Los Angeles, CA
Almost anything can be taken as a starting point for architecture, and architecture can have something to say about almost anything. Even those things that seem purposely antithetical to the spirit of architecture, like real estate development, can inspire a design and provide suggestive insights for its elaboration. In fact, this contrarian approach has been institutionalized in the Design Intelligence school of design, which is a slacker-wiseguy outgrowth of deconstruction. DI uses the powerful logical tools perfected by Derrida, with the same ironic enjoyment of unassailable absurdity, but directs them towards cultural habits and their economic implications, rather than the classic texts of philosophy. Real estate development is particularly ripe for this treatment, inhabiting a fragile zone of cultural competition where roots vie with (upward) mobility, stability with fashion, conformity with individuality, and ordinariness with style, all preying on the consumer’s fear of comparative chumpness. Indeed, the field is so vulnerable that most DI adventures in real estate development have been unable to refrain from sadistic parody or smug academic irrelevance.
Another reason for this carefree disdain is that the DI architects have not had to use their own money on their schemes. To paraphrase Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be saddled with a half-million dollar mortgage in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." So the question for a firm actually putting its own money on the line is whether something more serious can result from this approach, or at least something that does not trade too heavily on its cleverness or irony. The question is whether the market can be gamed—to the benefit of all, architecture, investor and homeowner.
In fact, this approach has been common to J,P:A work from the beginning: push the obvious to an extreme where its hidden assumptions become visible, forcing the architecture beyond or other than it might naturally go, always with at least a little humor, or at least appreciation of underlying absurdity. All the work in the two volumes of the monograph so far demonstrates this attitude (from the Astronaut’s Memorial—which renders literal the poetic notion of astronaut’s names floating in the sky—to the SCI-Arc board room, PRO/con system or the Serra Residence, which use movement to solve a problem intractable to conventional fixed solutions), but nothing was more challenging in this regard than trying to squeeze some such juice out of this opportunity in Silverlake. This project for a triplex residence inaugurated J,P:A’s ongoing adventure in real estate development, which seemed like it might be a way to run a practice without the inconvenience of clients.
A mercenary read of the market at the time this project was initiated pointed towards the loft as the appropriate model for the target audience. The essential loft is a larger (taller) than normal empty volume, open on at least one end and closed on the sides, with few if any internal partitions; the term is often confused with the mezzanine that might be built within the space, taking advantage of the height, and overlooking the remaining open area. This was the program for this project, which J,P:A pushed as far as practicable. As is often the case with DI work, a happy confluence of factors reinforce this decision to take the type at its word and produce a LOFT: the city’s parking requirements are calculated on the basis of habitable room count, for example, so if each residence counts only as a single room the fewest possible parking spaces are needed, reducing the excavation and construction costs.
On the design side, the LOFTness is emphasized in several ways, including the relegation of all fixed program elements to a “thick wall zone” between the units (enhancing sound isolation), the adoption of a consistent materiality on the walls and ceiling, and the addition of a simple open mezzanine surface, slung transversely across the volume, approximately in the middle so that the space reads all around it. The thick wall service zone recalls the “wet-” or “plumbing core” of yore, in that it houses all of the kitchen and bathroom fixtures, as well as the water heater and HVAC equipment, but it also incorporates the rest of the residence’s typically enclosed spaces, such as closets, laundry area, Murphy bed. Basically nothing is allowed to stray out into the volume of the LOFT and compromise its emphatic openness, except clearly mobile furniture. Beyond this literal assignment of program, the detailing reinforces the primacy of the main volume: the mezzanine is rendered as if it were free to move up and down the length of the space (perhaps to provide access for the full extent of the upper reaches of the thick wall service zone), in the manner of the traveling platform in the Brill residence (and is structured so that a later infusion of cash would allow this to happen); the interior finishes of the envelope are arranged according to a modular pattern that allows the sliding panelization of the thick wall service zone to carry up into the ceiling and down the other side, defining areas for lighting and power access, and maintaining a consistent enclosure treatment.
The restrained articulation of the massing emphasizes the positive pressure of the unitary volumes within, as they jostle for advantage on the site. The three units demonstrate a complex consistency: variations on the theme of dumb box, set back and forth on the site just enough to differentiate them and provide for the varied entry locations. Clad in a uniform palette of corrugated metal panels that vary orientation by unit, this organization is embroidered with a disciplined system of steel sash, stairs, decks and guardrails. A single access from the street side to the rear yard is provided in a narrow slot-like space between two of the units, occasioning a sloping wall for light infiltration and a figural presence that sets off the otherwise staid volumes. This slot sucks the articulated access stair up into and through it, tying the composition to the cmu base.
Location: Los Angeles, CA, US