Lehrer Architects, an award-winning Los Angeles practice that has recently received a lot of attention for its Monopoly-esque small temporary residential villages that have sprung up in multiples in the San Fernando Valley, has completed a new project with an equally playful approach that brings bold colors , geometric patterns and a sense of community to an overlooked and awkwardly shaped infill site that would otherwise go unused.
While the home villages listed above for unhoused Angelenos are largely (but not exclusively) in North Hollywood, the company’s newest candy-colored housing project, the Willowbrook Apartments, can be found in the South LA community of the same name. (Located just south of Watts and northwest of Compton, Willowbrook is technically an unincorporated neighborhood in Los Angeles County.) An effort by LA County and nonprofit developer Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles (RNLA), the Willowbrook Apartments also differ because the seven-housing complex does not function as a temporary stepping stone to permanent housing. It is permanent housing, intended for previously unhomed veterans with disabilities. The site itself is located near a community church and in close proximity to public transport.
While Lehrer Architects describes the seven units in the Willowbrook as “micro” in size, the 300-square-foot living spaces, which are mirrored and placed back-to-back to maximize the amount of space available in the compact development site, are significantly larger than those in the small home communities managed by the company in conjunction with the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. (Those, again intended as temporary housing solutions, are only 64 square feet.) At the Willowbrook Apartments, each studio residence has its own bathroom, kitchenette, and universal design features. “Although they are small, the units are designed to have the longest possible view inward, as well as the longest possible counter space, and an overall generosity of natural light and view out,” the company explains. “Consolidating the entry closet, pantry, refrigerator, oven and sink next to a large countertop provides an appropriate sense of luxury and spaciousness for the unit and its occupant.”
The design of the homes was based on input from residents of similar housing projects and is intended as prototypes that can be replicated in future county-led affordable housing projects on available infill lots.
The communal outdoor space anchors the complex, with every two units (except one of them) sharing an access patio flanking a larger arrivals hall. Housed in a slightly higher structure on the site are a community meeting space and offices that come together to form a “cohesive urban campus,” the company explained.
“As a low-cost development, it took the contractor a while to realize that design really matters in projects like this. But they came on board! To realize these communities, with a level of beauty, intent and design awareness not often seen in these types of projects, everyone involved must go beyond their professional and often financial comfort level. Bureaucratic challenges remain extreme, if not deadly, especially leading up to permitting and construction,” explains Michael Lehrer, founder and president of Lehrer Architects.
He added: “I hope this project captures the culture’s imagination and shows how such housing can actively improve the neighbourhood, regardless of where the residents previously lived. This is critical to destigmatize these types of housing projects and reduce the destigmatize the people who live there, to show the true beauty of entire neighborhoods that care for all residents.”
The Willowbrook Apartments grew out of a six-year partnership — now formally known as RETHINKHOUSING LA — between Lehrer Architects, RNLA and community bank Genesis to bring affordable starter homes to communities in South LA. According to Lehrer Architects, the group currently has several sites that are built or ready for permits.
“The Willowbrook Apartments, a small but mighty development, is a critical step in our concerted effort to accommodate our unhoused neighbors in Los Angeles County,” said Emilio Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles Country Development Authority (LACDA). “The LACDA is proud to be part of a development that will provide positive support services to its new residents.”