Wayback Wednesday: The Evolution of Place: LA

Elleven, part of the South Collection from the South Group, marked one of the first residential high rises to be built in Downtown LA since the 1970s. Image courtesy The South Group.

Elleven, part of the South Collection from the South Group, marked one of the first residential high rises to be built in Downtown LA since the 1970s. Image courtesy The South Group.

Over the last few months, we’ve been featuring some favorite articles from our past issues to celebrate our 15th year. Today, we bring you a feature from our May/June 2007, one of the first to be available in print and online. The territory covered is one we’re passionate about here at FORM—the evolution of Los Angeles. Written now over seven years ago, we hope it gives you a chance to think back and forward about our dynamic city. 

By John Southern

Step out of your car on a typical residential street in the San Fernando Valley or West Los Angeles, and all you may hear is the far off hum of traffic doing its mechanical Foxtrot on one of the region’s many freeways. The density is remarkably horizontal in nature; there is little evidence that you are in a metropolitan area of more than 13 million people. Fly into Los Angeles, however, and you get an entirely different picture. The Los Angeles metropolitan region stretches out before your eyes, seemingly infinite in its scope—an almost unfathomable conglomeration of freeways and streets, industrial districts, parks, downtowns, and residential neighborhoods. Hundreds of cities form an urban patchwork of hyper-development that only in recent years has begun to show signs of slowing its outward march into the surrounding desert.

Because the city has traditionally eschewed verticality in favor of flatness, Los Angeles is poised to evolve into a vibrant hybrid of hyper-stratified urbanity and suburban expansiveness in the twenty-first century as it introduces denser (and it is assumed more vertical) housing conditions atop the lower density of the suburban strip. This hybrid has the potential to redefine the way we understand both urban and suburban domestic environments, as these two housing typologies collide to produce a context that questions the very definition of what a city can be.


In recent years, both planning and development circles alike have been touting the flurry of speculative activity that has been unfolding in Los Angeles’s long-neglected Downtown. To think that L.A. could evolve into a traditional centrally focused city like Manhattan or Chicago, simply growing upward rather than outward, would be naïve at best. For unlike those carefully controlled visions of urbanity, which are about a type of developmental “smoothing,” Los Angeles has always expanded through a kind of “friction” caused by the collision of its domestic desires with its infrastructural needs. It is what built the L.A. Aqueduct, the freeways, and the seemingly endless grid of suburbia that has defined Southern California domestic life for the past 60 years. Now faced with a shortage of land and affordable housing, and an economically maturing immigrant population, Los Angeles developers have begun the process of re-examining the region’s traditional housing typologies in order to continue the speculative development that has made L.A. one of the most populous in the world.

To witness the emergent trends in housing in Los Angeles, you must travel to the region’s original center—Downtown L.A., which is clandestinely different than the rest of the city in that its high-rise Central Business District and historic mercantile architecture are an anomaly in the notoriously horizontal city with an aversion to preservation. Though Downtown’s centrality has come into question over the years (for how can a center exist in a city as large as Los Angeles?), it has been loyally touted by politicians and boosters such as philanthropist Eli Broad as the “true heart of Los Angeles.” Enigmatic prophecies aside, Downtown L.A. is projected to add a staggering 40,000 new residents over the next two years.

One of the primary indicators of Downtown’s potential to stand as a model for the rest of the region is its connectivity with regards to infrastructure. Downtown Los Angeles has no less than six rail lines connecting it with the rest of the larger metropolitan region, and gaps in the rail system are filled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s enormous bus network. Furthermore, four of the area’s major freeways intersect here. This cross-hatch of infrastructure has attracted developers who have focused over the past five years on adaptive reuse, turning old commercial buildings into lofts. More recently, however, new projects have appeared that signal an interest in higher density, and even vertical, housing typologies.


Downtown’s South Park neighborhood has seen the majority of activity over the past few years. Home to Staples Center, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the emerging L.A. Live retail and residential complex, South Park illustrates how Los Angeles can develop over the coming decades as it adds clusters of verticality and transit-oriented density to its already diverse urban fabric. One development group in particular has introduced projects that shy away from the six-story live/work typology and adapted manufacturing building prototypes. These new projects are of a vertical nature and contain urban elements that are perceived by the development industry as critical to the making of a thriving neighborhood— eating and shopping. The South Group, a partnership of Portland-based Gerding/Edlen and Williams & Dame Development, has designed and constructed several high visibility projects, which are among the first residential high rises developed in downtown since the 1970s. Elleven (2006), Luma (2007), Evo (2008) and Jardin (2009) serve as the residential anchor points for the Downtown neighborhood.

According to Tom Cody, a principal of The South Group, in Los Angeles one must “grow an urban housing market in order to grow a neighborhood,” and the South Group strategy seems to incorporate the typical methods for growing a residential neighborhood where there was none before it. Where The South Group’s projects diverge from the traditional New Urbanist strategies for “smart growth” is their scale. All four projects go beyond the six-story mark—a height that is more traditional here for condo development. Each tower is jammed with well over 200 units a piece, and cumulatively will introduce more than 2000 new residents to the area. Not only does this mark a turning point in L.A.’s history with regards to density, but the projects certainly introduce the city to a more marketable version of verticality that goes beyond the ostentatious, car-oriented luxury high-rises found in Westside neighborhoods, such as Marina Del Rey and Century City.

Scott Johnson, FAIA, of Johnson Fain, agrees with much of what Cody and other developers have to say about the Downtown scene. Though it is not unique when compared with other transit corridors in the city, the area is serving as a domestic laboratory for other parts of L.A. in the sense that its unique lack of existing residential development allows the projects constructed there to inform future domestic environments elsewhere.

However, it is not really about the design of the units themselves, but of the complexes as a whole, which are geared toward a younger demographic, one that is single, moneyed, highly cosmopolitan and interested in social interaction. “Frankly, the verdict is out as to whether one day all demographic groups will live in the same areas interchangeably [in Los Angeles] because we will have achieved saturation and higher densities,” says Johnson. “If you take older American cities like New York or Boston, while there is much overlap, there are still identifiable markets with their own resident characteristics within each city. Think Madison and Fifth Avenues, Westside, Chelsea, Greenwich Village and TriBeCa. All these neighborhoods tend to attract certain residents who appreciate their unique qualities.”

Johnson compares his firm’s recent projects in Downtown with similar high-density projects it is doing in Century City. In Downtown he says the units tend to be more oriented to an urban lifestyle that translates the activity of the city streets inward, rather than providing the overtly privatized environment that a client might seek in Century City, where Johnson Fain has designed an experience called Constellation Park that is in many ways no different than the exclusive homes of neighboring Brentwood and Beverly Hills. While the Westside project is indicative of high-density, it is setback from the street, and provides amenities, such as direct elevator service from the parking garage (the car being one of the only ways to approach the project) and a concierge. More importantly, in keeping with the local residential fabric of the Westside, the tower is set in typical Modernist fashion upon a landscaped pad that responds to the lack of a pedestrian environment in the area.

Projects like MetLofts, done by Johnson Fain with Forest City Residential West, however, are an example of an architecture that is shaped for the opposite group—the young, professional urbanite. The Downtown development is heavy on common social spaces, and light on the notion of exclusivity. Though security and convenience are stressed, they are designed into the project as discrete components that behave more like filters, rather than obstacles to the urban world beyond. The street façade of MetLofts is like others in the neighborhood—porous, appropriately scaled and designed to foster an active streetscape. Whether urban life can take hold in this context, however, is up to the newly arrived residents who will live, work and play in Downtown Los Angeles.


According to a recent study done by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, the demographic choosing to live there is white, highly educated and occupies senior-level positions in the culture and finance fields. With enough money to afford to live most anywhere in the city, these people select Downtown because of the “urban vibe” and high concentration of entertainment, cultural venues and other services. Whether comprised of “outsiders,” who have not yet been seduced by the aphrodisiac of what early Angelenos referred to as the “garden city,” and do not want or need a lawn or detached single-family home, or simply a new breed of locals, these residents will reshape Los Angeles and transform it into a

new hybrid city of the twenty-first century—one that contains older suburbs with a discrete high-density overlay, all connected by webs of mass-transit and the freeway system. This new population is interested in a high-density lifestyle not defined by the car (though they likely own one) and the principles inherent in urban living. It does not concern itself simply with living in the city in opposition to the suburbs, but with cosmopolitanism—the catalyst necessary for metropolitan life to exist in the first place.

But how to plan for a domestic population that has not yet hatched and integrate it with the existing population? Tom Cody suggests it is about arriving at formulas that produce “quality urban environments,” a comment that sounds vaguely Modernist in its tones. The idea of quality urban environments does not allow for the important discussion in regards to social planning, a notion that has been at the heart of the Downtown housing debate. Though the topic of affordable housing was discussed, without subsidies it was suggested that it remains a long shot, stymied by banks and outdated planning codes. If this is the case, then the waves of the new Downtown demographic will certainly always be middle to upper income. A cynic

might suggest that L.A. has the potential to become Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner after all, with the creative class buoyed above the streets by their education and position in the information economy, while the working poor of the service sector remain trapped in the smoggy under layer.

A more optimistic look sees residents crafting the Los Angeles of the twenty-first century into a city that will be drastically different than in the past. The resulting hybrid—horizontality mixed with patches of a transit-oriented, high-density, vertical architecture—will slowly reshape the way the city is envisioned, not only by its inhabitants, but by the world as well. For this to happen, however, revisions must be made to planning codes; infrastructure must be updated to balance a more mass transit focused population with the existing automobile-focused Angeleno; and, finally, the development community must take a high moral responsibility for their role in reshaping the city by introducing a denser, more vertical style of mixed-use architecture.

This is already happening in Downtown and other parts of the city that are ready to receive it. Whether it will occur throughout the L.A. region remains to be seen. However, you can be certain that future rhetoric will focus on “housing” rather than “houses.”lower density of the suburban strip. This hybrid has the potential to redefine the way we understand both urban and suburban domestic environments, as these two housing typologies collide to produce a context that questions the very definition of what a city can be.

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