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A Sense of Place

A southern California firm redefines the relationship between architecture and urbanism.
By Will Holloway

Near the intersection of California Boulevard and historic Route 66 in Pasadena, CA, situated between the Meridian Court housing complex and, somewhat ironically, a Chevron gas station, is an elongated Mediterranean Revival building that was constructed in 1928 as the office of renowned local architect Wallace Neff. Since 1990, the building has housed another preeminent Southern California firm; its name appears by the entrance in small, inconspicuous letters: Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists.

That the office of Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism – with its rejection of sprawl and the dependence on the automobile that it creates – abuts a gas station is not as incongruous as it might first seem. Moule and Polyzoides are, after all, practicing in the capital of suburban sprawl – automobile-dependent Los Angeles. As the social critic James Howard Kunstler said during a visit to the office 15 years ago, at a time when the firm was working on a plan for downtown Los Angeles, "Isn’t that just like doing open-heart surgery in the heart of the beast?"

Courtyard Revival
In the early 1980s, years before New Urbanism became the influential movement that it is today, Moule & Polyzoides was founded as an historic preservation firm. One of the firm’s first projects, in 1984, was the relocation and expansion of Gartz Court, a 1910 bungalow court that Pasadena Heritage – a local preservation group – commissioned to be transformed into an affordable housing complex. Gartz Court turned out to be the first of a series of Moule & Polyzoides courtyard projects that have proven to be extremely successful contemporary housing options.

In considering a housing typology to accommodate increased high-density growth in Los Angeles, Moule & Polyzoides looked to the region’s past. Courtyard housing was the primary multi-family housing type in southern California in the early decades of the 20th century, evolving as a series of row houses that came around to form a central garden courtyard. Designs by the likes of Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler and Arthur Zwebell were ubiquitous, particularly in Hollywood, where courtyards were especially popular with those in the burgeoning entertainment industry. "There was a great boom of building in the ’20s in southern California, and there was a particular need to house people not only in single-family houses or in high rises and very large buildings, but also in a kind of ‘garden’ density," says Moule, a southern California native who returned to the region after receiving her bachelor’s degree at Smith College and her Masters in Architecture from Princeton University. "So as Los Angeles now is shifting from a more low-density period, we really need to accommodate a lot of growth. We are looking for models of buildings that have been enormously successful here and really seem to encapsulate a way of life."

To demonstrate that courtyard housing could be a viable alternative to the housing practices that have dominated the region over the past half century, Moule & Polyzoides designed and developed Meridian Court. Completed in 2000, Meridian Court is a medium-density complex featuring ten 1,300- to 1,800-sq.ft. townhouses around a single central courtyard. Parking is located below ground. Because balancing occupants’ public and private lives was of utmost concern, each unit includes an entrance to the street and to the courtyard. "We’re interested in having the courtyard be a kind of passive, quiet, contemplative garden, but on the other hand, activated enough by regular comings and goings that it’s not a leftover, residual space," says Moule. "The best of courtyard housing balances a public life, a semi-public life and a private life. Whether in southern California or Boston, everybody, when they find themselves in their home, wants some degree of privacy and retreat – so it’s that balance between interaction and retreat that we’re after."

While Meridian Court was taking shape in Pasadena, Moule & Polyzoides was also working on a courtyard in West Hollywood, just off the Sunset Strip. When it was completed in 2002, Harper Court - 7 Fountains became the first new traditional courtyard housing complex built in Los Angeles in 75 years. It features 20 units – each with a distinct floor plan and separated live/work spaces – organized around four courtyards. "It’s really a live/work project, where screenwriters have a small home and a small office," says Moule. "They’re very eccentric and unusual – they just seem to fit into the long tradition of what’s happening in Hollywood. It’s a very Hollywood place."

Although Harper Court - 7 Fountains in particular has been a rousing financial success – having been appraised at the highest dollar/sq.ft. of any attached housing in the city – the real estate market has been slow in adopting the courtyard typology. "The real estate profession is still run by notions of homogenized programs, where people do 300 units – 300 units of one kind," says Polyzoides, who came to the U.S. from his native Greece at the age of 19 to study at Princeton, where he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture and urban planning. "They never think about the possibility of breaking the units up into three types and building blocks and streets, as opposed to ‘projects.’ By and large, the bulk of the profession is in the business of building Chevy’s, gold-plating the door handles and persuading people they are selling them Bentleys. What we’re saying is, if you look at the degree of segmentation in the car business, why not segment the housing business in similar ways typologically. It is being done, but it is being done very slowly – we are doing our best to accelerate it, but it takes time."

More recently, Moule & Polyzoides’ understanding of the courtyard typology and appreciation of historical precedent have coalesced in a project currently under construction in the shadows of the Colorado Street Bridge, a 1913 concrete-arch structure not far from the firm’s office. Between 1920 and 1938, eight bungalows designed by Pasadena architects Myron Hunt, Sylvanus Marston, Garrett van Pelt and Edgar Novbury were constructed on the site as part of the Vista del Arroyo Hotel. With the blessing of Pasadena Heritage, Moule & Polyzoides is orchestrating an ambitious multi-part preservation and new construction project: the renovation of the nationally registered historic bungalows and the addition of a sympathetic four-unit structure on the uphill side of the site, known as Grand Court; and, on the downhill side of the site, the introduction of two multi-unit structures – Bridgeview Court and Arroyo Terrace – on either side of the bridge. Three underground garages provide parking.

Other recent courtyard projects in the region include Pasadena’s Granada Court, a 29-unit complex of flats and townhouses arranged around three courtyards; Duarte Courts, a 29-unit complex oriented along two linear garden courts in the city of Duarte; and Silver Spur Court, an 18-unit mixed-use complex of two courtyards in Rolling Hills Estates.

"We’ve always thought that the best version of Los Angles is the way that people really love gardens and really live inside and outside," says Moule. "Our work – whether at the scale of urbanism or at the scale of buildings – has always been about shaping the void, shaping the public realm. We don’t see our buildings as singular objects as much as shaping the life and spaces that occur within them.

"The response has been outstanding. When we commissioned a market study, we found that they typically have a 20- to 30-percent higher value in the market and have long waiting lists when rental properties."

As well received as these courtyards have been, they alone cannot rebuild a sense of community and ameliorate sprawl. Accomplishing these goals necessitates broader implementation of the values they represent. "It doesn’t have to do with building courtyard housing alone," says Polyzoides. "It has to do with understanding housing on a range of expression, from the least to most dense. We’ve examined a whole range of housing types, first theoretically, then historically and then in design. It turns out that courtyard housing is a particularly important type, because it operates itself at a very large range – when it’s built as a bungalow it can be at a low density and when built in some of its hybrid forms it can be at a much higher density. It’s not, by itself, an answer to urban sprawl, but I think the incorporation of diverse types into an urban fabric generates more cogent cities and towns."

Los Angeles
Both Moule and Polyzoides come by their understanding of the effects of the destruction of traditional urban cores honestly. Growing up in southern California, Moule saw firsthand as Los Angeles was taken apart by suburbia. "At the same time," she says, "I wanted to be an architect, and I wanted to be a participant in building here. So it felt like the right thing to do was to try to make a role for architecture that was a positive force in this city, which could ameliorate a condition, to change it in a positive way and not merely reflect the state of disarray.

"I can’t stand what the car has wrought on southern California, and yet it never seemed like shying away from it and retreating into more pristine environments was the right thing to do. There are many fabulous places to live in southern California – beautiful neighborhoods, beautiful streets – which is why we live here in Pasadena. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful architectural heritage. There’s just enough here to feed our souls as well as challenge us."

Polyzoides, on the other hand, points to the virtual destruction of his native Athens – where he estimates that 200 to 300 city blocks were demolished between 1950 and 1970 and replaced with "faceless" apartment buildings – as the most cataclysmic event in his life. "In personal terms, Los Angeles is the closest you can live to Athens within the United States," he says. "It’s an identical climate, it smells like Athens, it looks like Athens – it’s a very familiar place for me. But the reason we’re here as architects is because, first of all, we’re contrarians. Everybody around the world thinks that this is a place that is about the triumph of Modernism. In reality, you need surgical instruments to find Modernist buildings or places in this region. This place was completely formed by 1940, and it’s really a triumph of traditional urbanism in the United States.

"It’s a place where the things that we believe in are very much deployed. Southern California is a very contradictory place, like other places in America. Through 1945-50, it was the most beautiful region in the country. It was fully interconnected by train. Every town had magnificent historic neighborhoods; the sprawl didn’t come until the Second World War and beyond. This is a two-part region – part of it is paradise, and part of it is hell."

Over the years, Moule & Polyzoides has attempted to alleviate the non-paradisiacal aspects of Los Angeles by promoting both mixed-use neighborhoods – so people can live where they work – and the utilization of the region’s relatively new light-rail system. The firm’s master plan for downtown Los Angeles Nov have been underplayed as city administration’s have come and gone, but, according to Polyzoides, it is being emulated to a degree. "Ours was a downtown plan that was done 15 years ago with the help of [Miami, FL-based] Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and a whole bunch of other brilliant people when nobody knew how to spell New Urbanism," he says. "In effect, it predicted and enabled much of what is going on in downtown Los Angeles right now. Our plan is being realized – not literally, but in spirit for sure. Downtown is being transformed into a marvelous place and I think within the next 10 to 20 years it will be one of the great downtowns in the country."

Transit Oriented Developments
From downtown’s Union Station, the light rail’s Gold Line gets to Mission Station in South Pasadena in about 20 minutes. To provide a housing option that allows people to easily commute by train, Moule & Polyzoides designed the Mission Station Transit Village, a 67-unit complex of courtyard and single-family houses, duplexes and mixed-use lofts, as well as 5,000 sq.ft. of retail space. Two stops from Mission Station, and a short walk from Moule & Polyzoides’ office, the Del Mar Station Transit Village is currently in the final stages of construction. "The city of Pasadena wanted to encourage significant density at its downtown train station, and along with the MTA, invited 11 developers to submit projects for the site," says Polyzoides. "Our design goals were to take a city block and engage the trains, build very tightly and closely next to the trains, and build a variety of unit and building types in a way that gives the impression of a complex process of building over time – not just one building by one hand at the metropolitan scale."

When completed, Del Mar Station will include 347 units, 20,000 sq.ft. of retail space and a 1,200-car underground garage. According to Moule, noise is not an issue. "Having a train run through a building is always a challenge, but the key here is that train is extremely quiet," she says. "I’ve been in some of the courtyards when the train goes by and I didn’t even know it was there. One of the things that’s made people realize how easy it is to live near transit is that it’s much quieter than they think it is."

The Southwest
While much of Moule & Polyzoides’ work has been realized in southern California, its milieu really encompasses the greater American Southwest. Courtyard housing, for instance, is not exclusive to southern California. "It goes deep into the desert," says Moule. "We do a lot of work in Arizona, in the Sonora Desert. The courtyard, the paseo, the narrow street – all of these are a kind of a containment of space. What we always do though is change the proportion of courtyards for sun, shade, temperature issues, cross-ventilation and the nature of the landscape. Certainly the nature of the wrapping of the fabric changes considerably is terms of indigenous character. The courtyard itself is very malleable. People love it because people love being in outdoor rooms. There hasn’t been a complete renaissance of courtyard housing yet, but there is emerging a renaissance of outdoor rooms."

At the scale of urbanism, Moule & Polyzoides’ first large-scale sustainable project was Civano, a development in Tucson, AZ, that was adapted to the desert climate through the utilization of covered patios, shaded courtyards, recessed openings and rammed-earth and adobe walls. Yet New Urbanist developments, by their nature, are sometimes frustrating to their designers – projects are often master-planned, sold by the developer and never fully realized to their original intent. In the case of Civano, the project was sold and only half of the first neighborhood was built.

Today, the firm’s master plan for Tucson’s Mercado District is being realized. As part of the city’s Rio Nuevo Redevelopment Project, Moule & Polyzoides conceived an eight-block, seven-plaza plan that will include 300 dwellings and 100,000 sq.ft. of commercial space. "It’s a fabulous infill project in adobe and rammed earth," says Polyzoides. "I am absolutely confident, because it’s under construction by five builders who have built beautiful traditional buildings in Tucson in the last 20 years, that it’s going to be something special. The infrastructure is in place, the first buildings are in construction and next year we’re going to see at least a couple of streets completed."

Urbanism
By promoting mixed-usage, walkability and ample open space, as well as catering to all economic levels, Moule & Polyzoides strives to design in a way conducive to the harmony of blocks, streets, neighborhoods, towns, cities and regions. The firm’s progression from individual buildings to more large-scale New Urbanist projects is a reflection of its thinking not just locally, but globally. "Stefanos and I were really engaged in doing one building at a time – that’s what our practice was," says Moule. "But they were never the same project. One fire station, one housing project, one library, one this and one that – and we said to ourselves, ‘what does that all make?’ We were always interested in the broader fabric and broader places, so we literally took those ingredients and said, ‘how should they be situated?’"

It was this line of thinking, in part, that led to the formation – along with Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Daniel Solomon and Peter Calthorpe – of the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993. New Urbanism is, according to Moule, about reforming architecture and urbanism, not creating something new. "But what’s new about New Urbanism is that is has the tailwinds of the energy crisis with the problems of sustainability," she says. "Far and away the biggest energy crisis we have right now is vehicular trips. Retooling the automobile is just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s really needed to get people out of their cars and walking and using transit. The tailwinds are the environmental crisis, and the tailwinds are also a feeling that cars have overtaken people’s lives – people are sick and tired of traffic and congestion. They are sickened by what suburbia really feels like on a regular basis. There’s a lot that’s great about suburbia, but it doesn’t really fully deliver on what it promises to everybody. People’s lives are being taken apart by the amount of time that they spend in the automobile. New Urbanism resonates with people who want a different quality of life."

Building Green
Moule & Polyzoides’ interest in environmentally friendly design is best exemplified by The Robert Redford Building and Environmental Action Center, the 15,000-sq.ft. West Coast headquarters of the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Located in Santa Monica, the building was given a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the greenest building in the world. It gets 70 percent of its energy from its own power source – the balance is from wind certificates purchased from the utility company. It is self sufficient with respect to water.

"It’s very hotly debated in traditional architecture circles, because it’s not a very conventional building," says Moule. "Our view is that traditional architecture needs to continue to evolve and be responsive to a wide variety of situations and places. Classicism, as well as the vernacular, endures through the ongoing, very slight manipulation of the canon. The canon is still present in the building, and yet it’s not. I would like to think that it’s a poster child of a building that understands its role in the universe."

According to Moule, although there’s an enormous hunger for buildings like this from citizens, the profession lags well behind in delivering them. "Unfortunately, financing does not readily respond to life-cycle costs," she says. "These buildings are not more expensive – there’s just a short-term high capitalization and then those costs are amortized over time. "

As in all its work, Moule & Polyzoides’ design of The Robert Redford Building involved thinking about its long-term impact. "We have a great interest in sustainability," says Polyzoides. "We can only build once, as far as Liz and I are concerned. We are trying to focus on the question of what is most important. What is most important is building once – more than anything else, the most important value in the built world is building once."  

 

 

 
 

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