Elizabeth Timme is an architect who wants to use the power of design and architecture to build power and resiliency in working class communities of color. LA Forum Co-VP of Information Antonio Pacheco caught up with Timme to discuss her growing interest in collective housing models and the role architects can play in working outside power structures to refine the work they do and the communities they serve.

This interview was conducted on March 30, 2021.


You recently expressed dissatisfaction with the individual, capitalist-centered approaches current housing discourse revolves around. Can you elaborate?

After having had the privilege of teaching a housing studio at the Cal Poly Pomona School of Architecture with majority BIPOC students, I realized that culturally we (architects namely) are not talking about housing in the right way. In our studio we took canonical architectural projects that were single family housing and turned them into collective housing. The studio was co-taught with Chaz Kern, who is leading our backyard homes work at LA-Más and is a member of Design as Protest.

Over the course of the semester, Chaz and I realized that the majority of projects we learn from in our training as architects do not communicate that the housing and public spaces we design are for Black and brown people; that’s a disempowering experience for a BIPOC student. So, we shifted the conversation in the studio towards discussing the inherent resilience in communities of color, all of the incredible sustainable ways that communities of color thrive; Even still, I wasn’t immune from bias.

One instance sticks out in my memory: I kept asking a student in our studio why they didn’t have a window in their bedroom redesign (Hi Klaude, if you are reading this, again my apologies for this moment) of the iconic Albert Frey House II redesign. Using bamboo and reorienting the program layout, he redesigned the house with the Modernist five points, but we were getting into this debate on why the bedrooms didn’t have windows. I was telling him about how beds had to face windows and natural light. He kept saying that it wasn’t important to him. It was becoming a circular conversation, and we were both getting frustrated. He shared that in the Philippines it wasn’t a value to look out but rather to look in: to the house, to the kitchen, to the family, and see where other people in the household were in the routine of their day. He flatly said, ‘We didn’t have bedrooms with windows looking out, so I’m not going to do that.’ It was a very awesome and complicated moment where I realized most of what I know about what housing is supposed to look like, or be, is deeply flawed. I realized that although I have the values of fairness and inclusion, this student had to stand up to me because I was unaware of my own bias that western models of housing are ‘right.’

How did this conversation impact your thoughts about single-family housing as it’s designed in the US?

These strategies are not considered in single-family living as we normally understand it in the United States, so it was essential that we bring these ideas into how we were thinking about adapting single-family housing in our studio. Some students took a site and built inter-generational housing in that space, some for seniors, some for large families, some did shared housing models. At the end of it, though, I walked away as an instructor feeling mixed because everything we envisioned in this studio was still predicated on the site of a single-family home. In retrospect, this may have been needlessly limiting the students’ abilities to employ the knowledge they already have about architecture strategies which are valuable.

In case I’m not being clear, this student knew how to reinvent single-family housing before he even became an architect – just like every other student in the studio. This is one of so many instances I’ve had throughout my career where it’s painfully obvious that conversations about housing are not centered on communities of color with indigenous practices of sustainable living, especially in the ways we approach architectural strategies and speculative projects. This moment was just a microcosm of that.

What are your thoughts on ADUs, which are not just popular in Los Angeles, but a national hot topic among many interested in architecture, planning, and development?

When we started our Backyard Homes program, it was really on the heels of an A+D Museum show we had done and I was into the idea that we could develop a model to subvert and reinvent the profoundly racist pretext of suburbia. When we were working on those early designs I kept wondering what would Ed Ruscha design if he was a contemporary architect, faced with critiquing single-family housing, sprawl, and suburbia. Would it all be on fire? Would it look like a scene from Edward Scissorhands in vibrant pastels with so much resonant emptiness?

In the end, however, I think it’s a toxic idea that we can reinvent suburbia because it’s a conversation where we are centering the few people who can afford to have a lawful home. We are reinforcing their elite status by asking them to ‘save’ those at the margins, we are centering their privilege in making a concession to share their backyard but not limit their ability to profit. We were focused on building these individual homeowners’ capacity in a singular way – rather than focusing on a collective building of power for a community-shaped approach to housing.

Looking at what happened at Echo Park this last week… My children were looking over my shoulder as we watched live streams from different activists I follow, they were confused as to why a jail was better than a park? I’m confused about that too. Why are all of us participating in these circular conversations around making capitalist-centered solutions work? It feels like there is such a big chasm between the architectural and political conversations. The architectural conversation shouldn’t be how efficient we can get with our technological solutions to cut costs while embedding design, but rather, how are we going to challenge the land-use of a park by demonstrating that any use needed (housing, for example) is acceptable? What temporary structures are we going to build to do that? Why aren’t we asking Eli Broad to not build a museum but instead commit to funding these acts of reclaiming our city through demonstrating that housing is a basic human right? Dude, it’s opposite day in the land of architecture and architects sometimes, you know?

Oh, I know. So you’re saying architects and designers should think of ways for working outside the system?

There continues to be this myth that if we play within the system, that the system can accommodate those who are excluded from the system, but the truth is the system was not built for the marginalized. The system was built to marginalize.

But I also don’t want to sound like I’m out here burning my bra, because I acknowledge that for many I might be sounding very radical, which also isn’t accurate. With our ADU work, I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish working within the system of capitalism…by trying to expand the framework of what, at the time, was a very narrow field of affordable housing, while also trying to expand the discussion of what ADUs could do. We wanted to create a larger menu of options in the affordable housing conversation. We were also really pushing for there to be an ability for housing, but especially ADUs, to not be this rarified object but be affordable, inclusive, and have a vernacular identity.

While working in these communities we saw how hard it is for those with lower incomes to access financing, often not having the “right” assets, carrying too much debt to qualify, etc. Even the single-family home owners who do manage to get to this rarified place of homeownership are going to continue to miss out on the development opportunities because they will be excluded from pulling a second mortgage on their home to build a new ADU.

We started to ask ourselves, “What do reparations look like for redlining?” And, “how can we be involved in an architectural and urban planning strategy that can serve equity?” But this is the part that sucks about working in the system – we still didn’t really get to work with and support low income homeowners. First of all, without subsidies…which are rote in affordable housing projects and given to developers, it was hard to find income that would support even a modest construction project. Secondly, the fact that we had seriously progressive financial partners working overtime to make the financing work for just the moderate income homeowners to build Section 8 ADUs….that got the office questioning the impact of a program like the one we created. If this is the deal, if even our LA homeowners, who have this precarious but tangible advantage — if a significant number of them are financially “untouchable” — we have to open up a larger conversation about the way we are investing our time in building housing.

At the end of the day, we were building for a homeowner at an individual capacity, but this is the wrong approach. The sustainable strategy is building power within communities. For architects to be accomplices in this we need to lend our skills to negotiate with existing power structures, to go deeper in our commitments to those who have been placed at the margins. Property is capital, ownership is power. This is what opens the door for generational wealth to be passed down through communities of color. As a professional group we have the ability to step outside of the profession to build an alternative path for structural change.

What are some community-led models that you’ve seen for building power within communities?

Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) is a good example. They have helped stabilize Little Tokyo so that the neighborhood remains resilient–how is this possible? They have a thoughtful, resourceful approach of developing senior housing, affordable housing, buying up commercial properties — a holistic approach for how people can have that live/work experience while being a person of color. It’s a total community approach of collective power-building. Why aren’t architects partnered with CDCs [Community-based Development Corporations] to develop housing models organized around how neighborhoods are going to evolve over the next ten years?

Putting individual-based development on a pedestal glorifies the American Dream, which we know does not really exist since it is predicated on people coming here and making their own way, but only as long as they are white and middle class. It’s an anemic model, there are a lot of weaknesses in it. The pandemic has exposed what does not work about the individual approach, things like our mercadito and mutual aid market are starting to talk about systems of resilience that operate outside of capitalism; at the end of the day these models are not as powerful as capitalism but they are a more sustainable long-term approach, and they already operate in communities of color — babysitting, phone trees — these communities already operate within a framework of necessity.

It’s interesting to listen to you talk about working outside the system in this way. For me, and I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way, architects and planners are agents of the state, right? You help people pull permits, you abide by building code, you interface between the governmental bureaucracy and your clients — How do you reconcile these two approaches?

An urban planner said ‘Our chief role is to perpetuate the inequity and our purpose is to enforce this inequity and if you love being a planner, you have to betray your profession.’ I agree with this framing. Designers have to actively reinforce models of sharing, models for centering people of color and BIPOC communities, and for de-centering design.

In our A+D ADU proposal back in 2015, we put forward a collective model for ADU housing that showed what it’d look like for multiple ADUs to be strung together on a block, and other models with four dwellings on two parcels, etc. Now state policy is allowing for three units on every formerly R-1 parcel. We tried to have an intentional conversation for how to break the zoning code as it existed, and worked on proposing alternatives built from the community level that offer new models, but it’s hard to see it from the outside. I chose to break those rules in a way that is intentional; I guess the first five years of LA-Más was really about doing that.

There are implicit and explicit rules that govern how architecture participates in social justice that have a lot more to do with class than anything else. If you are intentionally listening to and centering projects that include community ownership you have to write your own rules and to do it. We have to reinvent what the point of the profession is.

(A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the housing studio Elizabeth Timme referenced in this interview was taught at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. We regret the error.)

Photo Credits: Timme questions how architects can use their expertise to challenge land-use frameworks like those that recently led to the forced eviction of homeless residents of Echo Park. Image: Wikpedia. 
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