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Maltzan's Architectural Vision

Maltzan's Architectural Vision

Dedicated to using design for social change, architect Michael Maltzan BArch 85 is transforming urban life in Los Angeles and impacting cities across the country.

In work like the 510,000-sf One Santa Fe in Los Angeles (above), Michael Maltzan BArch 85 designs architecture that anticipates the city's future | photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

“What most interests me in the practice of architecture,” Michael Maltzan BArch 85 told a crowd packed in to hear him speak at RISD on Monday, April 18, “is range – [its] ability to cover territory, to expand context, to take on different typologies and forms of work.”

On campus to deliver the annual Shoemaker Lecture in Architecture – a tradition that dates back to when he was a student in the 1980s – Maltzan spoke about how his progressive, socially responsible practice has shaped his vision for the role architects can play in building a better world. An intensely collaborative studio of 25 people, Michael Maltzan Architecture (MMA) in Los Angeles handles work coast to coast, designing private homes, art centers, performance spaces, museums, bridges and parks. Much of MMA’s work in the past decade centers on partnering with the city’s Skid Row Housing Trust on a series of appealing residential complexes that revolutionize the 21st-century notion of public housing in major metropolitan areas.

“In the face of a complex social, political and physical context like the city of Los Angeles,” Maltzan told students, “I’ve come to believe that architecture [can be more] impactful at the level of a building and also at the level of a discipline.” Through breakthrough buildings for the homeless and low-income residents, MMA has offered a series of bold, beautiful solutions to the city’s housing needs that “allow communities that are separated from one another to see each other” as integral parts of a vibrant city.

"The tools designers possess in synthesizing complex information and finding pathways through the sets of hurdles that confront us… have huge potential."
Michael Maltzan BArch 85

Take the 53,000-sf New Carver apartment complex, a clean white circular building with open glass windows that look out directly onto Interstate 10. Every day since it opened in 2009, commuters and formerly homeless residents literally see each other going about their day-to-day business – even if just in passing. Such encounters, Maltzan says, demonstrate how architects and designers can make urban infrastructure move beyond just facilitating movement within a city and toward the more dynamic goal of community-building.

In Maltzan’s view, architects today should embrace an elastic view of discipline so that they can make a more significant impact on their communities. This means using the tools of design to collaborate across disciplines – for instance, with engineers, along with city and state officials and policymakers, to solve complex infrastructural problems. “The tools designers possess in synthesizing complex information and finding pathways through the sets of hurdles that confront us… have huge potential,” he says, noting that he picked up this notion of elasticity at RISD, “the place where the lights really went on” as far as developing “a way of making something of consequence that relates to the way I interpret the world.”

Towards the end of his talk, Maltzan spoke about One Santa Fe (OSF), a 510,000-sf mixed-use complex that opened in March 2015. The striking red and white complex stretches more than a quarter of a mile long on a four-acre strip next to the rail yard, offering 438 rental units – 80% at market rate and 20% affordable housing – on five floors above restaurants, offices and shops at the ground level. A huge public square in the middle resurrects the age-old idea of the village square as an important communal hub.

"Work towards the idea that the things we make [provide a positive] vision of what the future of a city might look like."

“It’s almost a piece of urban fabric as much as a building,” Maltzan explains. “I was trying to find a way of creating density in a very positive and forward-facing way” – a way that will allow cities like Los Angeles to shift away from urban sprawl and back towards more density in downtown areas. “I wanted to make a building that in many ways anticipates the scale of the city,” he says.

Maltzan also spoke about his ongoing work on LA’s Sixth Street Viaduct bridge and park project, due to be completed in 2019. Both OSF and the viaduct project demonstrate his commitment to an architectural practice that anticipates what the city of Los Angeles will look like a decade or more from now and invites the people who live in and visit the city to participate in the conversation about where it's going.

For Maltzan, such anticipatory urbanism “is not too large an ambition for architects and designers to believe in and take on.” With that in mind, he urged students going into the field “to work towards the idea that the things we make [provide a positive] vision of what the future of a city might look like.”

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