Flying into Los Angeles on a clear night, you are dazzled by a tapestry of lights, extending from the black void of mountains and desert to the ocean. It’s a glorious mirage that vanishes with the dawn. By day, the descent to LAX reveals an expanse of industrial sheds and a relentless grid of doll houses, interrupted by meager clusters of office towers. Away from a few pampered enclaves, from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica, this is the reality of the flatlands, and Culver City in South Central LA is one of many blue-collar communities that is trying to reinvent itself. The one surviving movie studio is no longer a thriving factory, and light industry has migrated to Asia. Hip restaurants and art galleries have filled the vacuum and young couples are upgrading modest houses.
Twenty-five years ago, when Culver City was a crime-ridden backwater, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith bought a six-hectare tract of decrepit warehouses bordered by a cement-chaneled creek and defunct freight lines. As developers and patrons of music and dance, they declared their intention “to use architecture as a catalyst to build a creative community and as a generator that would make the city more livable and productive.” Eric Owen Moss, an iconoclastic young architect, leased one of the work spaces and was commissioned by Samitaur Constructs, the Smiths’ construction-management company, to transform neighboring properties. With the zeal of a Gordon Matta-Clark he cut into the stucco sheds and their bow-truss wood vaults, wrapping them with new structures of concrete block, cement board, steel and glass. New buildings were raised off the ground or tilted, and strange shapes - christened Umbrella, Beehive, and Slash/Backslash - emerged from the generic facades. Digital media companies leased space, alongside such established names as Sony, Nike, AOL, and the Ogilvy & Mather agency.
Samitaur Tower is the public symbol of Conjunctive Points, as the tract is now called. It’s a recent addition to fifteen varied structures that are clustered together at the intersection of Hayden Avenue and National Boulevard - where a new light rail line will soon link Santa Monica to downtown LA. The complex began by chance and grew incrementally, in fits and starts, before achieving a critical mass. The Constructivist tower - which owes something to Tatlin’s legendary Monument to the Third International - is only 22 meters high, but its aspirations are heroic. A stack of five rounded steel plates are cantilevered off a raw steel slab and they support acrylic projection screens and overhead projectors, while doubling as a belvedere. Train passengers and motorists will have a passing glimpse of high-definition imagery on three levels, and people can gather in a sunken amphitheater on the south side to watch a movie. Gazing out over the roofs of the warehouses, you can spot a few interesting fragments, but there is no way of capturing Conjunctive Points in a single image; only by walking though the blocks do you understand how the pieces fit together. The loose-knit complex is part archeology, part collage.
Grass grows from an 800-meter right of way that loops through the tract. Samitaur planned to turn this into SPAR City, a linear complex of buildings and pocket parks that would exploit the air rights over the Southern Pacific railroad line. Though unrealized, it suggested a model for how other dead zones and abandoned tracks might be reanimated, and it anticipated the High Line project in Manhattan.
Another urban intervention that should be realized in the next few years is the Glass Tower, adjoining a light rail station at a busy road intersection to the east. Curvilinear ribbons provide peripheral support for the column-free office space, and this tall block - the first to be built in an economically deprived area - should spur further development.
The architectural inventions of Eric Owen Moss and project architect Dolan Daggett are radical, yet cost-conscious. Though each is very different in size and form, the point of origin is similar. Samitaur will decide the time is right to remodel another empty warehouse, or it will find a prospective tenant with a specific set of needs. Moss, Samitaur and their associates consider the issues to be resolved: “it’s a very iterative process, back and forward,” says Daggett. New tenants have different needs, and a block originally designed for a single company has been remodeled to accommodate 12 smaller firms.
Always there’s an interweaving of the existing shell and the addition. Recycling old materials promotes sustainability and saves money that can be spent on an eye-catching feature. The latest example of this fusion is the Cactus Tower. An open steel frame that formerly housed a mechanical press has become an elevated garden. Cables and stainless steel pots form a truss near the top of the frame and support tall cacti in planters. The space below is shared by the two tenants of a
2,000 sq m warehouse that has been minimally built-out. When the right tenant arrives, a conference center will be built on the street: a glass-walled block shaded by a wavy steel lattice.
Across the street is Stealth - a block that morphs from a square section at one end to a triangle at the other - evoking the angular geometry and dark hue of a radar-evading warplane. The integrally colored green-black plaster has acquired a coppery sheen, softening its sinister presence. It backs onto a courtyard, surrounded by radical adaptations of saw-tooth and bow-truss workshops where stoves were once manufactured. Now the product is ideas, illusions, and inventions. “What’s saved and what goes is a pragmatic decision,” says Moss. “The camera focuses on a few elements - there’s a lot of unremarkable space all around.” The eroded textures of brick and fir have their own subtle charm, but they can be torn apart without arousing the wrath of preservationists. And they are enhanced by the sharp angles and meticulous detailing of the additions, just as Scarpa gave a new dimension to historic buildings in Venice and Verona.
A few of the interventions push the limits. The Umbrella has a slumped glass canopy that challenged the engineers to provide a few points of support to distribute the load evenly. It was a trial and error process with a high proportion of failures, and Moss praises the Smiths for staying the course.
Across the courtyard, slender columns rise from a parking garage: supports for a tumbling array of tilted boxes called Pterodactyl. Like the Cactus conference center, this also awaits the right tenant.
Meanwhile, Moss has spread his wings, winning competitions from New York to St Petersburg. None of these projects has been realized, but Moss is optimistic he will soon have a building under way in China, as well as a hotel in West Hollywood and a commercial development near LAX. Meanwhile he has a laboratory in which to test concepts and materials. “Each experiment leads to another,” he says. “I look on everything we do as speculative, a little unclear, a learning process. It’s never definitive.”
Conjunctive Points is doubly remarkable: as a long and fruitful collaboration of architect and developer, and as a leap of creative imagination in a city that tends to play safe. The pioneering spirit that infused LA a century ago, exploiting its resources and creating a widely admired infrastructure, has fizzled out. There’s an abundance of creative talent but most clients are timid and tight-fisted, indifferent to the potential of great architecture, and willing to settle for conventional mediocrity.
Walt Disney Concert Hall is LA’s one truly important public building and it took 14 years of struggle to build. Gehry is today in demand around the world but not in his hometown.
Conjunctive Points is no masterpiece. It’s frugal, eccentric, and already beginning to fray at the edges. But it’s a refreshing alternative to every other LA office park, and it nurtures the yeast that leavens the dough of this sprawling metropolis.