Downtown Drop-In Center
The Volunteers of America Downtown Drop-In Center facility is composed of an 8,000-square-foot (740-square-meter) building block that rings a 7,000-square-foot (650-square-meter) courtyard. The center, which operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, is always active. Its main function is to provide a place to sleep.
Anyone can put his or her name on the list for a bed. When the name is called, eight hours of sleep between clean sheets is the reward. As one can imagine, the list is long. Many hours are thus spent waiting to sleep, and the courtyard provides the space for that activity, or inactivity.
Composition and Circulation
The courtyard is oriented directly to the street and faces a housing project. According to Lehrer, the housing completes the urban composition set up by the center's orientation.
The courtyard is a quasi-public space; people filter in and out of it all day and all night long. Many occupy themselves in the courtyard, others on the sidewalk and in the street. The line between building and public way is blurred.
Along the street edge, which forms the western boundary of the facility, is a beautiful composition of planting, concrete block, and wood lattice that rises up at its north end to form a tower element. There is no gate.
The lattice is made up of a double layer of horizontal wood members angled to capture light. Its warmth and articulation, coupled with the complex play of shadows that result from the filtering of natural illumination, are the spiritual essence of the project. It is here, Lehrer says, that the most joy arises from its architecture.
One enters the project at the south of this western edge. The building block at that end is simply pushed back to form a large gap. One comes up to face the wall there, then turns naturally and walks through the opening.
Ahead is the tall tower element, painted a vibrant grape-like color and fronted by lattice. One progresses towards it, drawn by the play of light coming through the lattice and down the wall, or diagonally into the courtyard to confront the clubhouse and bathroom block.
The circulation is thus about shifting axes and procession, and is reminiscent of the entries into the prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. Whatever the impetus, it is very moving; the fluidity of the path into and out of the facility is one of its greatest successes.
A series of processional spaces rings the courtyard and provides a transition between inside and outside. The spaces are defined by colonnades set in front of the building block. The colonnades do not provide protection from the elements, but are open to the sky.
The Structure Speaks
The beams that connect them to the building throw out shadows that vary depending upon the amount of light hitting them. The architectural dance of light and shadow, here as elsewhere, was a strong motivating force behind the architecture.
The colonnades also give the facility a civic and institutional scale. While intimately sized, their rhythm and grouping suggests that here is a place that is not just about the individual but, rather, the individual's role in society.
The colonnades mark points in a planometric grid that follows rigorously through the project's interior and exterior. This order anchors the facility and stabilizes its elements. Within the project, almost everything has its place within the grid, and from this comes a sense of security.
The scoring of the concrete floors, the placement of the low walls that form partitions between beds, the interior wood ceiling structure, and the landscaping all follow the grid. It is a device that reassures rather than overwhelms.
The Functional Layout
The three-sided building block is broken up into different programmatic components. The north side functions as the dorm. It is here that one signs up for a bed. Concrete masonry partitions rise three feet high between beds to give sleepers some privacy while still providing for visibility across the entire space.
The colonnaded space in front of the dorm is a "sleeping portico" so that those waiting can sleep outside if they please.
The east side is the "clubhouse." It is a large room where people gather to watch television. A tall wall forms a backdrop onto the courtyard and the street beyond. A 5-foot (1.5-meter) -wide skylight runs the entire length of the room and lights up the back wall. On a sunny day there is no need for electric lights.
The southern wing houses administration, laundry, barber, and security. The colonnaded space in front of this wing serves mostly as circulation for people moving from the entrance through it and into the clubhouse wing.
Completing the composition of solid building mass is a block of toilets that sticks out into the courtyard, creating a focal point within the open space. It is the only piece of the project that does not sit on the grid.
In some sense it weakens the project, although it, along with a tree-like canopied element that comprises a portion of the clubhouse facade, provides a sense of play.
A Social Piazza
The Drop-In Center literally teems with people at all hours of day and night. It is a highly social place. Yes, people go there to sleep. But they also gather there to talk, play cards or chess, hang out, and share their stories and their lives.
It is likely that, had the center been designed in a more generic fashion, it would not be such a place. It is much more than a shelter. Although modest in scale, it has a civic presence.
It performs the same function that any major piazza does in Italy. It is, for the most part, a happy place. The fact that it serves a marginalized population, in one of the poorest sections of the city, is remarkable.
This project raises the stakes of public architecture to a new level. It challenges developers to consider what effect design can have on a needy population, what service it can perform. This writer has always believed that architecture could do good if it is allowed, but has rarely seen the proof. The Drop-In Center shows that it can be accomplished.
There will never be much money to spend on projects like this. The Drop-In Center was not a project sponsored by a rich corporation to boost its reputation for philanthropy.
It was a down-and-dirty commission offered by a nonprofit developer that does not spend its money on anything it considers unnecessary. Luckily, it considered that good design was necessary. There was vision present, and the courage to take a risk in opening up the facility to the street and in trusting the homeless who would make use of it.
Lehrer Architects responded with an architecture composed of simple, but powerful, elements. Space, light, and mass — the essential elements of architecture — come together in the Downtown Drop-In Center in ways that are lively, surprising, and often beautiful.
The facility provides much more than shelter and a place to sleep. The public should take note. It is a small project with a big heart.
Alice Kimm, AIA, is a partner in the Los Angeles firm John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.