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Knocking Down Walls

Lessons on Several Fronts in New-Media Vision for Culver City

November 11, 1996|JONATHAN WEBER | Jonathan Weber is editor of The Cutting Edge. He can be e-mailed at

In New York, there's Silicon Alley, the downtown district where old factories and warehouses, transformed once into artists lofts, are now home to a booming new-media industry. In San Francisco, there's Multimedia Gulch, the once-decaying industrial area where computer wizards and creative talent are now driving a similar urban renaissance.

In Los Angeles, there's . . . Culver City?

It seems far-fetched. But developer Frederick Samitaur Smith believes that creative architectural make-overs of old industrial spaces can help transform this unglamorous Westside enclave into a much-needed focal point for the new-media industry in Los Angeles.

That's a tall order. The ineluctably sprawling nature of Southern California means the Web designers and software companies and Internet entertainment firms that make up this new industry will never be as concentrated as they are in New York and San Francisco.

Several other parts of Los Angeles County--including Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, Hollywood and the Pasadena/Glendale/Burbank corridor--already boast a large and growing number of new-media firms. USC recently opened a high-tech business incubator that it hopes will jump-start the "Figueroa Corridor" between the university and downtown.

But Culver City has a number of important assets. And even if, as seems likely, it ends up becoming just one new-media center among several, the efforts underway there offer an illuminating look at how and why industrial communities take root.

It's an issue of no small moment for Los Angeles. New media is, proverbially, the industry of the 21st century, the business that will provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs and help Southern California sustain itself as an economic powerhouse and a world entertainment and media capital.

New York and San Francisco will certainly get their share. Internet businesses related to publishing and advertising, for example, have a natural home in the Big Apple. More technology-intensive enterprises--those that make Web search software, or new types of multimedia computer languages--are likely to live mostly in the Bay Area.

For the entertainment-related products and services that are likely to be at the center of the next big wave of new-media development, though, Los Angeles is poised to dominate. There's a great deal of activity underway already, and since the Internet won't reach its potential as an entertainment medium until it's capable of handling video on a broad basis--still a decade or so away--the best is yet to come.

But the absence of an identifiable new-media district is a real issue. Theory holds that cyberspace and modern communications are making distance and location irrelevant--and what industry would be more subject to such a change than the new-media industry itself? But in the real world, it's just the opposite.

Young computer geeks and creative artists want to hang out and drink coffee and go clubbing with their contemporaries. The raucous parties in the lower-Broadway loft space of Jupiter Communications founder Josh Harris are central to the identity of Silicon Alley; one need only stroll around Multimedia Gulch at lunchtime, amid swarms of twentysomething hipsters who hope they're on to the next big thing, to see why young companies gravitate to the area.

By comparison, Culver City's industrial district, with its dusty streets and warehouses and shuttered aerospace manufacturing facilities, is still a veritable ghost town. But here and there, in some cases almost hidden unless you're looking for them, are buildings that Smith and his design partner, the renowned architect Eric Owen Moss, believe represent the future.

The new spaces Moss has created are airy and dramatic, with brick and wood and metal and even sewer pipes cut and combined into an arresting pastiche of neo-industrial forms. So far, about 15 buildings with 360,000 square feet of space have been renovated, and several hundred thousand more square feet are on the drawing board.

Smith has some rather exotic theories about the relationship among architecture, industry and creativity. He explains, for example, that certain basic geometries in nature lie at the heart of science and technology, and those forms stimulate creativity.

"I realized if I could build buildings with those same geometries," he says, "I could attract the high-tech guys." The staircase of one building, as an example, is a double helix.

The building designs are really the work of Moss. But Smith has plenty of his own design principles too: "Art is created by tension, so the idea is to create an environment with a certain tension. . . . I want to apply chaos theory to social interaction: Small areas of order can control large areas of disorder." Pretentious as this might sound, when you wander about the buildings you kind of see what he means.

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