A living wall of vines, succulents and native vegetation clads a corner block of condos on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Trees sprout from planters on upper-level terraces while, below, street-level retail and two floors of condos support five white villas. As simple in outline as those on a Monopoly board, these residences are set back from the perimeter and face inward to a landscaped courtyard and water feature. In a city where most people aspire to live in single-family houses, architect Ma Yansong and the Los Angeles office of his studio, MAD, have created a hybrid village of shared and private spaces.
“The concept emerged from my first visit to L.A.,” recalls Ma. “Traditional houses with pitched roofs sit amid lush greenery and are stacked up the hillsides. But this is a flat, urban site, so we constructed an artificial hill to reference the landscape and put the two-storey villas on top.” The resulting 18-unit scheme, dubbed Gardenhouse, sees the 4,460-square-metre block step down from five storeys on the boulevard to a trio of three-storey townhouses on the leafy residential street to the rear.
Each pair of condos and villas shares an elevator, providing direct access from the street and basement garage with no need for corridors. The villas are varied in form, height and orientation to avoid any sense of regimentation and to maximize views out to the Hollywood Hills. Bedrooms are located around the perimeter, while living spaces open onto terraces overlooking the courtyard through sliding glass doors. Hopefully, this will promote sociability without encouraging voyeurs to spy on their neighbours’ activities . la Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
In addition to forming America’s largest living wall, Gardenhouse’s drought-tolerant greenery softens the sharp profiles of the villas. Their walls and roofs, trimmed in white aluminum composite material (ACM) panels, offer a welcome relief from the banality of recent commercial development on the boulevard. Long confined to private spaces, Los Angeles’s embrace of modernism may finally be making its way into the public realm. Ma, too, is putting his stamp on the city, planning a UFO-like house in upscale Bel Air and another mixed-use block in Hollywood.
While the project marks MAD’s first built work in the U.S., it also gave Ma a rare opportunity to work on an intimate scale. A decade ago, his shapely Absolute Towers in a suburb of Toronto launched his practice, which is currently at work on megadevelopments across the architect’s native China and around the world. “I grew up in Beijing when it was still a low-rise, green city with a maze of courtyard houses opening onto narrow hutongs,” Ma explains of another Gardenhouse reference point. “Different families shared a courtyard, and this created strong social bonds.”
The project also provided room for the architect to explore a long-standing fascination: Chinese scroll paintings known as shanshui, which depict harmonious ensembles of mountains and water. He has incorporated these connections between the urban and natural environments into Gardenhouse and other large-scale schemes, much as the Immeuble Molitor apartment building that Le Corbusier created in Paris was a first step toward his Ville Radieuse. That vision eventually evolved into the Unite housing blocks in Marseille and other cities. Ma’s dream is equally idealistic and could, as evidenced here, become a model of high-density living and environmentalism on a more human scale.
The Chinese studio’s inaugural project stateside takes cues from local typologies, hilltop communities and ancient scroll paintings.