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The loft re-imagined

Razor wire and Zen gardens. Graffiti and secure parking. Loft life in Los Angeles is both edgy and comfortable -- a hybrid style of urban living that's all our own.

April 19, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

THERE is no single block that neatly sums up the way downtown Los Angeles is being transformed, condo by condo and loft by loft, into a place with real residential character. Just as there are many downtowns -- South Park, Little Tokyo, the historic core, skid row -- there are many architectural responses to the idea of downtown living in this city.

But three residential developments on a stretch of Industrial Street, just off 7th Street near the L.A. River, come pretty close.

At the corner of Industrial and Mateo streets stands the Toy Factory Lofts, a solid, broad-shouldered building offering views of the downtown skyline two miles or so to the northwest. Across Industrial are the Biscuit Company Lofts, a 1925 Nabisco factory that has been impressively transformed by architect Aleks Istanbullu into 104 narrow, high-ceilinged units, about 70% of which have been sold. And just up the street is the site of a new building, the Mill Street Lofts, a $40-million, 16-story project designed by German firm Behnisch Architects and scheduled to open in early 2009.

Together, the projects, built by developer Linear City, span the architectural range between adaptive reuse and ground-up construction. They suggest how the concept of "loft living," invented in New York City two generations ago, has been transformed -- some would say deformed beyond recognition -- by coming into contact with Los Angeles. (That deformation is especially acute in the case of the Mill Street Lofts, since a new loft building -- creating from scratch what was once by definition a conversion -- is basically a contradiction in terms.)

These projects have begun to create a micro-neighborhood whose personality feels vital, organic and entirely artificial at the same time. For all those reasons, as I spent the last couple of weeks visiting nearly a dozen loft and condo buildings downtown, Industrial Street was the place I kept coming back to.

I didn't conceive of this exploration with any particularly high-toned goals in mind. I was mostly interested in feeling the shifting ground of downtown L.A. beneath my feet.

But as it turned out, visiting the projects in person, not as an architecture critic with publicists and designers in tow but simply as a prospective renter or buyer, revealed quite a bit about where the overlapping strands of architecture, history, real estate and marketing come together downtown. .

Though I didn't run into soccer star David Beckham and his wife, Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, who have reportedly purchased a penthouse in the Biscuit Lofts in advance of Becks' debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy, I found in each building a variation on the same ritual. A sales agent, usually in his or her 20s, relatively attractive and seemingly bored, handed me a sheaf of fliers and floor plans ("the literature") along with a business card and led me through an affectless tour of "the property."

For a while, my tour was shaping up as a complete jumble. There were soft lofts (those with separate, closed-off bedrooms) and hard lofts (big, open spaces), apartments and condos. But in the midst of all that variety, as I stumbled from one downtown to another, a strange pattern began to emerge in these new residential buildings.

What I discovered is that the lack of a coherent architectural vision of what it means to live downtown -- ambivalence, in short -- is actually part of the sales package. It may, in fact, be the very heart of the sales package.

And so at the Library Court building at the corner of Hope and 6th streets, an old building restored and rebuilt by talented architect Brenda Levin, there is the strong smell of urine on the sidewalk out front and, inside, a business center overlooking a "Zen garden." Out front, the facade attempts a complicated contextual juggling act, trying its best to cram in references to the skyscrapers, hotels and low-slung offices that surround it.

At the 2121 lofts in the Arts District, where a view of the L.A. River's graffiti-covered concrete bed is part of the package, there are hard edges and "distressed" floors, but also an herb garden and a promise from the sales agent that the razor wire wreathing the parking lot will guarantee that there is no "intruder access." In other words, part of what you are buying is a tiny, manageable bit of roughness, but please be assured that nobody is going to steal your Prius.

The 2121 building -- actually, it is more of a compound, with connected warehouses -- was also the backdrop for an entertaining bit of symbolism. When I drove up to the sales office, I had to dodge a forklift whose operator was trying to maneuver between parked cars.

Aha! I thought. The collision of industry and residential living! But then I looked more closely and realized the forklift belonged to the Modernica warehouse across the alley, which assembles the very same Eames chairs that will be filling the lofts here and across downtown. What I saw wasn't a collision but some weird kind of synergy.

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