The Case Against Standardization by Morris Newman

Meridian Court

If an architect had designed the human hand, Bill Mitchell told his students at UCLA in the early 1980s, all the fingers would be equally long.

Everybody laughs when they hear that joke because they instantly recognize its truth: There is something standardizing in the architectural instinct. But why is it simply a matter of a lack of imagination, or sheer fatigue, that makes architects stack housing units atop one another like Lego bricks? Or does the quest for order satisfy itself prematurely in the simplest, most static arrangements?

This is not an idle question. Density is coming quickly to Los Angeles, as it is to every other major American city with a healthy economy. (With some justification, Stefanos Polyzoides likes to say that density is already here.) The design problem, which is also a public-policy problem, is how to bring density to the existing streets and neighborhoods of the city, without turning pleasant neighborhoods into places like North Hollywood, filled with rows of identical, cheap, speculative boxes with minimal landscaping, useless open space and cavernous, gated garages. Multi-family housing needs some new models.

Seven Fountains

Widespread in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, courtyard housing is an attractive alternative to the standard developer formula. Essentially, such housing consists of row houses wrapped around an open space, with front doors opening onto the court and rear doors opening onto alleys. (The bungalow court is the detached-housing variant.) The courtyard is a carefully designed space, often with formal gardens, water and seating. The appeal of such housing is easy to see: Far from being a frill or a designer doo-dad, the courtyard is an essential element in the life of the homes immediately surrounding the space and a building block of coherent urbanism for an entire urban district. For people living within the courtyard, the space provides a sense of safety and privacy; the courtyard is a quasi-public space that mediates between the home and the street. For the city at large, the courtyard is an urbane housing type that can fit well into a variety of different settings, including single-family housing.

Strangely, almost no courtyards have been built in Los Angeles since the early 1930s. Polyzoides, who runs an architectural and planning practice in Pasadena with his wife and partner Elizabeth Moule, has attempted to revive the form in recent years with about a dozen projects in Southern California. Three of the most recent projects (the Meridian Courts in Pasadena, the Seven Fountains project in West Hollywood and a mixed-use project at a future light-rail station in South Pasadena) show Moule and Polyzoides trying to adapt the courtyard to modern-day requirements, while issuing an implicit challenge to the building industry about standardization.

Seven Fountains Plan

It might have been understandable if the architects had attempted to replicate one of the superb Hollywood and West Hollywood courtyards that Polyzoides had documented, along with co-authors Roger Sherwood and James Tice, in their Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles (Princeton Architectural Press, 1992.) But importing an antique model, however admirable, to present-day Los Angeles, is not the approach of a real architect. “Modern architecture is not about style,” Polyzoides said in conversation. “The original intent of modernism was about solving new problems.” Each new site, each budget, must be approached as a new problem, while preserving the basic typology of the courtyard. Typology is a crucial issue for Polyzoides, who says his thinking was deeply influenced by Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City. According to Rossi, type is “something that is permanent and complex, a logical principal that is prior to form and that constitutes it.” He quotes the 18th Century French theorist, Quatremere de Quincy, who contrasts the notion of the model, an inflexible prototype which “must be repeated such as it is,” with type, which allows designers to “conceive works that do not resemble one another at all.” Hence, “everything is precise and given in the model; everything is more or less vague in the type.”

Polyzoides’ design method demonstrates his respect for typology. Like a town planner, before he lays out the housing, he locates the courtyards, the landscaping and the parking. The housing units are then arranged around those conditions. This is key to his non-standardized approach. The typical developer would arrange the units, usually at the maximum density allowed by zoning, and then carve out some space for planting, patios or a central courtyard after the fact. Although nearly all small apartment buildings have courtyards of some kind or another, they are rarely well designed or inviting spaces. I recently visited a down-market building in Hollywood that was full of children, and yet the central courtyard was completely empty, a mute indictment of the undesigned, unappealing quality of the space.

Seven Fountains Section

The least complex of the Moule and Polyzoides’ recent projects are the Meridian apartments, which the architects themselves developed on the rear of their office building, a former house designed by Wallace Neff. Here is the typological diagram is plain: 10 units arranged around a long, central courtyard that is about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide, a width dictated by Pasadena codes. Here, the extant code diminished the success of the design. Polyzoides has complained that he designed the courtyard to be 36 feet wide, a precious four feet which would have created larger, more generous units.

Like the other two projects discussed here, this project is wood-frame (Type V) construction, built above a two-story subterranean garage. The cost was about $140 per square foot, which is higher than many speculative projects but still justifiable by the high prevailing rents in Pasadena.

In all three of these courtyard designs, Polyzoides has adopted a “contextual” style: The white-stucco Meridian complex joins seamlessly with the Neff building, while the courtyards of the South Pasadena light-rail project echo the gables and porches of surrounding Craftsman bungalows. The issue of style, of course, is a hotly contested area between Polyzoides and some other architects. In a chapter on style in Charter of the New Urbanism (McGraw Hill, 2000) Polyzoides argues against the self-regarding, fashionable architecture, or what he derides as the “Architecture of Time,” as opposed to contextual design, which is guided more by “critical design choices across time.” This is an important issue that needs a fuller airing elsewhere. In short, Polyzoides is correct in criticizing the non-contextual nature of much of current architecture. But the New Urbanism has already been used in some cases, wrongly I think, to justify the construction of historicist or pseudo-historicist projects that are stridently inauthentic and which buy into an unhealthy cultural mood of regression and nostalgia. In addition, few architects can design convincingly in historical styles. Even skilled practitioners risk pastiche.

Mission Meridian Model

These arguments, however, seem almost beside the point when we look at a project like the 20-unit Seven Fountains in West Hollywood. Moule and Polyzoides have taken a style that be might regarded as bankrupt “the deracinated Mediterranean that carpets much of Southern California” and has turned out a beautiful, intelligent, supple building, full of formal beauty and surprise. The moral of the story, if it needs to be said, is that style is secondary to the deeper issues of architectural thinking. Insofar as it is not “abstract,” Seven Fountains is not a modernist building. But it is a completely contemporary building, with many unshowy lessons learned from ancients and moderns alike. Here, on a roomier site of 180 s.f. by 160 s.f. the courtyard typology is used with virtuosity and freedom to create a series of interconnecting courtyards, each with its own character. A notch is cut out of the front elevation to create a walled courtyard which hides the entrance to the subterranean garage.

In the interior of the project, a “green” courtyard preserves a specimen tamarisk palm. The large courtyard in the center, unlike the comparatively simple courts in the surrounding historic projects, is a complex and restless space that wraps around the buildings, and reveals a series of “hidden,” secondary courtyard spaces, one after another, as visitors walk through the complex. Polyzoides says he is particularly proud of the asymmetry of the project, which hearkens back to the asymmetry of Mission-style architects like Wallace Neff, and in no way resembles production housing. Although the rents are high end, the actual cost is about $140 per square foot.

While the architects did not make any overt allowances for sustainability, the courtyards were designed to maximize sunlight and ventilation for all units; each unit has windows on both sides to allow cross-ventilation.

A transit-related project shows the potential of the courtyard type to expand into a large-scale urban scheme. In the Mission-Meridian project in South Pasadena (not to be confused with the similarly named Meridian apartments discussed above) Polyzoides has replaced a row of dilapidated single-family bungalows with a variety of units dispersed around three different courtyards. The 67-unit project contains a wide variety of housing types, including two- and three-story townhomes, flats, lofts and three single-family homes on the north end. To make the project palatable to the immediate neighborhood, the three courtyards are arranged behind what appears to the facades of three Craftsman bungalows. The scheme may serve as a prototype of how to build medium-density projects in existing single-family neighborhoods, without disrupting the traditional character or scale of the neighborhoods. Although this stick-built project has a high construction cost of about $300 per square foot, much of that cost goes to the public garage; by itself, the housing costs about $100 per square foot.

Home-building is a hide-bound trade. Moule and Polyzoides have yet to convince builders that their non-standard projects can be built as economically as the standardized housing products. If nothing else, these projects should convince builders that courtyards areversatile, neighborly and allow architects and developers to combine different kinds of units easily into a single project. They are well accepted by the public, and hence will be acceptable to developers, at least those who do not need to “max out” their sites with the highest permissible number of units. The remaining and urgent question is how can codes be changed to encourage courtyards and other forms of housing that are desirable from an urban design standpoint, and discourage cut-rate dingbats and shadowy sunken garages?

As always, the answer lies in the political process, which is no less important than esthetic theory or building technology in making our cities into places in which we want to live. For courtyards to flourish again, the political environment as well the urban context must be supportive.

Mission Meridian

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