, John Mutlow, and Julie Lizenberg presented models for housing and social action in their own work. Dana illustrated how architects can act as catalysts and help formulate socio-political programmes for a community. John Mutlow and Julie Eizenberg showed specific examples of housing that expressed the identity of the family unit within a collective project or which created a complex program out of different types of dwelling units. Allan Hankin shared some of his observations of the Route Two cooperative along Santa Monica Boulevard in Silverlake and Echo Park. In that area, the tenants living in a swath of land fifty yards wide and several miles long were able to buy the land back from Caltrans after it had been taken over by the state agency for the right-of-way of a projected freeway. The Route Two cooperative affords an extraordinary “case study” of a physically and socially diverse slice of the city that became a political community on the basis of cooperative land ownership. Through the legislative process its inhabitants were able to create a housing cooperative which can maintain low income housing. In fact, Hankin suggested, there might be many other cases where purchasing existing housing and taking it out of the speculative market might afford a more viable alternative than new construction.
While the majority of Angelinos no longer live in single-family houses and new housing construction is preponderantly multi-family, the suburban ideal of the single-family dwelling remains a prism through which other housing forms are viewed and judged. The Forum’s discussion series offered some glimpses into housing forms and political contexts which could offer both community and individual identity.