Our Urban Palimpsest
There is perhaps no other city in the modern world that produces as much cultural export as Los Angeles. Its image is relentlessly broadcast thanks to the ubiquity of the Hollywood machine; the sun, the trees, and the seemingly endless summers have caught the imagination of many a would-be Angelino for decades. It is novelty; it is adventure; it is California. It’s an idea that spurred a population boom that has been seemingly never-ending since the early 20th century, a boom with which our housing system has never been able to keep up.
This spirit has in no small way shaped how L.A.’s built environment has evolved. To paraphrase Reyner Banham, in a land where nothing officially existed absolutely anything became thinkable. We built as if this land was limitless, sanguine about molding the desert. There is a reason, after all, that Art and Architecture’s Case Study program had to be rooted here. Some of the most well-known progenitor homes to the program, in fact, were built for Phillip Novell: a physician-cum-pseudo-healer whose love for open, modern architecture was rooted in his love of nature and who firmly believed in—and extolled to his thousands of followers—the medicinal qualities of basking naked in the L.A. sunshine. That has always been L.A. (or at least the outsider’s view of it), a city fecund with optimistic zeal.
The expanse gave way to a crowded metropolis, however, one that bucked traditional notions of city-making. The postcard image of L.A. now belies a culturally diverse, complex, and increasingly unequal society. It is multi-nodal and amorphous; hard to describe but easy to know. In his recent book Everything Now, Rosecrans Baldwin describes the city as “the face of America’s housing crisis, the poster child for American hunger, a research experiment into income inequality gone horribly wrong—L.A. is both mega city and suburb, multicentered and scattered.” The gilded city has lost its sheen. Gusto has given way to gloom, especially for those most severely impacted by the acute housing shortage. The desert has evolved, and so too must our approach to how we build on it.
We now know better than to advocate for a sprawling suburbia as the California dream. The expanse has met its borders, and our vast population and beleaguered environment demand that we move away from prioritizing the one-home-per-lot approach. We must move toward thoughtful density. Without it, we can never hope to measurably address our severe housing shortage.
This word–density–is an expletive in certain circles of the city, conjuring images of towering apartment projects that rob neighborhoods of their character and seem anathema to L.A. living. Our city is not New York, nor should it try to be. But large housing projects are not the only path forward, nor are they preferable. When 74% of residential land in L.A. is zoned for single family housing, however, there is ample room for thoughtful growth between the two extremes. This, the “missing middle,” is what I focus on as an architect and as a developer, and it is what I will be writing about in this newsletter from various perspectives.
Missing middle housing refers to a range of multiunit or clustered housing types that are typically compatible in scale with single-family homes. In L.A., lots are rife with potential for this sort of low-rise density, and the market is hungry for it. Such housing meets the growing demand for walkable urban living, responds to shifting household demographics, and provides more housing choices at different price points. It allows us to address the needs of a broader swath of our city.
The urban historian Kenneth Jackson wrote that “housing is an outward expression of the inner human nature; no society can be fully understood apart from the residences of its members.” Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a housing nerd, but I often find myself thinking about this line. As a nation, we’ve understood this, and we’ve known the deleterious effects of housing shortages for a long time. In fact, as National Housing Policy in the Federal Housing Act of 1949: we declared that the general welfare and security of the nation depended on “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.”
On this point, I think it is fair to say we have faltered. In large part, this is because of our national fixation on the traditional single-family home, often to the detriment of other solutions. We need more options to add supply, more of a “yes, and” approach to housing. As I write this introduction, for example, the median home price in Los Angeles is $922,000, and the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,300. The L.A. Times just estimated that a household would need to make over $220,000 a year to comfortably afford a median priced home in Los Angeles, but the median household income stands at just over $65,000. Something is broken, and no amount of governmental or fiscal policy (including interest rate hikes) can address this without addressing the fundamental imbalance between demand and supply. There are more households trying to scratch out a living in Los Angeles than we have homes for. We need to build more housing.
It is a problem that has been pronounced for decades, but I see reason for hope. Like its residents, L.A. is ever-changing, constantly inventing and reinventing itself. It is a dynamic history, its streets a tapestry of our collective building memory. We get to build upon our work and correct our mistakes. This is, of course, the only way to keep moving forward inclusively. Our city is a living record upon which we need to continually strive to improve, a palimpsest of our attempts at city making.
Even after so many decades (or maybe because of them?), L.A.’s impact on our national cultural identity continues to grow. The author and L.A. native Hector Tobar noted that the city appears to the twenty-first century as New York did to the twentieth, “the crucible where a new national culture is being molded, where its permutations and contradictions can be seen most clearly.” What we do here—how we build here—matters, and it is important that we keep trying a variety of solutions to improve our circumstances.