On the launch of his latest monograph published by Frame, LOHA-founder Lorcan O’Herlihy explained how his patrons have changed for the better, why every building needs an urban strategy and the value of ‘ruthless optimism’ during a #FrameLive session.

Frame founder and editorial director Robert Thiemann introduced the conversation by noting the way in which the architecture profession has evolved over the last 25 years, moving from an emphasis on shape and material to one that’s more planet and human-centric. The second attitude is one that the team at LOHA has their mission statement, and also the title of their latest book, published by Frame: Architecture is a Social Act. ‘I have always held a position that architects should do work of consequence,’ explained founder Lorcan O'Herlihy. ‘The title represents the idea that we need to start looking at architecture through a new lens. Architecture is about social agency. Ultimately, it is about people and how they engage collectively. We’re not designing isolated objects. We're designing buildings that engage with wider social, economic and sustainable strategies, and that’s what we think represents vibrant architecture.’

Isla Intersections is an ongoing project for a 35,000 sq-ft, 54-unit housing project and adjacent paseo in Los Angeles. Render: LOHA. Photo: Paul Vu

Reengage with the urban condition

As a first principle, LOHA’s practice looks to play an active part in making the cities in which it works more open and equitable. O'Herlihy pointed to the ‘renaissance of urban cores and surrounding neighbourhoods’ the studio is contributing to with its residential work in Los Angeles: ‘these sorts of projects are becoming more vibrant, and more important within how the city exists, especially with regards to turning a car-dependent city into one that’s more walkable.’ LOHA are in part reacting against what O'Herlihy described as a LA’s history of being a largely ‘privatized city’. In response they have invested in creating projects that are concerned with addressing, rather than ‘turning away’, from their surroundings. ‘LA hasn't really engaged its sidewalks and its streets; that edge between public and private has never been celebrated. Our work is bringing forth that idea.’

In Detroit, a city that’s undergone decades of economic decline, LOHA had to address a very different set of conditions. Development in the area outside of the commercial centre has thus far been limited. ‘The old strategy was about investing in downtown and looking  at the idea of a trickle-down effect of growth and urban renewal. . .it doesn’t work’ said O'Herlihy. Rather LOHA have been focused on urban renewal strategies within or adjacent to the surrounding neighbourhoods, which is where the majority of Detroit’s Black residents reside. Here they’ve used an approach based on restoring and repurposing extent building stock to create developments that are activated through a mixture of residential and commercial uses, but always with a focus on the community. 'We're convinced that, as an architect, you can have an urban strategy for a building – what I mean is, if you tie into the neighbourhood programmatically, you can act as a catalyst as the arteries between the surrounding buildings come alive,’ O'Herlihy argues. ‘Architects need to be strategists in this way, you have to begin to see that you can expand your boundaries and amplify what you're doing.’

LOHA's Big Blue Bus Stops in Santa Monica 'elevates the impact of one of the most critical transportation lines in Southern California’s rapidly expanding public transit network'. Photo: Lawrence Anderson

'[Detroit's] Brush Park is a case study for several relevant issues facing many contemporary cities: forging a sustainable path for neighborhood growth, re-stitching the urban fabric after decades of decline, integrating landscape and the public realm, and fostering social diversity and equity.' Photo: Courtesy of LOHA

Work against the system

O'Herlihy feels that the majority of the major stakeholders involved in creating the built environment still fail to understand the premise that ‘architecture is a social act’. ‘I think they felt it was driven by economics, it was driven by maximizing profit and density,’ he argued, ‘without recognizing how it affects how people live’. That concept of ‘liveability’ has been a central starting point for LOHA as they have started to unpick the forces that have left much of LA’s interior barren. ‘We're simply denying the zoning structure that existed before,’ O'Herlihy explains. ‘So rather than just maintaining an area solely for commercial enterprise, now it is a place to live and to work and to play.’ `

We need to work with people  who recognize the value of social agency

Achieving that end requires not just good architects, but good clients. ‘We need to work with people  who recognize the value of social agency, that understand that their investment can be more valuable if it has outdoor space, say, or if it's not be solely focused on maximizing density. The type of developers that we work with are committed to that concept. Our old patrons used to be individuals who lived up in the surrounding hills. Now, our patrons are the people committed to cities, and committed to developing them in such a way that makes them a more equitable place for people to live.’

UCSB San Joaquin Student Housing, Santa Barbara, California. Photo: Bruce Damonte

MLK1101 Supportive Housing responds to a 'urgent need in Los Angeles for housing catered to formerly homeless veterans and chronically homeless and low-income households'. Photo: Paul Vu

Every challenge is an opportunity for change

For LOHA, 2020 has only reconfirmed the need to further develop their commitment to the idea of a more socially minded form of practice. ‘COVID has shown us the deep inequities that exist in our cities with regards to access to public amenities such as parks, public space, transportation etc. Our work has always been about engaging those facets, and that has to continue as that’s the only way we’ll be able to build back better’. He points to an LA housing project for the homeless that’s currently under construction. By using modular elements built off-site the studio realized they could better address the project’s ultimate goal, which is to get vulnerable people under shelter as soon as possible. ‘That’s where we have to go. I have used the term “ruthless optimism” as a structure for our practice – be optimistic that, with every project, you can solve what you set out to solve.’

The role of an architect isn't simply the building, it's about the adjacencies, about the edges. That’s what will lead to a more robust city

Often, O'Herlihy suggests, system-wide upheaval can be the most important time to try and solve for these most intransigent challenges. ‘That's the benefit of what's going on right now, it’s a cultural shift that throws up different way of thinking.  How can we build faster so we can get people off the streets? How can we build more next to public transit? In LA it’s about saying, “yes, the freeways exist, but we want to push away from that and make it about other issues”.’ O'Herlihy highlighted that they’re now working on at least six projects directly adjacent to public transit stops, something that represents a significant mindset change in a city where the car has always been king. ‘That's where the future is going to be,’ O'Herlihy said. ‘The role of an architect isn't simply the building, it's about the adjacencies, about the edges. That’s what will lead to a more robust city.’

Hero image: MLK1101 Supportive Housing. Render: Courtesy of LOHA. Photo: Paul Vu

Get your copy of Architecture is a Social Act here.