Architects OJT adapt the warehouse form for a compact assemblage of single-family housing in New Orleans
OJT has been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2018
The global housing shortage takes on distinctive qualities in every locale. In the US, a national fixation with single-family homes standing on large lots, combined with an aversion to infrastructural investment and to quality design, has resulted in a landscape of generalised subtopia.
OJT, a Louisiana-based architecture practice led by Jonathan Tate, accepts and simultaneously attempts to redirect these urges, seeking out disregarded slivers of urban land in which to insert homes. The practice has conducted a long-term research project on the feasibility and implications of this tactic, the results of which it calls the Starter Home, with a wry acknowledgement of the ideological encumbrance of that phrase. As Tate puts it, they may just be ‘repackaging a functional but stylistically outdated model for a new generation’s consumption’.
Their engagement with the market on its own terms is reminiscent in some ways of OMA’s capitalist realism, but this is no straightforward acquiescence and perhaps a more apt comparison would be the work of Arno Brandlhuber, or Santiago Cirugeda, architects who tactically bend planning regulations in order to build the otherwise unbuildable. Furthermore, it is a tactic with a grander aim: to improve the sometimes threadbare texture of American cities while avoiding the worst impacts of gentrification – that is, by maintaining the economic diversity of residents as much as possible. And all this is to be achieved without appealing to the public purse, resolutely clenched when it comes to housing.
For their interventions, the architects have sought out plots that have been neglected as ‘undevelopable’: awkward leftovers, abandoned alleyways, and the banks of urban rivers (the success of London’s recent canalside development points to the potential of this last approach). The first results were single dwellings of impressive thoughtfulness and aesthetic distinction. Latterly, more ambitious projects have been realised, such as the 12-unit development at the junction of St Thomas and Ninth Streets in New Orleans. Here, an empty site in a district largely given over to light industry could have been subdivided to create single-family homes, but regulations mandated that this would allow only three units as the plots would have to be of a certain scale. Instead, the architects applied for multiple occupancy, which allows greater density of occupation, and then subdivided the resulting space into narrowly carved single-family dwellings.
The resulting arrangement is spatially reminiscent of Peter Barber’s and Ash Sakula’s work in the UK, albeit with vastly different aesthetic treatment. OJT pick up the language of the warehouses in the lightweight metal cladding of the structures and in the roofline of their development – which, in its explicit reference to the strategic manoeuvrings of its designers, almost cocks a snook at the planners. The proximity of these buildings might seem uncomfortably tight, yet the designers manage to make the interstitial ginnels into delightful little yards.
While wily negotiations of extant codes may achieve unwonted successes in the hands of such skilled operators, they have the drawback of leaving institutional trammels unaltered. However, OJT have also begun to address this next frontier with an equity crowdfunded starter home, the first of its kind in the US. The idea is that small shareholders buy into the project, thereby taking literal ownership of housing, and profiting from it. The potential to bypass a recalcitrant state while encouraging local residents to view new development benignly is promising.
Photographs: William Crocker, unless otherwise stated
This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today