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Baldwin Hills Village shortly after completion

In 2001, Baldwin Hills Village, a private garden city development now called Village Green, was given National Historic Landmark status by the federal government while Aliso Village, a public housing project, was declared a slum and torn down in preparation for New Urbanist development under HUD’s Hope VI program. These projects were built in the same year, shared architects and architectural styles; their budgets, landscaping and planning strategies were similar, yet after 60 years one was valorized and the other razed. How could projects so strikingly alike at their inception follow such radically divergent paths and what can their histories tell us about the value of “good design?”

Both the Village Green and Aliso Village were built during an era when architects were passionate about their abilities to create a better world. “We must take architecture to the people and vice versa or kiss the boys goodbye,” proclaimed Robert Alexander, one of the Village Green’s architects who lived in the project with his family for 9 years after its completion. [2] An article in California Arts and Architecture detailing all 10 of Los Angeles’s original public housing projects built under the US Housing Act of 1937 asks, “When slum dwellers move into a modern housing development, what happens to them? Do they continue their old habits and former way of life or do they respond to their new environment and blossom out with new personalities?” [3] Citing a survey of improved resident behaviors as positive proof, the authors express a profound faith in the ameliorative effects of architecture.

Aliso Village during demolition

The designers of the Village Green and Aliso Village shared a strong belief in the power of community planning and landscape to shape a better way of life. The Village Green utilizes “superblock” planning, eliminating through streets and limiting parking to the periphery. The project groups one and two-storey bar-shaped buildings around 17 courtyards and three large, lushly planted common “greens” so that every unit has a landscaped view, private outdoor patio and use of the common park. Courts for car access alternated with the landscaped courtyards and contained a garage for every unit. Aliso Village also separated vehicular and pedestrian traffic and utilized courtyards to encourage the emergence of neighborhoods within the project. A continuous shade tree-lined paseo for pedestrians arced through the project and two- and three-storey C-, U- and H-shaped buildings enclosed yards with park-like settings. Both projects originally included community centers, playgrounds, tennis courts, child care facilities and wading pools and both were located adjacent to elementary schools and commercial strips. Both projects employed clean Modernist materials and detailing typical of the 40′s era.

In contrast with the enthusiasm and assurance of inter- and post-war housing architects, however, our collective American attitudes about housing, urbanism and landscape reflect much more ambivalence and are shaped by the maintenance of conflicting ideologies. As a nation we proclaim the value of individuality and choice, yet have a dearth of housing choices, all of which are dominated and judged by the suburban single family ideal. As Sherry Ahrentzen observed, “A panoramic view of contemporary housing reveals not vibrant diversity but pointless pastiche ? skin-deep architectural novelty – or cookie cutter conformity.” [4] In addition to our penchant for architectural pastiche, our approach to large-scale, long-term urban design lacks a dedicated and systematic philosophy. As a nation we continually yoke “together a desire for access to the unspoiled countryside and a persistent disregard for its long-term well-being and survival,” according to Leo Marx, resulting in sprawling, characterless low density development. [5] We only begrudgingly fund affordable public housing, yet the incredible federal subsidy that supports the dream of single family homeownership (from tax incentives to infrastructure) goes unrecognized. Public housing historian Lawrence Vale describes it as “a cruel but telling irony that what is called “subsidized housing” actually receives the least amount of government subsidy.” [6] The federal government itself shares our schizophrenia, demolishing the project it originally funded while simultaneously ensuring that the other is maintained as a valuable part of our cultural heritage. Thus, from the outset, the four elements which were woven together to create both the Village Green and Aliso Village, notions of the home, affordability, the landscape and the city, have at their core a deep rooted ambivalence which is at the source of Aliso Village’s failure and the Village Green’s success.

Aliso Village during demolition

The Village Green, from its inception, was closer to the preferred condition of the single family house. In terms of design, the Village Green can be seen as having most, if not all, of the amenities of the single family home, just in a collectivized rather than individualized way. Every unit has its own garage, no resident has to walk more than 50 feet from their car to their unit, back yard gardens are collectivized into a lush common green, and every unit has their own walled private green space and ground floor entry. In addition, the square footages of the units are high and the rooms large, there is ample storage and many units, though not all, have fireplaces and balconies, all of which have ensured that the project remained relevant to changing lifestyles. When the project was condo-ized in the 70′s, it moved even closer to the single family housing condition by allowing residents to own the interior of their units and giving responsibility for the maintenance of the project over to the residents themselves. Although it is easy to see how Aliso Village may have started out with the same goals as Village Green, initial cost cutting decisions and later changes by the Housing Authority forced the project further and further away from the single family house ideal. Units were accessed from a common exterior breezeway, common landscaped pedestrian spaces were eventually given back to the car and the courtyards were paved over. The density was twice that of the Village Green, square footages were small (approximately 800 square feet for a two-bedroom unit compared with an average of 1,200 square feet at Village Green), what little storage space was provided did not have doors and there were no showers, only bathtubs.

Being public and for the poor, Aliso Village was subject to many more regulations, standards and agendas than private development. The public housing program, it seems, was used to ameliorate everything but the housing crisis. It was used to provide jobs, stimulate the construction industry, clear slums and maintain practices of segregation. The persistent belief that public housing was un-American resulted in poor maintenance and general neglect. In addition, public housing was originally envisioned as non-permanent housing for the “submerged Middle Class,” not as permanent housing for generations of low-income families with their attendant social difficulties and need for coordinated services. The Village Green, though affordable, avoided many of these problems simply because it was a market rate private development.

Village Green and Aliso Village, however, both occupy the city and the landscape in ways that are still largely unfamiliar and divergent from American suburban development. Both were built on large tracts of land and to some degree impose their own order on the landscape outside of the urban fabric. The Village Green was built on former ranch land on the outskirts of the city, while Aliso Village was built under the pretense of slum clearance and supplanted an existing neighborhood of single family homes and tenements. It is the sheer exuberance of the landscape, coupled with the minimal presence of the buildings and lack of connection to the urban street grid which attract current residents to the Village Green, allowing them to overlook any problems they may have with the architecture and community layout. Residents are able to claim a connection to the landscape that is actually better than, and unavailable to, the residents of the single-family housing which surrounds the development. In addition, Village Green is located in Baldwin Hills, a neighborhood which has actually become quite central and has maintained its middle class status. Aliso Village, on the other hand, located in East Los Angeles, and has remained marginalized in its location, hemmed in by freeways and industrial development. Over time its original landscaping became so neglected and meager that it couldn’t be used to counteract potential residents’ architectural ambivalence and thus continued the cycle of neglect.

Aliso Village during demolition

What most people would find remarkable, or even outrageous, about this situation is not that Aliso Village was torn down, but rather that the Village Green persisted and was recognized for its design excellence. However, the problem lies precisely with the prevailing attitude which underlies this perspective, the belief that the single family house is the ideal, appropriate and preferred condition for all people. Current trends in affordable housing favor the pictorial, the picturesque and the traditional image of “home” in response to a real or perceived austerity in the modernist public housing projects built in the 40′s and 50′s. Far from being able to change the world, architecture’s role is reduced to that of representation in response to the perceived architectural, social and cultural abstraction or isolation of the “projects.” In “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Clement Greenberg argues that one of the true innovations of abstract painting was that it eliminated the “need to interpret painting from within the framework of representation. In other words . . . it frees abstraction from the necessity of having to be the negation of representation.” [7] Using a similar argument, only when affordable housing can free itself from being either the negation of the “American Dream” or its veneered simulation, will true architectural contributions to affordable housing be made. Good design, as it turns out, is no guarantee.

Project Information Village Green Aliso Village
Date Completed 1941-1942 1942
Architects Robert E. Alexander
Reginald D. Johnson
Lewis E. Wilson
Edwin D. Merrill
Clarence S. Stein
Housing Group Architects:
Ralph C. Flewelling
George J. Adams
Eugene Weston, Jr.
Lewis E. Wilson
Lloyd Wright
Landscape Architects Fred Barlow
Fred Edmunson
Fred Barlow
Katherine Bashford
Acres 69 34.3
Number of Units 627 802*
Units per Acre 9 19
Funding Private (FHA Insured) Public (US Housing Act of 1937)

Costs

Land Cost per Unit $314 $1022 (includes slum clearance)
Total Cost per Unit Excluding Land $4597 $4010
Total Cost per Unit Including Land $4911 $5032

Architecture

Number of Buildings 90 34
Building Type Bar Buildings C, H and U Courtyard
Buildings Slightly Pitched Roofs Flat Roofs
Units 55 One Story Bungalows
216 Two Story Townhouses
356 Flats
218 One Bedroom
378 Two Bedroom
156 Three Bedroom
22 Four Bedroom
Rooms per Unit 4.3 4.3
Height 1 and 2 Story 2 and 3 story
Construction Stucco and Wood Frame
9 % Exterior Masonry
Some Masonry, Some Stucco and Wood
Construction Stucco and Wood Frame
9 % Exterior Masonry
Some Masonry, Some Stucco and Wood
Garages 627 (in rows) None
Private Patios 627 None

Baldwin Hills Village, view of garages

*Aliso Village combined many units over time, reducing the number of overall units.

Compiled from: Stein, Clarence S. Towards New Towns for America. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1957, and Don Parson. Making a Better World: Public Housing and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles. Unpublished Manuscript.

Notes

[1] The title “Same Difference” was used by Leilani Trujilo for her project in a housing studio entitled “Dense Domesticity” co-taught, Winter Quarter, 2002 by Mark Mack and Liz Falletta. The title is used in a different context here.

[2] Pencil Points, September, 1944, p. 71

[3] California Arts and Architecture. May, 1943, p. 60

[4] “Choice in Housing,” Sherry B. Ahrentzen. Harvard Design Magazine, Summer, 1999, p.62.

[5] “The American Ideology of Space,” Leo Marx. Denatured Visions, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1991, p.76.

[6] From the Puritans to the Projects, Lawrence J. Vale. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000, p.7.

[7] What is Abstraction?, Andrew Benjamin. Academy Editions, London, 1996, p. 12.

Back to Forum Issue 3: Rethinking Housing