Utopian Realism: Westwood Co-housing

Axonometric: Similar to the overlap of Cyan, Magenta, & Yellow generating secondary colors, the dwelling units overlap and give the project a literal intimacy.

This past June I received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Today I want to share my thesis project, the culmination of my architectural education. First I will share the research and project itself, and at the end I will provide some final thoughts on this crazy whirlwind experience. Constructive criticism is always welcome. Enjoy!

The project proposes co-housing as the answer to utopian realism, while critiquing its Jeffersonian opposite. Communal housing utopias of the past have failed because of their rigid plans and extreme social agendas, so utopian realism revisits these projects with a modest and flexible approach. The project offers a large variety of unit types and layouts to accommodate Westwood’s diverse population. The units are complemented by shared facilities that encourage collaborative living.

Rendering: Street view of project from intersection of Hilgard Avenue and Le Conte Avenue.

Rendering: Street view of project from intersection of Hilgard Ave & Le Conte Ave.


The project began with an interest in the clash of two distinct utopias. The first is a utopia that followed Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the community of self-sufficient men whose values were reflected in a detached single-family residence. This thinking lead to Andrew Jackson Downing’s book Cottage Residences, which made rural and domestic architecture widely available. The book offered a handful of generic floor plans and building instructions to allow the rising middle classes to build their own home using new light wood construction techniques. The same ideal – even in a much revised and somewhat bastardized format – was responsible for the post WWII suburb, a cheap and replicable plan that allowed families to move away from cities and have lots of private space.

The second utopia is community-driven. In this model people give up privacy and autonomy in return for a rich social life. From Sir Thomas More’s Utopia to Charles Fourier’s 1829 phalanstère to experiments of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920’s and, finally, to Danish co-housing in the 1960s, these utopian models emphasize building community and relationships between neighbors. They insist that sharing chores and responsibilities not only brings people closer, but it is also much more efficient and leaves more time for socializing. Unfortunately, the communal model has seen little success and has remained a utopia while the Jeffersonian model became an ideology, effective in protecting status quo and not allowing for alternative vision. The Jeffersonian ideology still persists today, and while it does have some enjoyable traits, it is not a sustainable model.

Matrix tracking the evolution of utopian housing over time.

Matrix tracking the evolution of utopian housing over time. Click to enlarge.

Evolution of Utopian Housing

The communal utopia is still a compelling idea that continues to be discussed by scholars, designers, and dreamers. An analysis of its evolution will explain both its shortcomings and how to design a more realistic communal utopia. Starting in 1488, Leonardo da Vinci debuted his invention for an ideal city after Milan was hit by a major plague. His design intent was to promote unity and communication, but above all, better sanitation. However, the idea of a utopia wasn’t formally introduced until 1519 in Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia, which describes a fictional island as the ideal and perfect city. The favored housing type by More is row-housing, which he describes as “fair and gorgeous…without any partition or separation.” This is the first instance in which togetherness is deemed advantageous. In 1775, Charles Nicolas Ledoux designed a Royal Saltworks with a circular plan, arguing that the director should live in the center where he can easily survey his workers who live on the perimeter. Though they also lived in a curved row, this was a slightly more panopticist take on a utopian row-house. In 1829, Charles Fourier’s phalanstère modeled a utopia after military units. This featured communal kitchens that liberated women from their usual role and allowed families to share chores and thus have more time to socialize. This is a popular idea that today takes shape as co-housing.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were many grand city schemes, like Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (1898), Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle (1904), and Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (1924). These were all very geometrically well-ordered plans with their own unique agendas; importance of green space, rejection of government, and relation to human proportion, respectively. The Narkomfin building by Moisei Ginzburg from 1932 had similar social agendas, attempting to shape inhabitants’ behaviors with manipulation of space and color. The project was conceived as a social condenser, with  extremely small units intended to encourage residents to spend most of their time together in the communal lounge, gym, and dining hall. Perhaps the most beautiful feature of the Narkomfin is the dynamic sectional quality of the units, all of which feature double height ceilings and multiple split levels. However, the sectional variety did not make up for how small the units were. Residents craved more personal space and privacy. The Narkomfin building in Moscow was planned as the first of five of its kind, but no others were built due to its lack of success.

In the 1967, co-housing was born in Denmark through the writings of Bodil Graae. The first co-housing project in Denmark was Sættedammen, which is still in operation today. Many others have followed, and the concept of cohousing has spread to the rest of Europe and America. Taking Fourier’s model of liberating women to a new level, cohousing is based on the idea of a completely collaborative community in which all responsibilities are shared. This creates a tight familial bond between residents. Today intentional communities range from projects that emulate the Danish model, like Muir Woods in Davis and Swan’s Market Cohousing in Oakland, to more subtly social communities like the Village Green in Baldwin Hills or Avenel Coop Housing in Silverlake.

The communal utopias have several key characteristics in common. They all feature a common house that acts as the social hub of the project. The units are treated as secondary, very small and intended mostly for sleeping. All free time is to be spent together in the common house. These utopias also place importance on bright natural lighting and fenestration, usually provided by high ceilings and large windows. The main path of circulation typically runs straight through the project, passing other units and pushing residents to interact.

However, many of these communal utopias are simply too extreme. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and Columbia University Professor of Architecture Reinhold Martin both express in their writings a wariness that utopias are unrealistic and rigid. A realistic utopia must not be overly ambitious, but flexible and modest. For example, Ginzburg’s Narkomfin provides little unit variety, a “one size fits all” mentality, and little personal space. It aims to force a particular behavior, rather than encourage it to develop organically. It does not give the user any control, which is generally an uncomfortable and disconcerting feeling – the opposite of how a resident should feel about their home. Utopian realism is all about striking a balance between communal living and individual autonomy.

Site & User

Los Angeles is the ideal place for a communal utopia because it is a highly tolerant and experimental area. The city already has a history of attempted utopias, including Aliso Village, Rodger Young Village, Westchester, Chavez  Ravine, and Playa Vista. Westwood is an attractive option for the program because of the interesting mixture of college, suburban, and city life it offers. The site along Hilgard Avenue is sandwiched between the UCLA campus and a median-income suburban neighborhood. The suburban adjacency provides a stark contrast to the community-driven utopia next door, making a bold statement about American ideals and values left over from Jefferson and Downing’s time.

Vicinity map showing the site's Westwood context.

Vicinity map showing the site’s Westwood context.

The site plan shows the contrast in scale between the co-housing project and its suburban neighbor.

The site plan shows the contrast in scale between the co-housing project and its suburban neighbor.

UCLA is a major Los Angeles icon, and attracts a diverse and special population. College students are the ideal open-minded audience for this type of intentional community. Trends show that younger generations are more interested in sharing and interacting than ownership and independence, which indicates communal housing would be preferred over suburbia. Where the generation before them wanted independence, peace, and space, this generation wants excitement and interaction. Though moving to the city means having less personal space, this is something millennials are willing to sacrifice in return for a more rich social life.

Intended users will include graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, starting faculty, and visiting scholars. While younger undergraduate students pursue a wild “college experience” on the rowdy West side of campus, where dorms, fraternities, and sports fields are abundant, the more serious, studious, and mature graduate students stick to  the East side, close to the medical school and botanical garden. The site is just a short walk to main campus and Westwood Village, making it pedestrian friendly and automobile-optional. Most graduate student  housing is currently a 20 minute bike ride from campus, so this proposed location is much more convenient.

Since the project caters to such a diversity of users, unit turnover would vary. While some residents may only stay for one quarter or one year, others might be able to stay for several years in the same unit due to seniority. Others may move from a smaller unit to a larger unit over the years as they get married and start a family. This rotation of units is common practice in cooperative housing and is currently practiced at several student residences at UCLA.

Diagram showing how the 9 different unit types are generated from small, medium, large, 1-story, 2-story, and 3-story combinations.

Diagram showing how the 9 different unit types are generated from small, medium, large, 1-story, 2-story, and 3-story combinations.

Unit Plans

Unit Plans

Program & Concept Design

This design proposes a  wide variety of unit types that interlock and overlap as a response to the rigidity of past communal utopias. It is a forty-two unit co-housing community with nine unique unit types that vary in size of indoor, outdoor, living, and bedroom spaces. Several common houses throughout the site supplement the spaces that  some units lack. The units interlock and overlap to blur the lines of ownership and autonomy. This overlapping also introduces the sectional qualities that historically have been a prominent feature of these utopias. The project is an intimate community designed for collaborative living that also provides opportunities for individual retreat and privacy.

Axonometric: overlap of 3-story units

Axonometric: overlap of 3-story units

Section: Unwrapping the project

Section: Unwrapping the project. Click to enlarge.

Enlarged Section: shows the interlocking of the units

Enlarged Section: shows the interlocking of the units and the people living within.

Floor Plans: Ground level (left) & Level 1 (right)

Floor Plans: Parking level (left) & Level 1 (right)

Floor Plans: Level 2 (left) & Level 3/Common Plaza (right)

Floor Plans: Level 2 (left) & Level 3/Common Plaza (right)

Hilgard Avenue elevation showing the dual-layered screen facade which provides multiple levels of transparency, interaction, and privacy.

Hilgard Avenue elevation showing the dual-layered screen facade which provides multiple levels of transparency, interaction, and privacy.


  • Cuff, Dana. The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000. Print.
  • Fromm, Dorit. Collaborative Communities: Cohousing, Central Living, and Other New Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991. Print.
  • Holl, Steven. Rural & Urban House Types in North America. Vol. 9. New York: Pamphlet Architecture, 1982. Print.
  • La Fond, Michael. ID 22: Co-Housing Cultures. Berlin: Jovis, 2012. Print.
  • Mari, Anthony Di, and Nora Yoo. Operative Design: A Catalogue of Spatial Verbs. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS, 2012. Print.
  • McCamant, Kathryn, and Charles Durrett. Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities. Gabriola, B.C.: New Society, 2011. Print.
  • McCamant, Kathryn, Charles Durrett, and Ellen Hertzman. Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 1994. Print.
  • Per, Aurora Fernández, Javier Mozas, and Alex S. Ollero. 10 Stories of Collective Housing: Graphical Analysis of Inspiring Masterpieces. Vitoria-Gastiez, Spain: A+T Architecture Publishing, 2013. Print.

(All drawings produced by myself using Autodesk Revit 2015, Sketchup 2014, & Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop CS5.)


The Presentation, Thoughts, & Hindsight

The project was executed over the course of 22 weeks (2x 11-week quarters + 1 week of Spring “Break”). While I did have free choice of program and site (within the greater Los Angeles area), I had to choose something that fit under my assigned studio’s topic of “Utopia”. It was a theory based studio, something a little different for me, but nonetheless interesting. The topic definitely pushed me to have a very thoroughly researched project. In the first quarter students researched program and site, and in the second quarter quickly brought projects from a Concept Design to a Design Development stage, complete with structural details.

It is safe to say it was the most intensely stressful time of my life. I have never worked so hard on anything ever before. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears and sleepless nights were expended. I am extremely proud of what I was able to do, particularly the amount of theoretical research I did to back up my design decisions, and also the graphic quality of my work. I’m also happy to say the project is really true to who I am as a designer and as a person. It’s colorful and naive, and allowed me one last major chance to explore things I was interested in before entering the professional world and having to face reality (code, developers, gravity – oh my!). Though the project is certainly not perfect, I am very pleased with how it turned out.

My project setup at the City Market the day of the presentation. Drawings mounted on foam-core.


Presenting the project at the former City Market of Los Angeles to a panel of jurors.

Presenting the project at the former City Market of Los Angeles to a panel of jurors.

Posing with my hard work.


1/16″ scale presentation model – museum board and chipboard


Please leave a comment with any feedback or questions, or contact me directly via the link in the blog menu. Thank you so much for reading!


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