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The 49-unit Essex by Smith and Others. Its title salutes a class of WW II aircraft carrier

Currently nearing completion in the Little Italy area of downtown San Diego, the forty-unit Essex is Smith and Others’ most ambitious building to date. With its four “funnels” towering over the adjacent 5 freeway, this building is surely a landmark in the making. The Essex, however, is no isolated achievement, but needs to be seen as the latest installment of a pioneering research and build project that offers a radical model for living and working in the city. This project started on a modest scale with the GoHomes in Del Mar in the 1980s; they were followed by a move to downtown San Diego in 1991 and the completion of two larger scale projects: the Richman Purman building on Cortez Hill and the Merrimac in Little Italy.

These buildings have all been built by Smith and Others themselves. Although they continue to work with clients on other projects, in these buildings they are the “developers” of their own architectural research: concept, design, financing, and, in most cases, construction all fall within their field of action. Smith and Others is, therefore, no ordinary architectural practice, limited to the provision of architectural services, but one that is actively involved with all aspects of building production. “Smith” is Ted Smith; “Others” are the various partners ? Kathy McCormick, Robin Brisebois (for the GoHomes), and Lloyd Russel (for the Merrimac and subsequent projects) ? who have come together to conceive and execute these remarkable projects.

The catalyst for this work was the frustration felt by many architects: that clients were not allowing them to build the architecture that they wanted to build. In the case of Smith, he was tired of designing luxury custom houses for people with whom he seemed to have little in common. Needing living space himself and with little money to build, he formed a partnership with others in the same situation to construct the first GoHome. The merging of architectural experimentation and affordability remains at the heart of all their projects.

The residents of the GoHomes were often artists who were renting loft spaces in San Diego and being driven out by high rent; people who would be happy to accept Smith’s reshuffling of housing standards away from such things as built-in closets and separate kitchens, in favor of such things as high ceilings, large windows, and basic materials. Cubic footage counts here for more than simple floor area. Smith realized that there was a niche market for his approach, a demand that was not being satisfied by the real estate industry. There has never been a problem finding residents for his buildings.

This approach has been successfully used by Smith and Others from the GoHomes onwards. The “Pro Forma,” or financial program, is the basis of each project, varying according to the circumstances. As Smith is fond of saying, the market, rather than the existing physical fabric of the city, is the real context for architecture in Southern California. Because they are creatively manipulating the Pro Forma, they are able experiment with the actual substance of the architecture, in ways that other architects can only dream about, especially as they usually build much of it themselves. In fact, the “numbers” could even be said to generate many of the ideas of the project. The Merrimac, for example, was conceived in the context of the lifeless four-storey-over-parking condominium blocks favored by developers. Smith’s Pro Forma proposed that a lower density ? three story with parking on grade behind the building ? could actually result in a higher yield on the property, taking into account such things as savings on security guards and elevators. Inexplicably, the Pro Forma, the key to the project, was not published when the project received a 1997 PA award. Creative financial design is not, apparently, part of progressive architecture.

The Richman Purman Building on Cortez Hill by Smith and Others

Why write about Smith and Others in the context of affordable housing? It has always been their aim to make housing that is as affordable as possible, but in as far as the term “affordable housing” is a euphemism for government subsidized housing (and only affordable due to these subsidies), there is no direct connection. Although their way of working evolved as a means to escape the impositions of the real estate industry, the governmental oversight involved in designing “affordable housing” would be similarly constricting. Zoning and building codes are also pushed to their limits, in ways that would be unimaginable for “affordable housing.”

If Smith and Others’ work has no immediate relevance to the “housing crisis,” when defined as the undoubtedly desperate need for more government subsidized housing, there is, none the less, much to be learnt from it about housing. Even if, in the end, it questions the very notion of housing.

It has become clear to me that there are two fundamentally different ways to think about housing. The first sees housing in terms of a multiplication of prototypical family units, either spread horizontally or stacked vertically, depending on the required density. This is, of course, the basis of all 20th century housing (think of that basic text of the third year housing studio, Sherwood’s “Modern Housing Prototypes”). The second gives primacy to a building, as the basic building block of the city, and then splits up the building into rentable or saleable portions, according to market conditions: the “multi-person building” (forget “multi-family” ? far too restrictive in defining how the space is to be used).

This is a structural, rather than an architectural distinction. While there are notable examples of 20th century housing in which multiplication leads to a powerful architectural “whole” (for example, Taut’s Hufeisen Siedlung, to take a horizontal model, and Le Corbusier’s UnitÈ d’Habitation, to take a vertical one), they remain, at heart, multiples of the unit, rather than parts of the city. One may multiply the unit, and make wonderful housing, but multiply that again, and one does not make a city. This was found out at great cost, for example, by the East Germans, who attempted to solve the housing crisis through the mass production of units and destroyed their cities in the process.

The “building as unit” approach, on the other hand, situates the building as a mediating structure between the city and the individual. The building is not as complex as the city, yet a reflection of its complexity. With this approach, living and work space are inseparably part of the complex and evolving structure of a city. We are all familiar with ad hoc versions of this system, such as large Victorian houses being split up into apartments or bed-sits. In London, one often finds a one bedroom flats or bed-sits situated incongruously in the high-ceilinged formal rooms of former single family townhouses (which can actually be quite wonderful).

In Berlin, this idea became typified in the nineteenth century “Mietshaus” building type, built in vast numbers as the basic unit of development in the rapidly growing industrial city (“Mietshaus” translates literally as rental building). Although the buildings contained a spectrum of spaces that had some correlation to social conditions, from grander rooms on the street to basic spaces around the yard, the buildings were remarkably open ended in the way that the floors could be split up and how the rooms should be used, either for living or working in. Small-scale fabrication was often integrated into apartments. When renovating these houses today, it is surprising how often one discovers openings prepared in the masonry walls, ready to be opened up as the need arises. And today, under completely different social conditions, these buildings prove remarkably well adapted for absorbing the contemporary life of the city: for example, micro apartments, family apartments for various cultures, or live/ work spaces.

The Merrimac by Smith and Others.

Although the flexibility of commercial space is clearly a precedent for Smith and Others, underlined by their preferred use of the term “suite” rather than “unit” or “apartment,” they seem to have discovered the idea of the multi-person building largely through the unusual circumstances surrounding the construction of the first GoHome.

The GoHome’s site was zoned for single family residence, but, in order to make the project pencil out financially, there needed to be four parties living in it. They shared one kitchen, not so much from the ideal of communal cooking and eating, but because this was the only way to slip the building into the R1 zone. The basic spatial module, repeated four times, is a twelve foot wide, twenty foot deep double height space, that can be equipped with a small bathroom, sleeping loft, and can be used by one person (or perhaps a couple) as a live/work space. This spatial module, however, is not large enough to acquire the autonomy of a genuine “unit”: they only work in conjunction with the shared kitchen. The structure is actually much closer to the London townhouse divided up into bed-sits than any kind of multi-unit housing. Occupying an ambiguous territory between a four-plex and a single family house, it is a surprisingly complex, and potentially flexible, social structure.

Following the architectural and financial success of the first GoHome, the “unitless” spatial organization, using this basic module ? subsequently enlarged to thirty feet deep and equipped with cooking facilities ? has been a recurring feature in all their buildings, without ever becoming standardized. The exigencies of each project have always resulted in a new twist to the basic idea.

In the Merrimac, for example, financing and parking requirements made it advantageous to plan the building as four “units” that could be informally split up into smaller “suites” after final inspection. This means that the spaces have linking doorways and could easily be recombined if required. In the Essex, the ambitiously cantilevered parking deck, afforded by the sloping site, results in some extraordinary cave-like spaces underneath. The parking deck itself will be used as communal open space. Such spaces could never come out of a prototype driven approach, much less be countenanced by “affordable housing.” Yet with their poured in place concrete surfaces, strange geometries, and relatively dim lighting, they will probably prove to be very successful “cool” living space (for people who do not want much direct sunlight: Smith points out to the number of computer users who inhabit their buildings and says that in the Merrimac they often complain about too much light). With a clear separation between the enveloping structure and dividing walls, these are perhaps their most radical spaces yet. Smith is always prepared to confront unconventional space, and to imagine ways in which it can be used and the qualities it can have, rather than measuring it against a conventional model.

Why should such experimentation be of any relevance in face of the enormity of the housing crisis? Why not carry on building housing units for families as before, only more of them and better? Can one afford to do anything else?

It is increasingly clear that the housing unit is today more of a bureaucratic convenience, than a meaningful vessel for our society. Developed originally in 19th century England by social hygienists with the aim of reforming the urban poor, the housing unit made sense in the context of 20th century industrial production. Today, with the restructuring of the economy, the home office, part-time work, the decreasing predominance of the nuclear family, alternative living arrangements, and immigration, the housing unit is too rigid a vessel to cope with the complex needs of a contemporary culture and city. The continuing compartmentalization of the life of the city into separate spheres for work, the family, entertainment, and transportation does not make social, ecological, or economic sense. New patterns of urban life are characterized by social, spatial and temporal overlaps, above all between work and other activities. The increasing complexity of the everyday encourages renewed spatial density, not in the sense of overcrowding, but as a more flexible and ingenious use of available space. This can happen at every scale of the city: neighborhood, block, parcel, building, floor, and room.

To flexibly respond to this complexity, the new urban building model would be functionally neutral, neither an “office nor a “home.” Definitions of distinct building types would be blurred or extinguished in favor of a more neutral container in which the varied and perhaps yet unexplored scenarios of everyday life can unfold.

Both the historical precedent of the Berlin “Mietshaus,” and the buildings of Smith and Others offer a fresh way forward in an otherwise frustratingly deadlocked field. By presenting the user with unconventional spaces and a relatively open-ended structure that avoids the determinism of conventional housing, they return dwelling to an active process.

An image that Smith frequently uses is that of the ship: specifically, battleships, which carry a working crew. Everyone is busy, space is at a premium and frequently has to serve more than one function. They do not carry passengers. The Merrimac was a Civil War ironclad ship, the Essex was a class of WW II aircraft carrier. Contrast this work beehive with Le Corbusier’s celebrated use of the transatlantic liner as an image for housing. The grand ocean-liner’s inhabitants are paid passengers, spending their languid days idly while the crew serves them, takes care of the business of sailing the ship, alert to the changing conditions of the sea and the sky.

I know I’d prefer to be on board the Essex than the Titanic.

GoHome #1. Photographed by Tim Street-Porter

Back to Forum Issue 3: Rethinking Housing