An outwardly conventional apartment complex in Orange County does not clamor for attention in the same way as an architectural milestone like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. But it might be that the suburban apartments, easily overlooked, will have a greater long-term impact on average Californians than L.A.’s spectacular new icon.
Merely mentioning these two projects in the same breath — the cocoa-and-latte-colored apartments set on a landscaped slope in Aliso Viejo versus the titanium-clad clipper ship in full sail on Bunker Hill — seems incongruous if not laughable. And I am not suggesting the apartment house is a masterpiece comparable to Gehry’s $274 million concert hall, or even a masterpiece at all. What I am suggesting, however, is that the apartment complex opens new possibilities in combining high-density housing with open space, and that possibility may have more to say about our future way of life in urban California during coming decades than the gasp-inducing concert hall.
For all its conventionality, City Lights in Aliso Viejo does a number of strikingly original things that suggest it is the developer’s carefully considered prototype. Shea Homes’ clear intent is to rethink the configuration of high-density apartments so that they are desirable to middle-income households. (The 792-unit project has a density of about 50 units per acre.) The most obvious innovation here is a centralized parking structure in the center of the site, around which the housing wraps like a square doughnut. Pedestrian bridges link the parking structure to units on all four levels, and in all four directions. For most people, the walk from the parking stall to the front door is no longer than a few hundred feet at most. And those bridges are not dark, scary tunnels but open-air catwalks with clear sightlines.
Shea Senior Vice President Don Gause said that centralizing the parking was, in part, an attempt to find an alternative to podium housing, which requires developers to build a ground-level parking structure, and then build all the housing atop the structure. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I am not convinced that Shea Homes understands the full potential of its own invention.
The really important aspect of this project — and its Bay Area counterpart in Dublin, Waterford Place — is the enormous freedom offered in site planning by separating parking from housing. With cars, garages and driveways out of the picture, the site planner could arrange residences into an old fashioned campus with courtyard housing, could string together row houses on the perimeter with an enormous green space in the middle, could use the conventional New Urbanist scheme of small, pedestrian-only streets, or could create nearly anything else.
What is tantalizing here is the possibility of creating a private green where children may run or ride their bikes for long distances without having to negotiate car traffic.
In the case of Waterford Place and City Lights, the developer has made a cautious step toward exploring the versatility of the car-free plan by arranging the units around courtyards. The concept is imperfect because not all units in these double-loaded corridors (like the traditional hotel arrangement with units on both sides of a central hallway) have a view into the courthyard. The courtyards themselves are not ideal. Four-story walls on all sides of a courtyard may make an otherwise pleasant space seem a little claustrophobic. But make no mistake: Even with its defects, this approach is an improvement over the long, narrow, hotel-like corridors of traditional apartment complexes.
In other places of the site plan, we see that Shea has not taken full advantage of the open space opportunities afforded by the car-free site plan. The apartments are set back from the street behind a swath of suburban, neither-yours-nor-mind kind of landscaping that is less about providing usable space than establishing a spatial buffer between the units and the street.
I saw the City Lights project during the same week in September when the festivities surrounding the long-awaited opening of Disney Hall were occurring amid fanfare. There was even an accompanying celebratory show of Gehry’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, across the street from the new concert hall in downtown Los Angeles. It is unfair to Gehry, a great inventor, to complain that his buildings are one-offs, just as it is ungracious to cavil at the concert hall, which is a jewel in the thread-bare fabric of downtown Los Angeles. But it is also time to think about the tension in architecture between buildings that are unique and buildings that are prototypes.
Arguing that architects should focus on useful prototypes rather than unique art objects has obvious limitations: Are we supposed to criticize the Parthenon or Michelangelo’s dome at St. Peter’s in Rome because they cannot be reproduced economically on every other street corner by cost-cutting developers? Where the argument gains traction, perhaps, is as a counter-balance to the value system of architects and their status-seeking clients that now places a higher premium on monument-making than on solutions that could affect the lives of millions of people, both living and unborn.
A reasonable person will shrug shoulders and say the world is big enough for both masterpieces and production housing. True enough. Yet that is not the end of the story.
While I doubt that City Lights has the potential to make the history books in the same way as Disney Hall — the latter’s masterpiece status already has been vouchsafed — City Lights may be part of a long line of projects that value open space and pedestrian-oriented living. When a national builder such as Shea commits itself to these values, that is a signal that the market is prepared to accept some new ideas about high-density housing, and that ideas formerly dismissed by commercial types as “impractical” and “unfeasible” have a chance of entering the mainstream.
Presciently, Shea seems to understand that single-family housing in much of California is becoming out of reach for all but the rich. The challenge to builders is to devise a better “product” for upscale renters, although there is no reason why the same basic strategy would not be available to builders of affordable homes. Simply for opening new possibilities for large commercial builders, City Lights’ contribution should not be overlooked.