December 7, 2022 - From the December, 2022 issue

Frances Anderton Explores LA’s Rich Multifamily Housing Identity

In this interview with TPR, author Frances Anderton discusses her new book, Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles. Here, Anderton shares how she reclaims the multi-unit dwelling as a vital element of the city's history and identity and asserts its role in addressing a housing crisis decades in the making. Hard-pressed to find stories celebrating the types of housing most people in Los Angeles call home, Anderton breaks down what she considers to be the best examples and common attributes that make multifamily dwellings, not just more sustainable, affordable, or necessary, but objectively desirable for the intentional community that a well-designed shared-space can foster.


Frances Anderton

"My book is, for the most part, a celebration of the multifamily housing that is great…if you lead with the caveat that it definitely has to be equitable and stable, there is multifamily housing in LA that offers up a lifestyle that is every bit as pleasant and desirable as the much-exalted single-family home."—Frances Anderton

Frances, in your book, Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles, you reclaim the multiple unit dwelling as a vital element of the city's history and identity and assert that it's a key approach to addressing a housing crisis decades in the making. Talk about how you chose that topic and elaborate on how you organize the book’s chapters to reinforce your thesis.

Frances Anderton: I chose the book’s topic based on a growing sense of puzzlement at the way in which there's a division in Los Angeles in terms of perception of the much exalted owner-occupied single-family home, versus multifamily. There are a whole bunch of historical and political reasons for that, including sorry racist housing policies, but what pushed me into wanting to write about it were  personal and professional experiences. 

The professional experience was that I spent many years at KCRW covering design and current affairs, which meant we covered story after story about housing and the conflicts around it, which particularly intensified over the last 5 to 10 years. Invariably, I sensed that the through line to those stories was that greater housing density was a  problem that had to be solved – an annoyance happening to the single-family residential neighborhoods for which encroaching apartment buildings were an invasive species.

Pivoting now to my personal experience, when I moved here in 1991, I moved into a six-unit apartment building in Santa Monica. It happened to have been designed and built in the early 1960s by Frank Gehry and some partners, and it is very well-planned on the interior with plenty of natural light, and with the perfect combination of  private, personal outdoor space and shared outdoor space. The shared outdoor space takes the form of a small central courtyard area from which all of us residents scale a shared staircase to get to our apartments. This means we are constantly brought into contact with each other, but in a casual kind of way, not a way in which we felt we were on top of each other. It enables pleasant, near-daily encounters that give us a great sense of community. This apartment also has broader neighborly advantages. It was near my work; it was near our daughter's public school; it was a walkable neighborhood. The attributes of this place made me happy to stay here over the years.

We definitely thought about seeing if we could buy somewhere, but it would have entailed leaving the neighborhood. It would have entailed going miles from work. We chose to remain, understanding that we were missing out on becoming part of that homeownership community that denotes status and intergenerational wealth and stability. 

But when our daughter reached her teens and was going to SaMo High, she began to get very antsy about the fact that she lived in an apartment. In fact, she got so antsy that she refused to bring her friends back home because many of her friends lived in nice houses in Santa Monica. She became very embarrassed by our home. It was fascinating to me that she had clearly internalized a stigma around apartment housing.

Beyond that, I knew of other people who lived in very nice multifamily buildings of different epochs and architectural styles. Furthermore, I knew many architects who were designing very thoughtful contemporary apartment housing. 

I just became obsessed by the fact that multifamily housing in LA was given short shrift despite the fact that connected dwellings have more or less equaled SFH for decades. I just thought it had to come out of the shadows especially as it is, frankly, going to be the future for the majority of Angelenos, and it was also the past for pretty much the majority of Angelenos.

The book comes out at a time when density rather than placemaking is prioritized in urban planning conversations. How might your book best inform what's missing in today's dialogue about how we plan our inner cities?

I feel that what one hears a lot of is rationalizations for why we need more density and that density takes the form of multifamily housing. What I hear less of how great multifamily living can be and why. 

My book is, for the most part, a celebration of the multifamily housing that is great – with the caveat that it definitely has to be equitable and stable.

Elaborate on what that multifamily template looks like to achieve those goals.

I haven't focused on every typology because it’s impossible. Even within the typologies that I have focused on, I have singled out specific examples. I've honed in on a few multifamily types that I find particularly interesting. Those types, in a way, are actually inspired by my own experience – namely, connected living centered on share space, hence the title “common ground.”. I wanted to explore the long legacy of connected dwelliing that provide this mix of very decent interior apartment living, coupled with a sense of self-contained community. 

I've gone back to 1910, where we see the emergence of the bungalow court. Your readers need no explanation of what a bungalow court is, but essentially, it's anywhere from four to six, up to 15 or even 20, dwellings arranged around a shared space. Sometimes it's a pathway; sometimes it's a court; sometimes it's an oval. That space was practical, delivering light and ventilation, but became social.

Then, we move a bit forward in time and we get to the housing struggles of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. In the depression and the war years, we have the public sector stepping in through HACLA and the private sector (with support from FHA loans) to build LA's now-storied and often threatened garden apartments. Those are hundreds of units built around courts on blocks aggregated into a superblock. The roadways are pushed to the edges to create safe places for families to raise their children and children to play together outside. Think Lincoln Place, Park La Brea, Village Green, and public housing like Nickerson Gardens that was very optimistic in its day.

These involved idealist architects like Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, and Robert Alexander. Then, we move into the 50s. We get the gunite swimming pool and the leisurely “Googie” styling of the 1950s that brings about an evolution of the courtyard apartment into the swank apartment complex for the postwar period, where instead of the pool in the backyard of a house, the pool is in the shared courtyard area. 

I do touch on dingbats, but I give them an asterisk because the dingbat, as we know, was a very expedient form of multifamily housing. Later in time, it wound up being seen as a good scale of development in low-rise neighborhoods, but it wasn't conceived with any form of intentional community in mind.  

We move on to the 1980s – long past the garden apartments and the support for the public construction of huge housing developments, but we still have serious housing issues. We have efforts to get renters’ rights in the early 80s, but still immense struggle around housing for working-class people. 

We see the emergence of these nonprofit housing developers, such as Community Corporation of Santa Monica, Venice Housing Corporation, West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, and the Skid Row Housing Trust. These nonprofit developers emerge and then proceed to commission an emerging generation of very talented architects. They too often  deploy a courtyard arrangement for reasons of passive ventilation as well as for social reasons, albeit in buildings of  3 to 5 stories. They now increasingly appear on the arterial boulevards because they can't be built in the lower rise neighborhoods. 

I should say that along the way we have another related form of development in Los Angeles, which is very attractive to tourists: grand apartment hotel-type buildings with fantastic lobbies, the roof terrace, the bar, and the bowling alley. These amenity-filled buildings have been around since the early part of the last century, and  I think they've come back with a vengeance. In so much of the market rate, multistory development that's gone up in business districts  and downtown you see almost an amenities arms race between how many cool things can you offer also people who are either renting or buying into these contemporary loft buildings.

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I also look at intentional communities, including today’s co-living trend, and LA Eco-Village, a community land trust, but generally, my through line is housing that delivers a desirable lifestyle that differs from the solitary single-family home that you reach with your car. I'm saying there's this other way in which people have lived in LA and really creative developers, builders, architects, and planners have supported it – and their stories, and those of the residents, don't often get heard. 

If you issue a companion book to cover what's happening in the 2020s into the 2030s, it would have to address the scale differential between what you're talking about and what's now being planned and built, which are much larger and don't have as much private space contiguous with public space. How will you describe that phenomenon? 

I did try to only do stuff that actually existed, but I will say that I did include one development that I thought was pivotal to this future that you're describing, which is One Santa Fe. One Santa Fe was shocking and prescient when it appeared a vast skyscraper on its side with hundreds of units. It proposed that people would be living over the stores, near mass transit. They would be living in large, mixed use, dense developments, instead of LA's bucolic single-family neighborhoods. After all, One Santa Fe is by railway tracks. Now you have market rate housing by freeways and traffic-filled thoroughfares. It was proposing a future lifestyle. It went even further in proposing that the parking itself would eventually be turned into dwelling units as Angelenos give up on their car dependence. 

What One Santa Fe offered is that even when you're up at that scale of hundreds and hundreds of units, you actually can still bring in the social spaces. It has the concourse; it has the private balconies; it has the roof terraces at various scales; it has the rooftop swimming pool. It models this self-contained community, but at the scale of a mini-city. 

One of the other projects that I included was completed as I was working on the book. It's a project in Santa Monica called Millennium Santa Monica by Michael Folonis. It has  something like 360 units that went through multiple design phases. An early iteration proposed that it would just be your standard block with double-loaded corridors on every floor, with units hanging off and single aspect windows. 

Through a lengthy process, they ended up with something which really shows how you can take that mega block and break down the scale through dividing it up and getting rid of the double-loaded corridor—the bain of apartment living. They introduced terraces on multiple levels. Every unit has its own personal outdoor space; most have natural light from two or more aspects. 

Both of those projects are in there as indicators of future scale.  

TPR was trying to indicate that you have to write a companion book. 

I thought writing a book would be a gentle experience. After almost daily deadlines at KCRW, I thought writing a book would be this nice little project for a middle-aged lady. It turned out to be a labor of love, meaning I so wanted to do it, but it was painful. 

However, there are definitely stories untold and projects that have to be discussed. Whether it's going to be me or someone else that steps up, who knows, but those stories have to be told.

Conversations about planning are all about the policy question and the urgent need for more scale and density and rarely include discussion about all the other elements that make for good planning: community, open space, and public health. Who is filling that vacuum in our civic conversations about how we build out Los Angeles for the 21st century?

There are certainly good writers out there. I am still contributing a little bit to KCRW

We also lost a wonderful venue for this kind of dialogue: Curbed LA. I loved Curbed LA and really owe them for actually staying on top of multifamily housing. 

The LA Times lost its full-time architecture critic. So yes, there is a diminution of venues for architecture and urban dialogue and criticism, at least in the mainstream media. I don't quite know why that's occurring because, on the one hand, everybody seems to care a great deal about what is being  been built in their neighborhood. 

You came to Southern California from living in Bath, England. What do you bring with you from that city and that architectural form? 

I can tell you exactly what I brought. On the one hand, I brought incredible gratitude that I was lucky enough to grow up in such a beautiful city. However, the way many of us lived in Bath was in flats or subdivided townhouses.

What happens when you subdivide the townhouses is that you typically wind up with a rather dark staircase that everybody uses to get to their flats. Then, you enter a side door into your flat and usually you have a wall that goes down the middle of the flat with single aspect rooms on both sides. You only have light coming in from one aspect in each room. The shared staircase is not conceived as a pleasant social space. It's actually something that you get up as fast as possible to get to your flat. 

So, while the proportions of those buildings can be lovely, you also don't have what I have in our building of six units or you would have in a bungalow court, which is this interrelationship of inside and outside and this intentional common space – which is so lovely about some of the best multifamily housing in Southern California

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