Words Steffan Heuer
Photography Iwan Baan
If you want to get a sense of what Michael Maltzan’s work is all about, a drive around downtown Los Angeles offers the best insights. He has managed to punctuate the city’s industrial areas with a smattering of austere white buildings in unusual shapes that speak to the man’s vision. Maltzan’s projects stand out from the maze of freeways, freight tracks, warehouses and rough streets undulating around the giant concrete ditch called the LA River. They are manifestos for his idea of modernism with a purpose, which is defined by the wish for social inclusion and the goal to use architecture as a force for larger change.
“My work is very concerned with the issues around how architecture can help create a more progressive or positive urban experience for people,” the 55-year-old East Coast native says. “My goal is to continue to push the boundaries of what architecture is involved in, to have a seat at the conversation of how our cities, how our communities evolve, and to continue to develop images, representations, visions, and finally physical artefacts that represent what that world can be like.”
Behind Maltzan stands a 20-metre-long model of his latest project, a replacement for LA’s historical Sixth Street Viaduct. This autumn the dilapidated concrete structure will be torn down to make way for Maltzan’s kinder, gentler notion of how to connect a sprawling megacity. By 2019, a sequence of waves of white concrete, steel and glass complemented by green space will undulate over the LA River channel, accommodating pedestrians, cyclists and drivers on several levels.
The challenge was to prove that infrastructure can take on multiple responsibilities. “Whenever you’re building something this large, it has to do more for the city than just take a car from one side of the river to the other. To do more to create a stronger sense of connection within the city, to change the way we think about mobility, to knit together communities and different neighbourhoods.”
Making new and unexpected connections has fascinated Maltzan, who was born and raised on Long Island, since he first set eyes on Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. The megacity of ten million people that he now calls home feels “more real than any other place I’ve ever been. This city is filled with so many different cultures, so many different forums, so many different economies, politics, so many different social components. All of them wrapped together make for a city that is constantly evolving, changing, challenging.”
Maltzan has honed his signature answer to those varied impulses and challenges. His very first commission continues to be his most influential, he admits. In 1992 LA had just erupted into violent riots following the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, by police. The rash of arson and looting jolted Maltzan into action. “The city had pulled itself apart in as violent a way as I could have ever imagined,” he says.
So he jumped at the opportunity to design a campus for the non-profit Inner-City Arts organization in LA’s Skid Row, a neighbourhood notorious for its down-and-out residents and sizable homeless population. Looking to heal and drive change, Maltzan designed an ensemble of white buildings that he completed over the course of 15 years. The campus, to him, has become much more than just an art school for the underprivileged.
“Inner-City Arts is, for me, a distillation, a kind of microcosm of the ideal city,” he explains. “It’s as close to the idea of utopia as I think I’ve come. It’s a campus for educators, administrators, for the community, the families and students who work and live there. But more than anything it’s a neighbourhood in and of itself.”
His approach involves deep thinking about how people perceive and move through a building. That is why Maltzan spends a fair amount of time choreographing the procession through his buildings, no matter whether it is a private residence or a big infrastructure project.
The Pittman Dowell Residence at the edge of the Angeles National Forest is a case in point. It is a house with seven sides, yet the client wanted no doors. Maltzan came up with a spiralling, almost cinematic choreography through the space. “There is a door at the front, and there is a back door. But once you’re inside, you are moving seamlessly from one state to another.”
For Maltzan, Los Angeles has reached its limits in terms of endless expansion, sprawl and use of resources. In this transformation lie important lessons for the rest of the world. “LA embodies many of the challenges and issues that confront all contemporary cities. They are fundamental questions about politics, economy, social structure, density, urban fabric, transportation, geography,” he says. Architecture, he believes, can engender and guide this discussion by igniting small sparks, one building at a time. “That kernel of an idea can have an enormous influence on one city — and on other cities around the world.”