When Elvis Presley first crooned the words to his 1962 hit “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” it marked the start of a decade in which the singer himself would call Los Angeles home. And while Los Angeles has captured the hearts of many who call it home, present-day residents also know their city is where the heart of a national housing crisis is.

Luckily, the Southland is also home to Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design and director of UCLA’s cityLAB, a multidisciplinary research center where Cuff and others have focused their expertise for nearly 20 years on reimagining design that creates more just urban futures with real impact for Angelenos.

Affordable housing rendering for K-12 educators
UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture
Rendering of a design for affordable housing for K-12 educators by UCLA cityLab and architecture and urban design students Chris Doerr, Jean-Michel Hirsch and Daniel Polk.

What might that look like? The addition of eight million potential housing units in California, thanks to the 2016 passing of legislation, co-authored by Cuff, eradicating single-family zoning. And the greenlight for development of affordable and mixed-income housing for teachers and support staff of California’s K–12 public schools, starting this year. The legislation, developed by Cuff and her team, could create up to 2.3 million additional housing units across the state.

On March 7, at UCLA’s 135th Faculty Research Lecture, Cuff will discuss some of architecture’s limits as well as potential in fulfilling promises of sustainability and equity. Cuff says she hopes her lecture will peel back the veil and reveal the democratization of good design, demonstrating that small acts of research-based architecture create powerful new forms of buildings and cities for all its citizens.

Thursday’s lecture will take place at Schoenberg Hall at 3 p.m., followed by a Q&A session with Cuff and a reception at Schoenberg Terrace at 4:15 p.m.

In advance of her talk, Cuff, who is also the founder and director of UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative, spoke to Newsroom about the local housing crisis, the center’s “radical pedagogies” and why Los Angeles is the perfect post-suburban model to demonstrate more equitable futures to the world. 

Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What agency do you think architects have to create social justice? What tools? 

I think architecture is a pretty special discipline in the university, because it not only deals with the physical and cultural environment, but with making actual changes for the future. To me, it’s the futurity that comes with architecture that’s really remarkable.
And the main tool then, in that regard, is to leverage design to actually project and open the doors to possible futures we don’t know about yet, and that then allows people to think about them before living them. That’s why we ended up here at cityLAB doing design projects that lead to general prototypical kinds of solutions that then lead to policy changes at the state level — which is very exciting to undertake. When you think about architectures of spatial justice, that’s a tool that people don’t usually think architecture has.

The housing crisis seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially here in Los Angeles. Why do you think it’s important to share the core values and work of cityLAB with audiences outside the discipline right now? 

cityLAB seems like the perfect place to do this work because we are in the “mother of the suburbs” as a city. We have to be the inventors of the post-suburban model, because there is no place more clearly exposed to the housing crisis. We have the largest single unsheltered population of any city in the United States, and California has the greatest number of people who are housing-burdened, meaning their rent or mortgage is more than a reasonable amount of their income. We’re at the heart of a housing crisis that’s global — not just California. But if we can solve it here, we can begin to solve it much more broadly.

I think that’s something we’re really pushing the boundaries of here at cityLAB — trying to think about how design is a form of research and when you build the right partnerships and collaborations and design solutions together, it can lead toward these large-scale transformations at the policy level that then come back and change the design scene and culture.

Courtesy of courtesy of Photekt
Prototype of cityLAB’s Backyard Homes study designed with Kevin Daly Architects and UCLA architecture and urban design students. The unit was built on campus in 2015. The “BIHOME” is an ultra-modern, lightweight accessory dwelling unit, which at the time of its prototype completion had the potential to meet the demand for 100,000 additional housing units in Los Angeles.

How have you exposed UCLA architecture students, and others, to what cityLAB calls its “radical pedagogy”? 

In 2012, we started the Urban Humanities Initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation. The initiative is a collaboration between the School of the Arts and Architecture, the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the UCLA College Humanities Division to bring students together to think through a broader way of intervening with the urban environment.

Practically everyone who works at cityLab is a former urban humanities student. They’re creative and well-trained in various innovative methods that have been ways that we’ve been able to perform social justice work and expand outward from the campus into a range of communities that have become long-term partners. 

The university’s strategic plan is to have greater public impact. I think this is something we’ve been doing since we started. We’re a perfect prototype for the ways students and scholars can work in the city. 

What do you hope people will take away from the lecture? 

I have one really strong hope that people see the power that architecture holds to make the world a better place. It holds real agency as an art, as a means to reach environmental goals, but also in terms of justice, cultural fit and the vibrancy of the spaces we share.

I think so many people associate architecture with privilege. Our whole effort, and all of the work that I do, is to try to demonstrate that the agency of architecture can really be operative or can be leveraged for justice causes and can serve and dignify and make more enjoyable the world that everyone should have access to. 

What was your reaction to being chosen as this year’s lecturer? 

It’s a big honor, really flattering. A little intimidating. I’m so accustomed to speaking to architects and urbanists and planners. It’s really frightening to think that I’m going to be talking to physicists and lawyers, and people from across campus. 

I’m trying to frame the work that we do here in ways that a really intelligent but diverse audience would take away the message that architecture’s potential is far greater than conventional wisdom would suggest, and people should be demanding that of architects. I want the world of potential clients and the public to expect that out of architecture, not just to be lucky when they get it. 

► Read more about Dana Cuff’s career and influence on the built environment.