As everyone knows, the British Invasion of the 1960s brought John, Paul, George and Ringo to American shores. But the United States welcomed another talented U.K. import around the same time: John V. Mutlow, FAIA. The young Architectural Association graduate arrived in Los Angeles in 1967—and never left. Today dozens of his exuberantly modern affordable housing projects speckle the Southern California landscape.

After finishing grad school at UCLA in 1969, Mutlow spent more than three years working in Pico Union, a working-class, mostly Latino L.A. neighborhood. As director of planning and housing for the Pico Union Neighborhood Council (PUNC, an acronym whose subversive connotation he relishes), Mutlow guided the area's development process. The job helped him learn the importance of communicating with a building's end users—of essentially becoming an advocate for them in dealing with outside forces like governments and lending institutions. “They didn't trust me,” he says of the Pico Union community. “But they saw I was representing them, and after about six months they turned around and trusted me.”

Over the next 30 years Mutlow, who started his own firm in 1976, built on the record he established at PUNC. He's amassed a formidable, constantly evolving body of knowledge about the subtle ways in which housing affects the daily lives of everyone from seniors to families to special-needs residents. And he's learned the all-important (and all-too-rare) skill of getting projects constructed the way he wants them. “You have to understand the language of the people providing the goods,” he says. “You don't just go in there—to HUD, say—and start talking in architectural language. You talk in HUD language. You have to understand their goal.” Teaching housing design at USC and writing—most recently The New Architecture of Mexico (Images Publishing, 2005)—give him further opportunities for intellectual engagement.

Mutlow modestly attributes his professional success to a combination of luck and perseverance. But in these compromised times, it's his staunch idealism and commitment to social justice—also legacies of the '60s—that set him apart.