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STYLE: ARCHITECTURE : FRESH OFF THE DRAWING BOARD: An Innovative Design Activism Gives New Meaning to Cool in Culver City

October 02, 1994|Joseph Giovannini | Writer and architect Joseph Giovannini's last article for the magazine was about Los Angeles' avant-garde architects

It took an earthquake and collapsed overpasses to force motorists off the Santa Monica Freeway into Culver City, perhaps the most bypassed city in the world. But once there, tens of thousands who had only a 65-m.p.h. overview of a town known mostly for the old MGM and Selznick studios encountered several buildings that acted as semaphores flagging something new.

Along National Boulevard, in a 57-acre industrial tract of largely empty factories and obsolete warehouses, passers-by saw the corner of a long building erupting in a cage of off-kilter steel and glass obscuring the black metal silhouette of a cloaked figure. On the next corner, another building supported a levitated box with canted walls and roof. Both buildings bracketed a third, a factory with an oddly tilted canopy centered on a partially hidden oval entry.

For Culver City-based maverick developer Frederick Samitaur Smith, these structures represent an urban idea whose time has come. More than a half-dozen of Smith's renovated stucco and concrete factories, abandoned by industries that have folded or relocated, are shaping a neighborhood for the small businesses emerging as the area's primary growth employers. Culver City's Hayden Tract is starting to look like an updated SoHo, only the urban pioneers reinvigorating the underused and abandoned 40- and 50-year-old warehouses, and hanging out at the local diner, JJ's Cafe, are not artists but graphic designers, computer jocks, advertising whizzes and independent film producers.

Smith has identified small, creative "neo-industrial" enterprises that thrive in informal, non-corporate loft spaces. "I try to talk the guy who is inventing a mechanical toilet for the handicapped to come into the project because he's intellectually starved at Imperial Highway and Lankershim," says Smith, an unconventional developer partial to blue cowboy boots. "There's nobody next to you to mow the lawn growing in your brain. We're creating a community. I'm not after creative types alone, not just filmmakers, but also high-tech industrial users like image-processing companies."

For Smith and his company, Samitaur Constructs, which has remodeled about 175,000 square feet and has about 600,000 on the drawing board, the metaphor and lure of this new community is architecture. Eric Owen Moss, the Culver City architect known for a handful of radically deconstructed buildings and many architectural awards, has designed all of Smith's buildings.

Smith's building-by-building bid at reclaiming the area in and around the Hayden Tract coincides with several other improvements undertaken by Culver City and by Sony, the largest company in town. The city's Community Development Department is now rebuilding the notoriously tangled triangle of downtown streets, at the intersection of Washington and Culver boulevards, refurbishing the storefront business district and redesigning eastern boulevards--creating a sense of place in what has long been a drive-through no man's land. Meanwhile Sony, ensconced where the MGM lion once roared, has restored and expanded its vast studios and is adding an Art Deco-style television studio off-campus. The synergy of entrepreneur, city and corporation is waking Culver City from an urban slumber that made it the last of the Westside areas near the beach to be developed. The surprising new buildings, streetscapes and landscaping are significant because of their artistic quality and because design is being used to redefine the city's identity.

Smith has been chipping away at the Hayden Tract since 1987, starting with 8522 National Blvd., a group of now fully occupied light-industrial buildings brilliantly reorganized and rebuilt by Moss into a beehive for computer scientists, filmmakers and graphic and video designers. He next tackled Ince Boulevard and transformed the old Paramount Laundry building opposite the Culver Studios into multilevel, cat-walked loft space. To create a diverse community, Smith and his wife and business partner, Laurie, have also sought the unexpected tenant: The mix in one building on Hayden Boulevard includes two architecture firms, a ballet company and a metal fabricator whose space is part studio, gallery and future cafe.

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