Playa Vista’s new residential housing building, Fountainview at Gonda, is a pleasant addition to the community. While the structure has high-end features such as large balconies off the apartments and a rooftop pool, its function as a continuing care retirement community for the Los Angeles Jewish Home required a number of unique design considerations. Fountainview at Gonda was designed by a team at Gensler under managing director, Barbara Bouza. Olivier Sommerhalder, a design director at Gensler, created the architectural plans for Fountainview with a major goal in mind: to develop something that feels like home.

Olivier Sommerhalder, a designer at Gensler, created the plans for Fountainview at Gonda

Sommerhalder began in mechanical engineering, working alongside architects. He then decided to become one himself. He now holds a postgraduate degree in architecture and has worked in architecture for 18 years.

“I had grandparents that, because of age, had to go to a senior housing facility. I was in and out of this facility to visit my grandparents very often, so I got to know what these places are typically like. The toughest thing for many of these seniors is that they are coming out of large family homes. Many are downsizing to a third or tenth the space they had before. So, developing something that feels like home, something that is different from what my grandparents moved into, was the biggest goal.”

There are a number of ways that this home-like atmosphere was achieved. “The focus of the Jewish Homes is on environments for interacting. Units have balconies -they are still private -but you have a connection to neighbors. There are courtyards, you have nice windows, awnings, and other features for a single-family home feel, rather than one large façade. Some units are deep so you have multiple facades for one unit. In typical senior communities, if you’re not in a corner unit you have one façade. But at Fountainview you can look out of windows in multiple rooms like you would in your family home.”

One major constraint influenced many of Fountainview’s features. “These unusual features were all driven by the demand of high density—the Jewish Home is a non-profit, so they wanted to host as many people as they could in this community…The density required us to look at it differently, it was an opportunity to use courtyards creatively and design more interesting units. In the beginning, having to do the pool on the roof was due to space constraints, but it turned out to be a really cool location, so that was fun. A lot of times strong constraints produce the most interesting solutions. You have to make your constraints an asset.

One such asset are the courtyards, which became Sommerhalder’s feature. “I really like the courtyards, and there are so many. Being in this part of California, it gets warm but not too warm. You always have a sea breeze so it’s relatively cool even on hot summer days. The access to outdoors is very important. Even in circulated spaces, you have a strong connection to the outside…We wanted a strong relationship to make the garden feel like part of the interior space. We had really excellent landscape architects that helped with this project.”

These courtyards are beautiful, but also serve three very important functions for Fountainview. First, they fit in with the local community design. “In Playa Vista and surrounding neighborhoods like Venice and Santa Monica, the houses are expensive and space is in high demand, so they are very close to one another. Even high-end houses are quite tight on each other so the focus in these neighborhoods tends to be on the spaces in between, which you can make very nice.” Because these courtyard gardens are part of so many homes in the Playa Vista neighborhood, they work towards the goal of creating a community that feels like home. The courtyards also encourage residents to come outside and walk. “What’s interesting about Playa Vista is it’s a new urbanist community that started in the mid 90s…It’s very walkable. We wanted to encourage using the walkability of the community…the Executive Director at Fountainview was very happy that we had so many circulation elements and corridors connected to the garden because they really encourage the tenants to go outside.”

Ultimately, the constraints resulted in a beautiful, highly functional space. “The operators were happy with the end result because there were units that seemed unusual at first, but they ended up being very marketable and these are the units that people really ended up loving.” In fact, Fountainview has been so marketable that Brookfield Residential, who owns the surrounding properties, gets inquiries from young people wanting to move into Fountainview all the time, because they don’t realize that it’s a retirement community.

Now that his work on Fountainview is complete, Sommerhalder is working on a number of other projects in the Los Angeles area. Metropolis, the new hotel and residential towers, will add to the LA skyline and bring residential life into a downtown that’s been described as an “office park” for many years.

Not all of Sommerhalder’s projects are new though – he is also involved in the restoration of the Herald Examiner Building. It was built in 1914 by Julia Martin for William Hearst’s newspaper office. It operated as the newspaper office until 1989, when the paper closed. It has since remained vacant, serving as an occasional movie set. When complete, the building will host office, retail, and restaurant space.

Gensler's plans for the Metropolis towers in Los Angeles

Gensler’s plans for the Metropolis towers in Los Angeles.

Herald Examiner Main Lobby

The main lobby entrance of Herald Examiner building. Photo taken from the Herald Examiner website.

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