Commune Looks to New York’s Streetscape and Southern California’s Earth Tones to Create a Residential Development That Fosters CommunityJanuary 11th, 2019
“We really wanted to try to create a neighborhood,” says Commune’s Steven Johanknecht of his firm’s latest project:, El Centro, an apartment complex in Hollywood. While that concept may seem obvious to a New Yorker like me, in the famously car-centric California city, it’s a more novel notion. With El Centro Apartments & Bungalows, which is situated on a bustling stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, Johanknecht and his team have taken spatial cues from the urban blueprint of New York and reimagined them in a wholly SoCal way for a miniature city that fosters community.
“In L.A., a lot of the buildings don’t necessarily relate to an urban street,” Johanknecht explains. “So the way the buildings interact with the street is more akin to apartment buildings in New York. We wanted to address the streetscape.” As such, El Centro comprises four separate buildings that connect via a series of exterior common spaces.
Though that layout may be New York–inspired, the buildings have none of the Big Apple’s gritty grays: “For the palette, we were inspired by Southern California, the earth,” explains the designer. “But also the work of Mexican architects like Legorreta and Barragan. So we looked to tones that felt earthy and appropriate for Southern California but with the volume turned up a bit.”
The result—a collaboration between Commune and architect of record Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh—is a suite of structures with façades ranging in hue from cream to clay, punctuated with greenery and an azure pool in the center courtyard.
Much of that greenery comes courtesy of Carlos Motera, a onetime graphic designer at Commune, who has since cofounded Cactus Store, a succulent store. “A cactus is somewhere between a plant and a pet—it has these characteristics that kind of make it living art,” explains Andy Rifkin of DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners (which developed El Centro in partnership with Clarett West Development). Rifkin first met Johanknecht and Morera while working with Commune on Easttown, another Los Angeles apartment complex. He was looking for the perfect, site-specific type of public art in El Centro’s common space and figured this was just the unconventional solution. To Johanknecht, it was just the right type of landscaping: one that “felt drought-tolerant and appropriate, but lush.”
That same tendency toward a slightly offbeat spin on elegance carries through into the interiors, as does the emphasis on community. “Our whole strategy for El Centro was, when you grow up a bit and are looking for a more established feel, what’s that aesthetic?” says Rifkin. To Johanknecht, it means “something that felt current but would age well over time.”
Mixing vintage pieces like Saarinen womb chairs with furniture of Commune’s own design and art from local creatives, makes for common spaces with no shortage of visual interest yet no danger of seeming gimmicky, either. This careful balance is a skill Commune has honed over the course of several hotel projects.
“We were trying to hit the sweet spot, to appeal to a diverse demographic, which is so important to hotels,” Johanknecht says when asked about the similarities with El Centro. “When we first started, I toured a lot of apartments around the city; all sort of claimed they were trying to cater to a creative community, but they were all kind of dreary. There’s definitely a market that’s not being addressed in rental properties today, so we tried to create an alternative that was really attractive. We approached it much the way we would our hospitality projects: that we would like to live there, that there’s a sense of community.”
Johanknecht worked closely with the architect and developers to optimize shared spaces for this type of community engagement. “In the lobby, we wanted to create this communal gatherings space that engages the street and the residents,” the designer explains of the four buildings’ shared hub. “It’s almost like a student union.”
Even in a place as seemingly blah as the mail room, he points out, “there’s the chance you might run into someone from another one of the four buildings and you arrive at the same time and you’re kind of flirting while you pick up your mail.”
“There’s the sense of a neighborhood within the bigger context of Hollywood,” Johanknecht says. “And that was really the goal: creating a neighborhood that felt comforting.”
This story was originally published in Architectural Digest in December 2018.