Brooks+Scarpa turn air shafts into architecture

Courtyard renovation
© Brooks+Scarpa

It's wonderful to see architects take small interventions for housing for the homeless so seriously.

It is usually a requirement of building codes that major rooms of dwellings have windows. But they rarely say that they have to have views. Sometimes those windows open up into little more than airshafts. I used to write about how these airshafts were clever ways of ventilating apartments, until I learned that...

"rather than create a source of air and light, these narrow slots quickly evolved into sources of disease, noise, and dysfunction...the air shaft was adopted as a convenient place to dump everything from food scraps to human waste, and from all accounts, the accumulation of waste was great."

slot courtyard before© Brooks+Scarpa

When Brooks+Scarpa were renovating and upgrading a Skid Row building in Los Angeles as housing for the formerly homeless, they found three of these "courtyards" that they describe as being "either poorly utilized, abandoned or cluttered with bicycles and other tenant debris."

Upon this discovery the architects suggested to the client that at minimal costs these service areas could be transformed into usable shared social spaces that could have a dramatic impact for the tenants within an otherwise ordinary modernization that customarily is void of any significant design improvements.

wall with flowerpots© Brooks+Scarpa

One of the courtyards is really a slot at 8' by 60' and they have had some fun here; I like the flowerpots on the wall.

The other is an almost giant 16' x 21'. In both, "concrete pavers have replaced ordinary cement slabs and ill-conceived round pavers that previously dotted the ground. The perimeters are now lined with white gravel, and the same light-colored palette covers every surface of the renovated space."

Nice bench© Brooks+Scarpa

Brooks+Scarpa is an established firm that has done major projects. Most architects more than a week out of school wouldn't get out of bed for a job with a $150,000 budget. But here they have not only given it their all, but are proud enough of it to put together a not-inexpensive press package. And they didn't skimp on the copywriting either:

...the courtyards became vessels of life addressing the tenants’ habits and wills. Ascending plants in a scattered configuration on the walls, are reaching closer to the sunlight. Plants that the tenants can take into their units, water and return them/ or not, to create this interactive green wall. People can sit, eat and engage in conversations, even use the custom made ashtrays at this bright and warm setting.

Years ago, some architect friends designed a prison that came in on time and under budget, but that looked like a really nice building, inside and out. When a new conservative government came in, the new person in charge visited the prison and complained, "It's too nice! Prisons aren't supposed to be nice!" The government switched to imported American precast concrete prefab prisons that were not nice at all and actually cost more, because prisons aren't supposed to be nice. Many people feel that way about social housing, and probably would reject $150K being spent on "frills" like this.

Axonometric of corridor© Brooks+Scarpa

But our cities would be so much better if more architects took little projects for social housing clients so seriously and creatively, who pushed for little frills that make life better for the occupants. And good for them for tooting their own horn about it; more architects should do that, too.

Brooks+Scarpa turn air shafts into architecture
It's wonderful to see architects take small interventions for housing for the homeless so seriously.

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