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Meet Elizabeth Timme: L.A. Designer and Curbed Young Gun

Photo courtesy of LA-Más
Photo courtesy of LA-Más

Fresh out of undergrad, Los Angeles-based architect and community advocate Elizabeth Timme, now 32, accepted a job working on hospital projects at a big architecture firm. Now she's the co-director of the non-profit design organization LA-Más, but back in her early twenties she spent two years helping to manage the construction of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, a half-billion dollar project. It shaped her worldview, but not in the way one might think. Most days she left the gleaming offices of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects disenchanted and demoralized. "There was no ability to innovate or challenge, or even plan, because the timeline was so tight," she says. The average U.S. hospital comes with cumbersome guidelines and crushing liability constraints; Timme found herself "completely overwhelmed with the legal implications" of her work.

A series of devastating personal events led her to healthcare design. Both of Timme's parents died in 2005, her father at age 60 from lung cancer, and her mother from a stroke a few months later. It also happened to be the year she graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor's in architecture.

"That was a period in my life when I was immersed in hospitals, and instead of running away from them I immediately went and starting working with a company that was building them," says Timme. "I felt hospitals were disorienting, and they weren't designed from the perspective of the patient." But after spending years working on massive hospital projects for cities and universities, she was shocked to realize that, beyond the inflexible rules, the reason so many of them weren't user-friendly was that they were "designed to create expediency within the construction process."

These early epiphanies have informed the rest of Timme's career. Instead of abiding by the parameters set out by large public buildings in the U.S., she began traveling to Rwanda and Liberia from her perch at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, where she was getting a masters in architecture, and collaborating with the do-gooder Boston firm MASS Design Group. In Rwanda she helped design a pediatric hospital and maternity ward with a solar chimney and passive ventilation, and in Liberia she worked on the design of a free maternity clinic, called a "redemption hospital."

École Beatrice in Petit-Goâve, Haiti. Photo courtesy of LA-Más

"In Rwanda, we had these resource constraints. We absolutely could not get waterproofing," Timme says. She could not help but compare her experience designing hospitals in the modest city of Nyanza to her time at the L.A. Children's Hospital, where acquiring building materials was not a problem, but there were unwieldy constraints on which design and fabrication options she could choose. "It's not about safety; it's not about anything other than prioritizing management, and a few people being able to do their jobs quickly, over a community's needs."

While still at Harvard, Timme created a handbook for the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, the oldest children's hospital in the nation, on how to build for kids with mobility impairment. But her work in Africa gave her a first taste of what it was like to "go in somewhere, and the rules weren't set, and we could challenge things." It was an incredible feeling, not being stifled by guidelines, and also a formative experience.

Later, when she moved back to Los Angeles after grad school, Timme founded the community design firm LA-Más with five like-minded architects and designers and became a crusader for policy and urban design reform.

Watts Community Studio. Photo courtesy of LA-Más

"I fundamentally challenge the layers of bureaucracy that strangle our ability to service environments that don't have the resources to challenge, or to lobby, or to invest in something better than the status quo," she says. Recent LA-Más projects have included the redesign of a commercial strip in a lower-income neighborhood in L.A. called Watts, and the visual design for a plan to transform five separate communities along the Los Angeles River into a cohesive new riverfront district. Timme is also working, as part of the re:code LA team, on rewriting the city's zoning code.

It seems fitting that Timme first settled on her professional mission while working in Liberia and Rwanda. Living in foreign countries was second nature to her by that point. Timme first moved abroad at the age of three. Her father, Robert Timme, was also an architect, and after his firm Taft Architects won the prestigious Rome Prize, the family lived in the Italian capital until Timme was five. "My first memories are walking about Piazza Navona and window-shopping late at night," she says.

After they left Rome, the Timme family spent the next seven years shuttling back and forth between their home base of Houston and an island in the West Indies called Nevis, where her father had started a design-build practice, and was training young architects and craftsman. The island became a second home for Timme; her father is buried there, and she held her wedding there too. During the time when she was flying back-and-forth from Nevis, she "always felt a bit out of place" in Houston.

Frogtown Artwalk. Photo courtesy of LA-Más

In 1994, her father accepted the deanship at the University of Southern California's celebrated School of Architecture, and the family moved to Los Angeles. Although Timme's dad wanted his daughter to become a poet (she used to write poems avidly), when she was a freshman at USC she decided to pursue architecture. At first, Timme wasn't sure if she had made the right decision, but soon she started "connecting the dots that had really been there my whole life, growing up in a house with an architect." It helped that "people who had created this kind of Dwell lifestyle in L.A. were still teaching at USC."

Although they share a field, Timme's work is quite distinct from that of her late father. "I would say my father was more of an academic, and I'm more of a practitioner," she says. She is often out in the streets, talking to neighborhood residents, and trying to fuse community outreach with sustainable design. LA-Más challenges existing policies both through meetings with city functionaries and with more blatant tactics, like ignoring regulations that don't make sense.

"We're doing things that border on the illegal, because we're trying to say that certain policies and resource-imposed constraints don't fit communities," Timme says.

Frogtown Artwalk. Photo courtesy of LA-Más

One example she gives is of a stipulation in Los Angeles that says that signs mounted within 1,000 feet of a freeway can't be above a certain size. "Well guess what?" she fumes, "every fucking lower income business community is within 1,000 feet of a freeway! So are you saying that all these people can't have large signs?"

One of the communities affected by the signage rule was Watts, a neighborhood that most people coming off the freeway were eager to drive through quickly. Most businesses in the low-income area were not making a profit, and the draconian signage laws about advertising were certainly not helping. LA-Más initiated an project to redesign the look of ten small businesses there. "It almost totally broke us," Timme says.

Watts Community Studio. Photo courtesy of LA-Más

"In four months, we did community engagement, collaborative design, and accelerated construction for $7,000," she says. "We can't ever do a project for that budget or time line again. But it was incredible." The painted signage that resulted from the community studio is inviting and very bright, and pokes fun at the typology of the storefront. It's also noticeably larger than the typical signage permitted so close to a freeway exit.

It all went back to something she learned in Rwanda, that no matter how great the design looks on paper, the most important thing is "valuing the culture of the community that you're building in, and making that appropriate." When LA-Más first arrived in Watts, "this community was so fucking burnt out from being promised shit," she says, that just picking up a hammer and a paintbrush and asking people what they wanted to happen made a huge difference. Even though the firm nearly went into debt in the process, it was worth it to Timme: the commercial strip is thriving now.

· LA-Más [official site]
· All Young Guns 2014 coverage [Curbed National]