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Can an LA Microhood Be More Than an Architectural Curiosity?

The Beehive by Eric Owen Moss. One of the Conjunctive Points buildings within Hayden Tract. Photo via Flickr/Scott Moore.

In the midst of the sprawling Los Angeles basin, halfway between downtown Los Angeles and the beach, lies Culver City, home to movie studios, start-ups, Obama's former campaign headquarters, and, by Los Angeles standards, relatively cheap rents. Just across from Culver City's redeveloped downtown lies Hayden Tract, a former industrial zone that was once the region's infamous and literal "other side of the tracks," increasingly a haven for decaying aerospace warehouses and drug dealing jammed between a former rail line and Ballona Creek.

In the eighties, coinciding with the planned renewal of its downtown, the Culver City Redevelopment Agency made Hayden Tract a pet project, focusing resources and attention onto the area to spruce it up. This is the beginning of Hayden as it is known today: an on-going architectural experiment and real estate proposition known as Conjunctive Points. It is the product of a near three decade-long exchange of ideas between local architect Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and his clients, the husband-and-wife developer team of Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith. They began buying up the decaying warehouses and handing them over to Moss, then becoming known for his idiosyncratic, intellectual approach, for radical re-dos.

Ask architects about Hayden Tract and they can tell you all about it. Owing to its abundance of eclectic buildings designed by Moss, it has long been regarded as a mecca for architectural pilgrimages, that one special place in the city—possibly the country—where architectural adventurousness can seemingly run free. Today, Moss is still engaged in creating singular buildings for the Samitaur Smiths, like the recently-completed Samitaur Tower and the Waffle, an undulating egg-crate structured conference center currently under construction. Hayden occupies a central position in the history of contemporary architecture, specifically that rough industrial brand that emerges from the creative synergies of Los Angeles.

[View of Stealth, another Eric Owen Moss design within Hayden Tract. Photo via Flickr/Scott Moore.]

But ask non-architects if they know what and where Hayden Tract is and you are bound to get puzzled looks. This one special place is so special, it turns out, that many people don't know about it. Perhaps this is because for most of its life it has been more a scattered collection of secretive buildings than a cohesive neighborhood. It is the quintessential industrial park, not designed to flirt with the surrounding public realm and perhaps by nature resistant to it. No Water Garden is this. Nor is it anything like nearby Blackwelder, a collection of renovated industrial sheds turned into creative office space that, well, still look like industrial sheds.

But it may soon become easier for the greater public to come to the gates of Hayden, thanks to the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica. As Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne put it, Hayden "promises to set the stage for a fascinating clash of philosophies: the private, market-driven approach of the Samitaur Smiths coming face-to-face with L.A.'s newly expanding public realm." Can Hayden Tract come to hold greater meaning for the city?

Architects are already beginning to bridge the gap between architectural curiosity and public use. In addition to the extending Expo Line, the area is getting new mixed-use developments like the Runyun Group's Platform, which Abramson Teiger Architects has designed to go right at the edge of the current Hayden zone.

[The Platform project. Courtesy Runyon Group.]

"We looked at a lot of places on the Westside," says Alex Lin, co-founder and principal of the architecture firm Hopscape, which opened its offices in Hayden last year. "We wanted to be in a place that has a good creative vibe and a very casual environment." In essence, Hayden Tract is a series of nodes where people work. Metro even calls it "job rich" on its web site. What it is not, however, is rich in amenities. "It needs a public realm—restaurants, retail shops, public spaces, green spaces, as well as some basic infrastructure—to really come alive," says Lin. "When we do large mixed-use developments we look at them like small cities, as communities. The things in-between, all the public things, are vital." Hopscape co-founder Ken Ho adds. " It's not a nice place to be when you work late…and as architects we tend to do this a lot!"

Bryson Reaume, president of City Constructors, Inc., a construction firm with expertise in adaptive re-use, knows a lot about converting industrial spaces and re-energizing former industrial areas. He's been witnessing it firsthand in the nearby Arts District, where their offices are located. In Hayden they worked with RAC Design Build to convert a former aircraft facility into creative offices for the media company, Framestore. "It took years for restaurants and shops to start appearing in the Arts District, but now there is a dog park and even a large community park going in," Reaume says. "It's starting to feel like a neighborhood. It's just waiting to happen in Hayden Tract."

[Another view of the Platform project. Courtesy Runyon Group.]

That the collective force of the Moss-Samitaur Smith partnership has the lockdown on the design of the area is more urban myth than reality, perhaps the result of the sheer number of buildings they have done together over the years—31 buildings built or planned at a total of one million square feet . But the Samitaur Smiths don't own all the buildings and they certainly don't own what lies between them. "There is room for anybody to come in and do something," says Moss. "A park, a skate park, anything."

In fact, other architects have been inserting their visions and building upon Moss' armature in different ways and at different scales. Often, out of necessity, they are responding to Moss' vision of architecture, and they must figure out how to explore their own designs in such a symbolically-charged environment. "It was important to us that we recognized Eric Owen Moss, but it was also important that we make a building that is relevant for our clients," says Sherry Hoffman, co-founder and partner of (M)Arch., a Santa Monica firm that recently completed the build-out of one of the iconic Moss buildings.

For (M)Arch., working within the Moss-Samitaur Smith paradigm inspired creative approaches. Their project, a 20,000 square-foot creative office space for Blur Studio in the Paramount Laundry building, is a playful commentary on the original design. "Having a project here means starting with a building that already has a strong position, both aesthetically and culturally. You feel a responsibility to preserve the building's original relevance," while also creating a new set of meanings, says Todd Erlandson, co-founder and partner of (M)Arch. "We started by contrasting the comfortable and casual culture of Blur with Moss' post-modern industrial language—expressing the Blur vibe in contrast to an intentional, highly-wrought shell. The next step was about creating immersive moments, those individual and holistic experiences that are uniquely related to the client's culture."

Projects like Framestore have designed in elements to make up for the lack of them on the outside. Its islands-within-commons plan, with faceted and angled partitions, makes it behave more like a landscape. It also features a three-story tower with an observation deck to provide more outdoor space, all within the building's footprint. And the Cuningham Group's new office space is laid out like a town square with a central park, with sunken landscaping cut into the polished concrete floor, surrounded by work spaces.

(M)Arch's Blur is another case in point. Says Erlandson, "Blur is fortunate because it is located in an edge condition, adjacent to downtown Culver City. Additionally, we are working with them to create a shared outdoor space between them and a like-minded neighbor. Even though parking is at a premium, there are opportunities for small amenities to happen in these in-between spaces."

So if the public infrastructure doesn't yet exist on the outside, that hasn't stopped tenants and their architects from building them on the inside. At some point more work like this could begin to fill in the gaps. As Hayden gradually opens to the public, it could be not just a lab for architecture, but also for urban design and city making.
· Hayden Tract coverage [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed LA]