Silver Lake architect says Los Angeles looks to its core for ideas about homes, sustainability

Silver Lake architect Michael Maltzan shows the scale of a model for a new sustainable building.
Silver Lake architect Michael Maltzan shows the scale of a model for a new sustainable building.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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This week we’re hearing from Southern Californians with ideas about ways to make home sustainable. KPCC’s Molly Peterson offers this profile of a Los Angeles architect who’s eager to apply that thinking to people at every rung of the income ladder.

Third in a three-part series
A US Supreme Court justice once called the states laboratories for democracy. For architect Michael Maltzan, who works in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, L.A. is the laboratory for urbanism and modern architecture. "Written very deeply into the DNA of Los Angeles is experimentation – progressive ideas about the way we live," Maltzan says.

Some of his experiments are homes for private clients with lots of money. Maltzan's also won acclaim for homes his firm has designed for the Skid Row Housing Trust - like the New Carver apartments, located near (but not on) downtown LA’s skid row, in a crook of the 1-10 Freeway.

In the center of the New Carver, a cog-shaped building, aspiring architect Theresa Hwang raves about Maltzan's plan. "The fact that the courtyard opens up to the sky just makes you look up. It's about open, it's about air, it's an amazing view."

Green Building on Hope Street with the Skid Row Housing Trust from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

Maltzan says the New Carver is meant to be of a piece with its neighborhood, with the other buildings he's designed on Skid Row, and with the city itself. "We’re thinking about these projects not as individual projects but as a larger project," he says, "in which all of these buildings are part of a larger idea about how you affect the social fabric and social life in the city."

For a long time, the heart of southern California architecture beat loudest on LA's west side. Now that the Southland’s sprawled inland, Maltzan says he's less lonely in Silver Lake than he was when he arrived there 15 years ago. Other design firms have grown in downtown and northeast-central Los Angeles. That's shifting interest, he says, to culturally-mixed areas in the city's center. "I think you could make the argument that the city – not physically, perhaps, but psychologically – has hit its boundaries," Maltzan muses. "And as that happens the city is going to continue to re look at its core –and I think we have to imagine what kind of very radical effect that’s going to have on its identity."

Maltzan grew up in the mass-market suburb of Levittown, New York. Like that Long Island city, L.A. also flourished as a ranch house utopia after World War Two. But Maltzan argues that a booming population makes apartments and multifamily buildings the future of urban areas – especially Los Angeles – that seek sustainability. "This new reality of a denser city will certainly be something that other contemporary cities continue to grapple with around the world," he says.

Passive heating and cooling, reduced energy consumption, and filtered indoor air are common in Maltzan's work. But he says that sustainability is bigger and more complicated than ultra-efficient internal systems and eco-friendly building materials. For example, architects and urban designers will have to commit to the efficient use of public space - and the zealous protection of privacy - to help cities thrive. "As our lives become more interconnected I think one of the complexities of the contemporary life is increasingly that blurry line between public and private and what that means." In a city like Los Angeles, Maltzan says, where public plazas are in short supply, the blurry line is often the street and the sidewalk themselves.

Maltzan believes that public leaders, urban planners, city dwellers and architects must sort out those issues together in the laboratory that is Los Angeles.