Space, light and nature
Village Green in Los Angeles delivers a slice of the American dream
Words: Leanne Cloudsdale
Photography: Justin Chung (archive credits below)
In a city with a reputation for putting cars before people, Village Green provides an alternative way to live. Built at the base of the Baldwin Hills in south-western Los Angeles, this purposefully planned housing estate has been referred to as one of the most important architectural achievements in United States history. Completed in 1942, by lead architect Reginald D. Johnson, consulting architect Clarence S. Stein and associate architects of Wilson, Merrill & Alexander architects, Village Green is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Village Green was inspired by the ‘garden city movement’, founded by the British people-centric pioneer Ebenezer Howard in 1898. Howard’s revolutionary approach put space, light and nature at the heart of the town planning process – encouraging human interaction with the world outdoors. By the 1920s, Howard’s innovative philosophy was proving successful in the expansion of towns across the United Kingdom, and it wasn’t long before his ideas had crossed the Atlantic.
With its eight-lane freeways and frequent traffic jams, modern-day Los Angeles continues to sprawl at a pace that has remained consistent for almost 100 years. The car is firmly rooted within the landscape and mentality of the city’s inhabitants; transportation for most is via private vehicle. Mention LA in any conversation, and the subject of cars is sure to follow – unless you decide to raise the topic with a resident of Village Green, where the focus is (and always has been), on the needs of humans instead of road networks.
Since its inception, Village Green has challenged the residential status quo. A fundamentally new type of build philosophy with no through-streets, it provided a different type of Californian luxury. With doorstep access to carefully planned lush green space – and not a car in sight – this urban settlement gives the pedestrian right of way. Spread across 68 acres of land, the ‘village’ comprises 629 modest, privately-owned condominium units and a communal ‘clubhouse’ building. Set out in three neat segments that radiate out from central open gardens, homes are grouped into ‘courts’ facing inwards and sit comfortably among mature trees, carefully tended lawns, flowerbeds and footpaths.
An oasis of calm in a prime location, proud residents are understandably committed to its preservation. Landscape historian Steven Keylon feels lucky to have lived at Village Green. Explaining why he’s passionate about the conservation of this one-of-a-kind slice of the American dream, he said, “It’s an unusual housing proposition, right in the middle of a busy metropolis, in an area that would have ordinarily been used for streets and sidewalks. Village Green is unlike anywhere in Los Angeles; density is much lower than surrounding ‘typical’ neighbourhoods, and residents have immediate access to open green-space that is shared by the Village Green community. That’s pretty radical.”
“It is widely considered to be an environmental masterpiece” he continues, “and because land like this won’t be available again in LA, the conservation of this ideal is an important lesson to current designers – many of whom visit to study why it works so well. Hopefully their research into the formula for Village Green can help inform contemporary building projects.”
The two-storey homes are compact. Ranging from 900 to 1600 sq ft (84 to 150 sq m), they were typically proportioned for the 1940s, but considered small by today’s standards. For Aidan Hawken, Steven’s neighbour, the decision to bring up a family in a home of 1000 sq ft (93 sq m) means that he and his wife, Andrea, had to commit to a lifestyle of ‘living better with less’. It’s a sacrifice they have been more than willing to make, as Aidan described, “Protecting its [Village Green’s] history, teaches us how to create living spaces that support individuals, families, communities and the surrounding environment. Our collective attempt to ‘own’ more – and to insulate ourselves from the outside world – results in many of us being disconnected from the values that create contentment, peace and happiness. On a hot summer’s day in LA, you can feel a distinctive climate shift when you enter Village Green. The air cools, the breeze picks up and the sounds change from cars and sirens to birds and insects. I equate the green we see outside our windows with eating well or exercising; it has a measurable effect on my family’s health.”
Smiling, Steven Keylon also commented, “the masterful indoor/outdoor design changes your approach to living by simplifying what is necessary and expanding the opportunities for community living. Though they may be small in size, they are huge in humanity.”
With three small children, Aidan and Andrea have been especially mindful about their furniture choices to maximise on living space. Their decision to install the 606 Universal Shelving System has allowed them the freedom to reconfigure in harmony with their changing needs. The majority of their treasured possessions are vintage – including songwriter Aidan’s collection of musical instruments. Gesturing towards the shelves behind him, Aidan explained, “Vitsœ’s commitment to its original vision parallels the Village Green. Both were forward-thinking and ultimately ahead of their time. When it comes to design, Vitsœ is one of the only products I will recommend buying brand-new. It is unwavering in its ethos in a way that few other companies have been able to maintain. I’m a big fan.”
As a National Historic Landmark there are (understandably) rules in place. The architectural spirit is simple but progressive – and has aged well. A strong sense of pride prevails when it comes to sensitive restoration, as Steven explained, “The design of Village Green was never intended to be heroic, which is probably the reason it’s been so successful. I’ve worked [with the residents’ association] to research the paint palette that had been selected by the architects a few years after completion. It’s a soft, muted combination of off-white, greens, blues, brown, tan and grey. Gradually, these shades have been lovingly restored and with so many trees dating back to the 1940s dotted around, it really does help the buildings recede into the landscape.”
“Every detail here matters. We take great pride in maintaining the colour scheme and the landscaping, because it provides an ordered, restful and cohesive background for community living. Take a stroll through the central park or the cul-de-sacs and you’ll never see a car. The fact that this visionary 80-year-old social experiment is still very much working, proves what a special place it is.”
Clarence Stein papers, #3600. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library
© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)