Architects Experimenting on the Poor (Again)

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In the mid-20th century, Modernist architects were notorious for trying out social engineering theories on projects for low-income people. Many of these experiments were ended by dynamite.

But it looks like design experiments on the powerless continue. In Los Angeles, architect Michael Maltzan has just completed the 97-unit New Carver Apartments next to the Santa Monica Freeway to provide housing for the homeless. The 57,000-sq.ft. project was built by the Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating various types of low-income housing. All laudable goals; so far so good.

Besides providing affordable housing, however, apparently the Trust is also devoted to the Modernist ideal of creating “architectural icons.” Molly Rysman, the Trust’s director of special projects, summed it up best: “It’s not about blending in, but about having an impact.”

No one will accuse Michael Maltzan’s building of “blending in” – or looking anything like a traditional apartment building. But the structure certainly fits right into the pattern of stand-alone sculpture-buildings that architecture critics routinely label “iconic.” Because of its bizarre appearance, commentators love the New Carver Apartments, with the cheering being led by Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the New York Times.

The critics love it, but what about the people who have to live in the structure? Architectural critics seem to make a point of never interviewing the people who actually use these “iconic” buildings. To this observer, the building looks like a prison – not a residence. Do men and women who are already powerless feel comfortable in a cold, machine-like, sharp-edged building? In my opinion, this building does not say “home” but rather gives residents the feeling of being in the grip of a powerful alien force.

The New Carver Apartments are a perfect example of the different world views of Modernists and Traditionalists. Modernists can’t help but project their own egos onto a project in a never-ending quest for novelty and “something entirely different.” That’s what they were taught to do. A Traditionalist architect handling this same project would have been more concerned with giving psychic comfort to the residents by furnishing them with forms and ornament that provide emotional connection to their homes of memory.

It’s a shame that well-intentioned designers serve the ultimate users of their buildings so poorly because they’ve been blinded by the ideology they’ve been dosed with since architecture school.