UCLA

The New Urbanscape

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By Nate Berg, Photos by Matt Harbicht

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM


UCLA’s cityLAB is working with campus partners to engineer changes in how we use physical spaces during a digital era.


Architecture Professor Dana Cuff — cityLAB’s founder — in front of a reimagined Broxton Avenue in Westwood Village. Photos by Matt Harbicht.

For a few weeks in the spring of 2015, in a patio behind UCLA’s Broad Art Center in the northeast corner of campus, stood a new building. It wasn’t a classroom or a lecture hall. It was a house.

Just 350 square feet, with a frame of two-by-fours and bent metal poles wrapped in translucent plastic sheeting, the house was aggressively unconventional — in its site, its materials, and especially in its size. And that was the point. This home was a prototype of the future house of Los Angeles — a small, cheap-to-build and environmentally sustainable structure that could fit in the backyard of nearly any of L.A.’s million dollar-plus single-family homes. Designed and built by Kevin Daly Architects and a team of architecture students, the house was a class project, but also a proof of concept for a bold proposition: solving the city’s housing crisis.

This project was conceived and built by cityLAB, a multidisciplinary think tank within UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. As its name suggests, cityLAB conducts research and experiments on the city and its design, using the tools of architecture and urban planning to take on the biggest challenges facing urban areas around the world — from housing affordability to the role of transportation in urban development to the interior and exterior spaces of a future defined by automation. Through a mix of scholarly research, design studio problem solving and speculative proposals, cityLAB thinks deeply about — and tries to shape — the 21st-century city.

Architecture Professor Dana Cuff founded cityLAB in 2006, when the future of the city was an open, and sometimes confounding, question. It was just a few months after New Orleans had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and a few years after New York had suffered destructive terrorist attacks. These extreme conditions, compounded by increasing urbanization and climate change worldwide, urged Cuff to rethink what role architects like herself should and could play.


(Left to right) Josh Nelson, Gus Wendel M.U.R.P. ’17, Yessenia Juarez ’15 and Kenny Wong in front of a rendering of a new Westwood. (Nelson, Juarez and Wong are student research associates; Wendel is cityLAB’s assistant director.)

“It seemed to me that architecture just didn’t have the responsibility and capability that it needed to have to respond to these really urban crises,” Cuff says. The complex future of cities needed a more complex set of answers. “If we tied in to politics, tied in to economics and could collaborate across the spectrum of city builders, we could actually innovate and experiment,” she says.

So she began playing the role of convener, partnering with researchers, faculty and students from across UCLA and in the public sector to develop proposals and policies that could address the big issues of this new urban future.

“An architect would solve a particular building problem with a project on a specific site. We don’t do that. We always work on projects that are demonstrations of how you could approach many other sites and projects with the same circumstances,” she says. “The fundamental premise of cityLAB is that we do projects that are prototypes.”

Over the years, project teams have looped in engineers, computer scientists, designers, planners, architects, economists, city department heads and politicians. Though framed as an academic think tank, cityLAB is actually a bridge between academics and action. “We bring the force of the university to bear on the city,” Cuff says.

A 2011 effort started by looking right down the street, in Westwood Village. Springboarding off plans for a new subway station to eventually be built at the intersection of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards, cityLAB set out to collect ideas and create a vision for the future of the village. Observations of the area and interviews with community members led to a few key takeaways: The village had a glut of underutilized commercial space that wasn’t capitalizing on its close proximity to UCLA’s campus, and changing transportation patterns were demanding a new approach to traffic management.


A digital image rendering of the Westwood and Wilshire intersection. Image courtesy of cityLAB.

A team of students and architects used these findings to imagine what a better Westwood Village would look like. They suggested spreading UCLA’s special events off campus to enliven vacant or underused commercial spaces by, for instance, hosting music and theater performances in the village’s historic movie houses.

To address a growing volume of pedestrians and cyclists ahead of the new subway’s opening, they replanned the village as a “car-lite” zone, reducing infrastructure dedicated to cars. A proposal led by architect and UCLA faculty member Neil M. Denari adds a dedicated bus lane in the center of Westwood Boulevard and pushes all vehicular traffic underground, devoting the surface level entirely to pedestrians and cyclists — as well as to pastel-painted outdoor patios and public gathering spaces.

The images that resulted from this project are almost fantastical compared to the Westwood Village of 2011 (or even today). The idea of handing street space from cars to pedestrians “seemed to make people’s hair stand on end,” Cuff says. And that was sort of the point. Showing people what a place like Westwood Village could be, she argues, will hopefully make them think harder about what it currently is and how it might need to change.

This speculative approach is one cityLAB has taken with a wide variety of topics, more recently in an exploration of the future of work and office spaces and how coming changes may affect business hubs like downtown Los Angeles, Century City and the Westside. In collaboration with the L.A. office of the global architecture firm Gensler, cityLAB tracked the evolution of office spaces, workers and equipment from the 1860s to the present, picking out the key factors that have determined their physical characteristics over time. They found that in the digital era, the role of physical spaces is changing dramatically.

What form these spaces should take became the question at the heart of an 18-month partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in which cityLAB and its partners used these findings to design new physical spaces and furniture to encourage collaboration and the concentrated work JPL calls “deep think.” The partners created a series of alternatives to conventional office and workplace design.

One, designed by architect and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design (AUD) lecturer Marta Nowak, proposes a multi-configuration workspace within a wheel structure that enables a user to sit, stand or recline inside it — as well as to roll the whole thing to new locations or to connect with other wheels to collaborate. Another, by architect and UCLA AUD lecturer Güvenç Özel, reflects the increasingly fluid nature of what constitutes a workday, combining work and leisure spaces into an outdoor pavilion with a shade that moves as the user occupies different parts of the structure.


This 350-square-foot house behind the Broad Art Center was a prototype of a future L.A. home. Photos courtesy of cityLAB.

Clearly speculative in nature, these investigations are often the start of a conversation and internal research process at cityLAB that can last years. Through that process, some projects transcend the typical bounds of the think tank.

One example is the issue of addressing L.A.’s housing shortage by building additional units in backyards, which has been on cityLAB’s agenda from the start. Early work focused on the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima, a working-class neighborhood where residents had been solving the area’s housing shortage by various means, including converting garages into extra units. Because of the area’s agricultural history, the lot sizes of many single-family homes are especially large there, leaving a lot of extra space for small additional houses. Cuff and her collaborators found that there were virtually no means to build secondary units or garage conversions legally, but that some homeowners did so, anyway. “People were doing it in spite of the fact that they couldn’t realize the benefits of them if they sold their property,” Cuff says. “They needed the housing stock that bad.”

This work led to a research publication showing how antiquated fire codes, setback requirements and parking requirements could be adjusted to make such buildings easier to permit — changes that, given L.A.’s extensive supply of backyards, could enable more than a million single-family homes across the county the option to build new units. The small house constructed on that UCLA courtyard in 2015 was a physical representation of how policies needed to change and what could result.


Extremely unconventional, the house was framed with two-by-fours and bent metal poles and wrapped in translucent plastic sheeting. It was small, cheap to build and environmentally sustainable and could fit in the backyard of most single-family houses in Los Angeles.


These policy prescriptions eventually made their way to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown as legislation co-written by Cuff for California State Assembly Member Richard Bloom, easing restrictions on, and indeed encouraging, backyard homes statewide. It became state law in January 2017. Since the law went into effect, the city of L.A. has seen a 700-percent increase in permits for backyard housing, according to Amanda Daflos, director of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Innovation Team, a kind of in-house consulting team focused on the city’s big issues, including housing. Daflos calls the increase in permitted backyard houses a huge accomplishment. “It provides benefits to residents and the city by bringing more housing online,” she says.

To help more residents learn the streamlined process of building in their backyards, cityLAB has partnered with the Innovation Team to produce a handbook that explains the law and how to get projects financed, permitted and built. In collaboration with the city, architects from the nonprofit LA-Más, Habitat for Humanity and the community development group Genesis LA, a young family in Highland Park is currently building a backyard house that’s intended to serve as a pilot project for others to learn from.

This transition from research to policy to built project is the strength of cityLAB, says Bianca Siegl, a 2003 graduateof UCLA’s master of architecture program and an early cityLAB collaborator. Through her work on early projects, including backyard housing, Siegl says she learned a lot from the practice of bringing in a wide variety of voices and disciplines to think about and address the big issues facing cities. “What I realized, partly because of my experience at cityLAB, is that government is really ripe for innovation that can have a real impact on people,” says Siegl, who’s now manager of long-range and mobility planning for the City of West Hollywood. “It totally changed the path of my career in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated.”

A multiplicity of backgrounds and specialties has been a crucial asset to cityLAB from the start, allowing it to capitalize on the collaborative nature of UCLA. And the model is spreading. In 2013, UCLA launched the interdisciplinary Urban Humanities Initiative, bringing together students and scholars from architecture, urban planning, the humanities and the arts to study contemporary issues in the Pacific Rim cities of Mexico City, Tokyo, Shanghai and Los Angeles. Cuff, the initiative’s principal investigator, sees this work as an extension of cityLAB’s ethos of contending with the complexity of the city by creating collaborations.

"When you’re experimenting around urban problems, you need expertise from all walks,” she says. “You get to a more creative solution, by far.”

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