For Angelenos who take pleasure in the house as a concept, we’ve hit upon a block: hillside residences, bungalows, and water-adjacent spots are in short supply, cars are troublesome, competitive offers are epic, and, as a kind of social evil, low-income residents are displaced by gentrification. Which is why we perked up when the Architecture and Design Museum, now moved out of its Wilshire Boulevard location and into its new home in the Arts District, title its inaugural exhibition “Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles.” A museum prompted to relocate because of the Purple Line extension? Architects incentivized to reconfigure the home? What could be more of-the-moment when so many city-dwellers long for style, greenery, and covered parking? We spoke with Danielle Rago, who co-curated the upcoming show alongside Sam Lubell, to learn more about her work, the show’s featured designers, and why L.A. is experiencing a moment of innovation.
How did this show come about?
When people think of Los Angeles architecture, they’re automatically drawn to the single-family house. So right off the bat we wanted to challenge that. We wanted to look specifically at the Los Angeles River and the metro extension on Wilshire as two potential sites for development. We’re engaging with another audience, another demographic, but the A+D started in downtown, so it’s coming full circle, which is really great.
How did you end up in Los Angeles? You were on the East Coast and then London before that.
After living in New York my whole life and then living in London, L.A. seemed like the right spot. So many artists were here, and the history of experimental practice—I’m always interested in the blurring of art and architecture. None of the large contemporary art institutions have an architecture and design department, which is kind of unfortunate on the one hand but then also allows for opportunities in other places like here at the A+D.
What do you think of the architecture being done in L.A.?
I think it’s easier for young architects to establish in a place like L.A., where you can still find space at an affordable price. And there’s such an incredible network of architectural schools here: UCLA, SCI-Arc, USC, Woodbury. It’s really a breeding ground. People have these hybrid practices that are exploring things other than Architecture with a capital A. Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular is a perfect example. He moved his practice from Chicago, where it had been for the past decade, to Los Angeles. He took a teaching position at UCLA and his firm is now in downtown. And why now? What’s the allure? It’s just being here, in this environment.
How did you decide which firms, to use that word loosely, to invite to this show?
We wanted to look at three established practices in Los Angeles, which are wHY, MAD, and Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, and then three emerging practices, which are Bureau Spectacular, LA-Más, and PAR. We wanted to engage with architects that were currently building actual structures here, but also those that are younger practices. LA-Más is based in Frogtown, and they’ve been working on being able to effect these architectural changes in terms of zoning laws. So this is an ongoing project. Lorcan is also using part of the river in Frogtown, and he’s currently working on a housing project that has an access point right on the River. For Jimenez, this is a way for him to familiarize himself with the city. For MAD, the project they’re proposing looks toward Park La Brea as somewhat of an inspiration. It’s a high-rise that has interconnected floor plates to create this urban garden in the center.
What do you think are the biggest design problems we’re facing in Los Angeles right now?
I think affordability is a really big issue. Access to public transit and parking are issues. Also sustainability. The drought is on people’s minds. With the MAD project, we were saying, “I hope this is a recycled greywater system.”
Is there any one project that you could see realized in a serious way?
I think the LA-Más project could be, 1,000 percent. They’ve been working in the community creating these different interventions with current residents and the city council, and they’re very involved in the policy end, which I think you need to be.
Otherwise people build straight up, and then the community feels like they have no home.
It’s the demographics, the culture. With building up if you don’t take that into consideration—which obviously, no one really does. The developers just want to make the most money, the most square footage, to be able to sell the apartments at the highest price. So it’s a more considered approach, and I do think this one could definitely happen.
Shelter: Rethinking How We Live in Los Angeles runs August 20 through November 6 at the Architecture and Design Museum. 900 E. 4th Street, Los Angeles.