Since the boom of the early 1950s the response to increased demand for housing has been to build outwards. With Los Angeles and its adjoining counties spanning hundreds of square miles, planners have been virtually powerless to control the growth on any but a strictly regional level. From the taxing of resources to the dilemma of transportation, developers, too, have long recognized the disadvantages of expansion into the vast desert but have responded to consumer demand by continuing to build centrifugally.
In recent years, development of tract houses in some communities has given way to multi-story units. However, these seemingly obvious solutions do not accommodate the desire of many home owners, that of the private space afforded by the single family residence.
In an exhibit that recently closed at the LA Municipal Art Gallery Roger Sherman assembled several architectural firms to address the issue of housing in response to population growth in Southern California. Challenging standard building types accepted since World War II and admonishing the few recent attempts by developers to meet the demands of urban dwelling, the architects presented projects that acknowledge not only the basic demands of the maturing city but also the intangible desires of its inhabitants. To this end was proposed RE: American Dream.
Two issues were considered of primary importance. First was the need for increased urban density – or, as the Central Office of Architecture declared, “DENSIFY OR DIE.” Second was the acknowledgement of the single family residence as the icon of American capitalism, the American Dream.
Satisfying urban demands and suburban desires, efforts which better lend themselves to juxtaposition than marriage, required in most schemes a radical reinterpretation of a suburban aesthetic. All of the projects recognized the need for re-evaluating existing zoning laws which impose set-back requirements and restrict building heights.
The main focus of the designers was to take advantage of available space. Janek Bielski and Roger Sherman both approached this task by providing a range of options for residents, eliminating set-backs and creating courtyard spaces. Like their Mediterranean counterparts, these designs did not require the strict designation of interior and exterior space.
Johnson & Favaro and Guthrie+Buresh called for a redistribution of space, transferring unused private space to the public domain. Ingeniously expanding on this technique, Mary-Ann Ray’s designs used alleys and other voids between structures as the footprints for her buildings, folding them into the crevices of the urban mesh.
As if in response to the tract housing of the post-War era, most of the projects included several building types within their respective schemes. Unlike the Central Office of Architecture’s un-dimensional Love-it-or-Leave It approach, designs such as Ray’s designated housing types with specific occupants in mind. These included housing for the homeless, transients, singles and families, and those who work both in and away from the home.
Guthrie+Buresh also recognized the need to build above and around existing structures to increase the occupancy of single lots. Their strategies included constructing studios over garages and adding commercial space in lieu of front lawns in order to take full advantage of usable land.
Synonymous with the notion of suburbia is the desire of the single family home dweller to maintain the status quo. Revolutionary change runs counter to the outmoded fantasies of the average suburbanite. Whether these radical redefinitions would be embraced within their allotted contexts remains the crucial question. In a panel discussion on the final weekend of the exhibition the architects themselves agreed that the most effective test would be to build them and let reality be the judge.
Redefining the American Dream, although a seemingly Orwellian proposal, is presented with such grace and clarity in these projects that it is difficult to believe that somewhere, at some time, their precepts couldn’t be successfully applied. Still open to question, however, is whether a Los Angeles nearing the millennium is the proper proving ground. But, then, where better? These architects have called attention to the obsolescence of a desire to keep population densities low. One realizes looking at these elegant and inventive schemes the need to awake from our reverie, to awake to the reality of the Dream.