From the top of the new Samitaur Tower, you can see several of the 15-odd buildings designed in Culver City, Calif., by architect Eric Owen Moss. The tower directly overlooks the dark tilting form of the Stealth, and the bulbous Beehive and twisting green Umbrella are to points east and south. Moss’s corner of Culver City is an architectural wonderland, a landscape of Seussian shapes with a forceful materiality of zinc, cement plaster, and slump glass. And of course, there is the structure at hand, a five-story tower of steel plate and milky acrylic: oil derrick meets iPad.
The Samitaur Tower sits adjacent to a new light-rail line, under construction and expected to open by 2012. With a projected daily ridership of 27,000, this new infrastructure brings with it a large, and largely captive, audience. Developers Laurie and Frederick Samitaur Smith, who also own the construction company that built the tower, commissioned Moss to design something to entertain strap-hangers, and perhaps entice them to linger: a structure that’s primary goal is to showcase film and video art. A novel concept, perhaps, but the Samitaur Smiths have spent 25 years developing this once-blighted section of Culver City—working with Moss as their sole architect—into an urban center of art and culture. “We wanted to stabilize the neighborhood, and introduce jobs, architecture, and art,” Frederick Samitaur Smith says.
The tower’s form is defined by five offset steel rings, which are cantilevered off of steel beams at the rear. The rings are partially filled in with steel floor plates, creating different levels that can be occupied by tower visitors. The gap between each ring level is bridged by differently shaped panes of an acrylic and optical-film assembly, which, when viewed together, form an irregularly shaped rear-projection screen. Each screen is angled toward a different form of transportation: The first level is intended for street traffic, while other screens point toward the entrance to the tower, the future light-rail station, and the notoriously congested Santa Monica Freeway. “You could make the argument that we’re solving the problem of different vantage points,” Moss says. In situations where the geometry of the rings would dictate that the screen tilt up instead of down (reducing visibility) the architect omitted them, leaving apertures for taking in the view. The Samitaur Smiths are still mulling over what to show in their new drive-by theater.
The tower tops out at 72 feet above grade, but the site also boasts a sunken level with a small outdoor amphitheater and another, smaller, screen on the rear of the building that is directed at this audience. The concrete bleachers only seat 200, but for larger events, guests can spill into the neighboring parking lot (also owned by the Samitaur Smiths) and still see the show. The tower “has a very suggestive role for an urban artifact, which is a new kind of thing. There’s no name for it,” Moss says. “It’s a new kind of program.” But a new name might have to be coined: Moss designed the tower as a prototype, and, if the response is good, the Samitaur Smiths are looking at deploying several more throughout the city.
Imposing from the front, the Samitaur Tower actually has a relatively minimal structure. The core columns, which surround the stairwell and the elevator shaft at the rear, are constructed from 1/2-inch-thick steel plates welded to channel steel sections, a technique used in shipbuilding. The hot-rolled steel has a natural mill scale finish, and is treated with a clear protective coat. Each level is primarily supported by two wide-flange steel beams, which cantilever out—as far as 20 feet—from the column assemblies. The beams support galvanized metal platforms, which form the floor plates. “It’s a very aggressive structural system in terms of keeping that force in check,” says project architect Dolan Daggett. “It allowed us to do an uninterrupted structural skin on the perimeter, and create one giant image” on each screen. To deal with the concentrated point load, eight cast-in-place drilled piers, at depths of up to 65 feet, form the foundation.
The screens were another technical challenge for the team. It’s one thing to create an electronic billboard, another thing entirely to create a giant movie screen capable of showing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because the tower was specifically designed for art, not commerce, a screen composed of bright LEDs was out of the question. The office worked with French company Arkema to custom-design the curved rear-projection screens. They are composed of a 1/2-inch-thick system of optical film sandwiched between two layers of coextruded acrylic. (The thickness allows them to double as guardrails.) Vertical acrylic fins from Reynolds Polymer allow for an uninterrupted image to be shown from ceiling-mounted projectors.