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ARCHITECTURE : Building On a Complex Partnership

November 08, 1990|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES and Whiteson is a Los Angeles architect and author whose most recent book is the "Watts Towers of Los Angeles."

Most architects find their clients by referral or through social connections, but Eric Moss met Frederick Smith--the man who was to become his most important patron--purely by chance.

"Back in 1987, I rented studio space in Culver City in a run-down industrial structure owned by Fred's father," Moss recalled. "Fred and I got to talking, and discovered we had many interests in common. One thing led to another, and we ended up working together to transform a whole complex of old Culver City buildings, that could take us the rest of the decade to complete."

The complex developed by Smith and designed by Moss already has won several architectural awards, including a recent merit citation from the Los Angles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. But it is only one of several rundown Culver City properties that Smith and Moss are upgrading.

Through their collaboration, an untidy collection of industrial structures is being converted into upscale office space for a wide variety of professional and commercial tenants, from designers to insurance agents.

Though their meeting was accidental, Smith described his choice of Moss, one of Los Angeles' leading avant-garde architects, as "somehow inevitable."

"Ben Smith, my father, had a simple rule I always follow: Work with people who are as good or better than you are," Smith said. "When we met Eric, we knew he was our man."

Despite the common ground Smith and Moss established early on, it took some time for the developer and his architect to overcome the adversarial attitudes that often charge the client-designer relationship.

"Fred's father was a tough guy," Moss said. "He made his priorities known upfront and that meant a strict accounting of costs as well as a plan to create something memorable out of the raw material of the old buildings.

"In the beginning, there was a lot of mutual tension and apprehension. But as Ben, Fred and I got to know one another, our egos meshed and things began to go more smoothly."

The Smiths had a vision that fused a shrewd financial investment with a desire to create a work of architectural art.

Ben Smith, who died last year, had told his son he was "after an artist" with the imagination to transform the decaying district next to the old Culver Studios into an attractive office environment, without betraying its muscular character.

The Smiths' financial vision foresaw that as studio space for smaller design and professional firms became expensive in nearby Venice and Santa Monica, Culver City would offer an affordable and accessible alternative. They understood that to attract such image-conscious tenants, the architecture would have to be special.

The Culver City properties are composed of two groups of industrial buildings dating from the 1930s and '40s. One group on Ince Boulevard consists of the old Paramount Laundry, the Lindblade Tower that houses Moss' studio, and a complex of renovated offices for the Gary Group, an international public relations firm.

The second cluster of buildings on National Boulevard consists of about 300,000 square feet of old workshops and warehouses that Moss is converting into small studios and offices.

Described by Architectural Record magazine as "a choreographic tour de force, " the National Boulevard complex epitomizes the way in which Moss has transformed the simple sheds into a series of sophisticated spaces without betraying their workday character.

In the L-shaped main gallery that Moss carved out of the old factory buildings, the original rough timber posts and trusses remain intact, flanked by new white walls. Wide skylights and internal glass walls are energized by architectural extravaganzas, including a series of formal rotundas that help visitors find their way through the jumble.

"On National and on Ince, we found a direct and affordable way to galvanize a ramshackle bunch of old buildings," Moss said. "We did this by carefully judging where we should add something spectacular--like the rotundas--and where we should leave well enough alone. Fred's contribution is to have found a way to make all this financially compute."

"My role is to create the practical context for Eric to do his thing," Smith said. "As we've come to know and trust and like one another, the boundaries between what he does and what I do becomes blurred. The collaboration is now more or less seamless."

Fred Smith, who had never worked with an architect like Moss before, said he quickly came to respect him. Despite Moss' reputation as a quirky architect prone to such eccentric gestures as the use of angled sewer pipes as structural columns, Smith found him to be "thoroughly practical" in his approach.

"My only regret is that we can't allow Eric to be as creative as he could be," Smith said. "The complex financial and social ecology of development such as this is so fragile, an extra butterfly could unbalance it. My job is to see that doesn't happen, without killing the creativity."

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