Michael Maltzan Puts His “Urban Mind” to Housing LA’s Homeless

His work for the homeless in Los Angeles is a new paradigm for social housing.

OCCUPATION: Architect, landscape designer
AFFILIATION: Michael Maltzan Architecture
LOCATION: Los Angeles

“It drives me nuts when people say, ‘It’s great, you’re doing socially conscious projects.’ As if all my other projects are socially unconscious,” says Michael Maltzan, the 52-year-old Los Angeles architect. “It’s all of a piece for me. The only way culture survives is if it is elastic.” Elasticity—of form, idea, and intent—is what Maltzan strives for, but “socially conscious” is what gets all of the attention.

We’re standing in the courtyard of his first solo project, the still-evolving Inner City Arts (ICA) campus, a bright spot on the gritty edge of downtown Los Angeles, where a dedicated staff provides innovative arts education to public school students. ICA is still a touchstone for Maltzan—its easy grouping of skylighted stucco and concrete studios a testament to the soundness of his design, its continued cultural influence a testament to his ability to create a building with “ambitions at the scale of the city.”

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“ICA is really a kind of miniaturized urbanism,” says Qingyun Ma, the dean of USC’s School of Architecture, where Maltzan recently taught a studio class on the challenges and opportunities of designing within the urban context of Los Angeles. “Michael has a very urban mind.”

A popular Maltzan mythology hasn’t taken shape quite yet, but it’s easy to piece one together: A Long Island boy born and raised in Levittown, New York, the classic postwar suburb, hightails it out to L.A. and lands a job working for Frank Gehry. He crosses paths with a local businessman who happens to be the cofounder of the ICA—that leads to a commission. And then things start to snowball. A Ph.D. student who teaches at one of L.A.’s most exclusive private schools, Harvard-Westlake, writes his dissertation on ICA, which results in a project for the school. Around the same time, a prominent art-collecting couple commissions a home, the Hergott Shepard Residence, which ends up in MoMA’s seminal The Un-Private House show in 1999. And then, just five years after leaving Gehry, at the tender age of 39, our architect lands the MoMA QNS commission.

In the decade since that heady rush, Maltzan has judiciously managed a career that meets the classic Hollywood “one for me, one for you” formula, but instead of alternating indies and blockbusters, the architect switches between multimillion-dollar homes for high profile clients, institutional projects, and housing for the homeless. All of Maltzan’s work, whether it’s intended for a mogul like Michael Ovitz or a denizen of L.A.’s Skid Row, is marked by an attention to fluidity, to the ways that people move in and out of spaces.

The ICA campus is set so that there are diagonal views throughout, and pathways offering significant views of the street. “The corners are always cracked open,” Maltzan says. That becomes even more significant with a development like the Carver Apartments, one of two homeless housing projects that he has completed with the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT). A third, the mixed-use, single-occupancy STAR building, just began construction, and will be completed this fall. With the Carver Apartments, Maltzan has created a bold, elegant whorl of public and private spaces that include 97 single-occupant units, a communal kitchen, social services, and offices. Unexpected sightlines slice through the building, which is very freeway-adjacent. Instead of hiding the rushing cars, Maltzan makes them a part of the Carver’s views by precisely framing the ribbon of freeway with a long, horizontal window in the laundry room—a move that allows drivers an equally clear view of the inside. And that’s the intent. “Depending on where you place things,” he says, “you can create social dynamics.” Rather than hiding the homeless housing, Maltzan’s design turns it into a beacon.

While we’re visiting the Carver apartments, one of the residents, a tall man around Maltzan’s age, bounds up to him with his hand extended. “Hey man, hey! You’re the architect, right? I just wanted to thank you, it’s a beautiful place,” he says. Maltzan shakes his hand warmly, chats for a minute or two—it’s a comfortable encounter. He’s the same with the staff of ICA and his own office of 30 employees. In a profession full of outsize characters, Maltzan seems almost daringly even-keeled. When I mention this to his fellow Angeleno, Thom Mayne, the famously combative architect hoots, “That’s the worst thing you can say about someone!” But then Mayne allows that Maltzan’s temperament might turn out to the key to his success. “He’s of a generation that understands architecture in strategic terms. When we were young we were part of the resistance, we were interested in autonomy. He’s much more aware of the political, cultural, economic glue.”

It’s that awareness that has made Maltzan such an effective force in getting projects like the Carver Apartments off the ground. As part of his push to keep homeless housing projects visible, Maltzan and the SRHT found a site outside of downtown’s traditional Skid Row, convinced the city to give its blessing to L.A.’s first multifamily prefab building—cutting the construction time and the carrying costs in half—and then devised a construction plan that would allow existing retail to stay open.

Maltzan’s office is working on other city-scale projects that aim to be “socially conscious,” even without the involvement of a nonprofit organization. A mixed-use development adjacent to SCI-Arc will be close to the MTA’s planned Red Line station. Housing in this building ranges from starter studios to lofts. Further afield is the Central Park at Playa Vista, completed in mid-2010, part of a giant development that encompasses an entire community—housing, offices, and recreational areas—built from the ground up. Maltzan worked on the semi-public park, which is bordered by Hughes Aircraft and will be open primarily to residents and people who work in the neighboring offices. “I want it to have different uses throughout the day,” he says of the nine-acre park where everything, from a bandstand to a beach volleyball court, is surrounded by landscaped groupings of native flora and crisscrossed with pedestrian bridges that encourage wandering.

At the moment, Maltzan is most excited by the San Francisco State University Mashouf Performing Arts Center, a 1,200-seat theatre that eschews traditional opera-style seating in favor of a more democratic scheme. Set to begin construction at the end of the year, the $146 million building will be Maltzan’s largest to date. “I love the institutional scale,” he says. “The chance to make something of great presence and clarity out of extremely complex dynamics—I’d like to continue to deal with that at a large scale.”

As he enters his fifties—the age at which architects generally hit their stride, uniting ambition, skill, and actual commissions—Maltzan is increasingly being given the opportunity to do so. He doesn’t take the responsibility lightly. “Architecture has, as a fundamental element, an ambition to say something about culture, about the time we live in, and about the future. It has the ability to speak very loudly about what our responsibilities are.”

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