Michael Maltzan is an architect who speaks eloquently about the power of design to improve the lives and communities of people who are homeless. He designs buildings that speak to the power of social change. In conjunction with the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles, CA, he creates buildings that are transforming lives. These buildings help change the way we think about supportive housing and the people who live there.
Michael believes that it is possible to change the way that cities think about homelessness. In thinking about building homes, he asks the question, “What is this city’s future, and how do we creatively address challenges?”
People often believe that creating change through architecture requires enormous projects that dominate a city neighborhood. Michael offers that sometimes this approach will work, but more often it does not. In reference to buildings he has designed for the Skid Row Housing Trust, Michael remarks on the incremental strategy of change.
“Using an incremental strategy of creating well-designed buildings, we can re-map the city. We are creating a new kind of balance in the city.”
Central to his approach is finding creative solutions. The Carver Apartments project provides 95 units of permanent supportive housing for older, formerly homeless adults with physical disabilities and chronic medical conditions. It was one of the first properties they designed outside of the Skid Row area. It is south of downtown Los Angeles, close to the Staples Center. The building was completed and celebrated with a Grand Opening in September 2009. Beginning in December, residents started moving into the single occupancy units. Currently, the building is almost full.
Speaking of the Carver Apartments, Michael says, “design has the capacity to make the community visible as opposed to invisible. It can make it a place where tenants can take real pride in their community. It can help them create high aspirations for themselves and to become a significant part of the city. The design is a representation of the community.”
Michael speaks with understanding about how the needs of residents who have lived on the streets merge with the need for community engagement. He notes that the Carver Apartments location “was a tight site, right up against the highway. The acoustics were difficult.” These conditions would have usually created a space with little opportunity to enjoy the outdoors or feel connected. Yet Michael found a way to deal with these issues.
“We tried to provide a design that would help foster people’s development of social skills in a safe way. The design of [the Skid Row Housing Trust properties] creates semi-public spaces that help people to incrementally reconnect.” These spaces are provided through a series of open terraces and decks. They offer visual connections between the property, the residents, and the city as a whole.
Michael has learned valuable lessons with each additional project and sees his work as a personal commitment. One of the main reasons Michael became an architect is because he believes that architecture has the potential to be an agent of change. He sees that cities must deal with the reality of homelessness. Without facing this challenge, cities will risk great social costs.
Of his work with the Skid Row Housing Trust, Michael says, “These projects are important parts of a larger whole. We take these projects on an equal footing and they have shared an equal importance with other buildings.”
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