Monday, August 8, 2011

Finding the "Creative Class" in the Hayden Tract

The” Umbrella” [section], 2011

Okay, you know I like buildings. During my brief visit to Los Angeles last week I went to see buildings in the Hayden Tract of Culver City, a area that has been truly transformed.

If you want to see what will attract the "creative class” and creative class employers, you would do well to visit the Hayden Tract area of Culver City, California. It’s an old area, just south of downtown Los Angeles. They used to make everything from jet engines to saw blades to motion pictures here. The surrounding hills are littered with oil and gas derricks. But most of that industry went away and what was left in the Hayden Tract was forty acres of decaying buildings and industrial blight.

If that wasn’t enough, the riots that took place nearby in 1992 following the verdict in the Rodney King case were the tipping point so far as anyone wanting to have anything further to do with the Hayden Tract. Even if you did want to do something there, nobody would lend you the money to do it.

Enter Frederick and Laurie Samitaur-Smith. He’s a former journalist and prune farmer. She’s a former actress. The Smiths started purchasing property in the Hayden Tract when it was cheap. Over time they wanted to not only increase the value of their investments, but also create jobs and help the economy of Culver City. In partnership with architect Eric Owen Moss, the Smiths have succeeded in turning an area that no one would touch into one of the most inspiring hubs of creative class workers I've ever seen or heard of.

How did they do it?

It helped that they started with property in an area so devalued that no one had rushed in to tear down the sturdily built low-rise industrial buildings on it. The Smiths didn’t want to destroy these buildings, either. But they knew that merely renovating them would do little more than turn them just another unimaginative industrial renovation project in a bad area where no one wanted to be located.

What the Smiths did understood was the concept of creating iconic buildings as a means of increasing economic value and utility through design appeal.

Mind you, standing out isn’t easy in Los Angeles, where every other person is trying to stand out and be noticed for one reason or another. The city’s increasingly populated by remarkable buildings. The Smith’s, though, chose a terrific partner in Eric Owen Moss. To call his work in the Hayden Tract merely iconic is severely understating the result and impact of their collaboration.

The Smiths claim to have had no master plan for their Hayden Tract properties, and you’ll see little to make you doubt this claim. They merely started taking the old factories and warehouses they owned and reconstructing them, one at a time, into buildings that look not only futuristic, but of an entirely different planet.

They couldn’t have found a more daring architect to work with, either. Eric Owen Moss’ work is considered, as one reviewer put it, “unconventional by even the most avant-garde designers of Los Angeles, who are hardly known for being conventional.” Away from the floodlights of downtown, Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, Culver City has become a testing ground for Moss’ radical geometric designs that are, contrary to many other industrial renovations I’ve seen, not just skin deep.

The Samitaur Tower, 2011

To the layman, Moss’ designs recall the work that SITE used to do for Best Products, some of which you can see in this video. As clever and eye-catching as SITE’s work for Best Products was, though, those designs were fundamentally tricks played with facades. The insides of those buildings were still Best Products’ dull catalog showrooms.

Moss’ work at the Hayden Tract, on the other hand, is as clever and unexpected on the inside as it is on the outside. Workspaces and public spaces are large, open and flexible. There’s lots of bright California sunlight. It’s as if these buildings announce to anyone who visits or works in them that, “We don’t want to do things the same way here.”

Tomorrow: More from The Hayden Tract


  1. Wow! That looks wonderful. I've never seen that area. I wish I'd get a chance over some travel weekend to go exploring there--thanks for the heads up. These photos are excellent.

  2. The Samitaur Tower sure stands out! That has got to be one of the strangest structures I've ever laid eyes on.