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Architects Get Candid About Building Homes for L.A.'s Unhoused Communities

Q&A with Architects Michael B. Lehrer and Nerin Kadribegovic about their work with some of the most vulnerable populations in Los Angeles

Aerial photo of downtown Los Angeles colorful buildings in tiny home community
The Whitsett West Tiny Home Village in North Hollywood sits on an oddly shaped piece of land that had been overlooked by more conventional development projects.

In 2001, architect Michael B. Lehrer was invited to join the board of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles (HHCLA), an organization that provides services, wellness programs, training, thought leadership, and shelter to the city’s unhoused population.

The invitation came after Lehrer’s firm designed the Downtown Homeless Drop-In Shelter and the James Wood Community Center, both of which are in the heart of the city’s Skid Row area. More than two decades (and four years as the board president) later, Lehrer is still involved with HHCLA, and has continued to undertake socially driven projects, most recently seven shelters, including five tiny-house villages, which were built in collaboration with the city of Los Angeles over the past three years. The newest development, the Westlake Tiny Home Village—a community that can house up to 107 residents—comprises 55 units created to give autonomy to residents and to destigmatize the act of housing homeless people with its desirable design. Although Lehrer has designed hundreds of projects, ranging from single-family homes to the Water and Life Museums (the first museums in the world to receive LEED Platinum certification), he considers the firm’s socially driven work to be among the most important in its portfolio. To learn more, GRAY spoke with firm founder Michael B. Lehrer and architect, designer, and partner Nerin Kadribegovic about their work with some of the most vulnerable populations in Los Angeles.

(The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Nerin Kadribegovic: Michael founded the firm in 1985, and I joined almost 20 years ago. At the start, most of the commissions were for single-family homes, but in the late ’90s, the studio got its first public and institutional commission, which was the Downtown Drop-In Center for the homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood. It was a radical project at the time and a pet project of the then mayor, Richard Riordan. Ever since, we’ve become more and more involved with these types of projects, as well as with [promoting] multifamily and affordable housing.

A few years ago, under a federal order, Los Angeles was required to offer a certain number of housing units for the homeless. Before the pandemic, these were often communal shelters with 100 [dorm-style] beds each. The city issued a request for proposals, and we submitted and received the bid. [The firm transformed a quarter-acre parking lot into a 70-bed facility, the Aetna Street Bridge Home.]

Michael B. Lehrer: Part of the challenge of this project was that it was very early on in the city’s shelter program and there was a sense of hyper-urgency around it. We just tried to act fast and make good products that serve the houseless population.

NK: That project was a success, but once the pandemic hit, the city decided to pivot from the communal shelter model to tiny-home villages. We were able to design and build our first tiny-home village [the Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village] in just 90 days.

ML: The most important thing was making places for people that provide them with dignity and delight. It’s a universal challenge to design places that make people happy, whether they are houseless or fully housed. First, you must solve functional and technical problems to make a structure that is viable and durable. Second, you look at your budget and timeframe, ask yourself what tools are available to make something the best it can be—and maybe even make it a little beautiful.

One of the problems in architecture is making spaces that capture people’s imaginations. In these cases, we had very constrained spaces dominated by a lot of pavement, which is not generally thought of as an uplifting material. Our approach for these tiny-home villages was using color [via paint] to distinguish and individualize them. Color is a very powerful delight-and-placemaking device that is usually affordable and high impact. It can be used to both emphasize and de-emphasize aspects of a project. When you look out at any scene, 60 percent of what you see is the ground plane, so using color to shape that can have a big impact on a small budget.

NK: In addition to the individual homes, each village has a set of bathrooms, storage containers, laundry facilities, a small pet park, and offices for caseworkers. The population that is selected to go into each [village] is determined by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. They canvas the streets with the understanding of who is new and who [has been around for a while and might be] ready to move.

pink tiny houses designed by architects
The Whitsett West Tiny Home Village in North Hollywood.

ML: One of the biggest things I’ve learned over the years and through my involvement with this community is that agency and autonomy are as important as anything to help restore human dignity. That’s motivated us in terms of individualizing the tiny houses [through exterior decoration] and not just making them a row of anonymous buildings.

NK: I think that having your own space is a game-changer on so many levels. Not only to have a place to remove yourself from other people, but to also be able to control your own heat and air-conditioning and to lock your own door.

ML: Most of the sites we’ve worked on present a big challenge for other uses and are therefore deemed undesirable or difficult to develop. [They require] a design approach that I think our Saticoy project manifests most clearly: The lot was an almost useless piece of land, about 1,000 feet long and only 20 feet wide at its narrowest point, but since tiny homes are basically pixels, and easier to adjust within a site than large buildings, we were able to make use of this “throwaway” space. For architects, projects like this—taking something worthless and giving it value—are incredibly gratifying.

"...When I first moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago, that’s exactly the situation I was in. I was a refugee of the Bosnian War. My mother, brother, and I lived in a little room in a hotel that had been converted to temporary housing. It had no kitchen, so at that time, just having a little hot plate where my mother could make us breakfast was a luxury."

NK: When it comes down to it, we’re architects, and we care about housing people. Right now, Lehrer Architects is working on several projects with Project Homekey, an initiative of Los Angeles County and the State of California to convert hotels into long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness. It’s interesting because when I first moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago, that’s exactly the situation I was in. I was a refugee of the Bosnian War. My mother, brother, and I lived in a little room in a hotel that had been converted to temporary housing. It had no kitchen, so at that time, just having a little hot plate where my mother could make us breakfast was a luxury.

Later, when I was in grad school, I didn’t have a car, so I would go through Skid Row on my bike to get to class. To experience that type of environment was absolutely shocking. We didn’t have that in Bosnia, so I couldn’t quite understand how these social networks had failed so badly. When I met Michael, which was around that time, he was working on these same types of [socially driven] projects, and that really struck a chord. So, for me, this work is not only fascinating from an architectural and design perspective, but it’s really meaningful from a humanitarian and personal perspective.

ML: Making places that are coherent and beautiful for anybody is a privilege, but making them for people for whom these can be game-changing environments—that’s kind of as good as it gets.

I was born to be an architect. The only other thing I could imagine being is a rabbi—and that’s because for me, the aesthetic and the spiritual are fundamentally the same thing. Our job is to create places that honor, celebrate, and sanctify the activities that happen in them. Our goal is to make a place [at which] you arrive, you take a deep breath, and you say, “It’s good to be alive.” And that’s good for every human being, but for people who have nothing, it’s transformational, it can be lifesaving, and it’s a tremendous gift.

As published in GRAY magazine No. 63

Images courtesy Lehrer Architects


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