Tom Bonner

There are several reasons why, in giving their Twenty-Five Year Award to the Hayden Tract project, AIA has made the right move. First of all, the Hayden Tract (I prefer the site’s original name to the current, New Agey one, Conjunctive Points) is a very good and very influential body of work. Second, it is not a building, but rather a series of renovations, deletions, insertions, and additions that have transformed a collection of warehouses in Culver City, Calif., into a creative hub. That makes this an award given largely for renovation, not for new building. Third, honoring this ensemble reminds us that some of the best architecture is not confined to a solitary building. Fourth, the work represents the experimental approach that flourished in Los Angeles during the 1980s and 1990s, and that help moved the discipline of architecture beyond the wake that many architects were then staging for late Modernism and the gaudy funeral that Postmodernism was trying to give those final remains of soulless grids. Finally, this choice more than makes up for the unusual decision last year not to designate any project with the Twenty-Five Year Award.

The Hayden Tract is Eric Owen Moss, FAIA's masterpiece. It is also just about the only example of his built work. Early in his career, Moss built a warehouse and two houses, and went on to design another house as well as a nice building at the University of California at Irvine. The architect entered many other competitions and came close to realizing other designs. But all the rest of his work is contained in the small tract of land at the border between Culver City and Los Angeles. Together with the tract’s developers, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith, Moss and his office have taken on bit after bit of this industrial landscape, starting with interior renovations and then slowly moving onto additions. Along the way, they have proposed larger structures, one of which—a mid-rise office building—is finally under construction.

Tom Bonner Pterodactyl
Pterodactyl interior
Tom Bonner Pterodactyl interior
3535 Hayden
Wikimedia Commons/John Lopez 3535 Hayden

The Smiths’ vision (I had several conversations with them after the initial building renovation was finished), was intuitive at first but became more strategic later on, and was centered around the fact that the warehouses were relatively well-built, open, and flexible, and had a strong character. The structures were also ideally located, close enough to the action in L.A. to be accessible but far away enough to be affordable. All that made them attractive to the growing nest of companies that were then starting to thrive as the old studio system and the monolithic industries like aerospace that had dominated Southern California began to splinter. As the Smiths brought their renovations to market, they attracted this newly thriving creative industry: ad agencies, editing and special effects houses, consultancies to the movie industry, and data analytics teams. Small restaurants and other facilities followed, and the whole reached a critical mass somewhere around 2010 (just about 25 years later). Today, the development is not only driven by the Smiths, but also by local businesses such as Beats by Dre, the music giant that moved into a building designed by Barbara Bestor, FAIA.

8522 National
Creative Commons License/Flickr/collectmoments 8522 National
Interior of 3555 Hayden
Tom Bonner Interior of 3555 Hayden

Interior of the Paramount Laundry

Moss’s vision for the project was informed by Frank Gehry, FAIA’s early work, but also by the renovations Charles and Ray Eames had done to their own small warehouse in nearby Venice, as well as by the messy reality of the L.A. vernacular. Rather than creating finished structures within the warehouses, or hiding their wood, concrete, glass, and steel elements, Moss chose to construct geometric fragments, slicing seemingly random holes through the building fabric, extending new elements out of the buildings, and generally transforming them into a three-dimensional assemblage of old and new, found and fabricated, and geometric and random architecture.

Moss also convinced the Smiths to build new spec structures such as the Stealth Building, the constructed equivalent of the nearly undetectable bomber whose angular shapes were just then being tested the skies above the Southland, and the Parasol, or Umbrella, an outdoor stage covered with curving glass that was perched on the corner of the one of the warehouses and was intended for the L.A. Philharmonic.

The Stealth Building
Creative Commons License/Flickr/Scott Moore The Stealth Building
The Umbrella
Creative Commons License/Flickr/Randal Schwartz The Umbrella
Samitaur Tower
Creative Commons License/Flickr/Neon Tommy Samitaur Tower

It took several decades, but eventually all of these dancing forms started to move in tune with one other, reflecting the creativity and the experimentation of the companies inside as well as the architect’s idiosyncratic predilections for expressive forms carried out in base materials. Today, the Hayden Tract is a delight to visit even if you cannot get past the card swipe-protected doors guarding the interiors, as Moss’s architecture has exploded onto the street to create compositions that continue from building to building, across the street, down alleyways, and up and over parking lots.

It is difficult not to be delighted by the architecture (although I know some people find the forms irritating), but the ideas behind it are, I think, of particular importance. This is architecture that does not pretend to solve a problem or serve a client, but that rather creates opportunity through speculation and form through experimentation. Nothing appears to be stable or finished, and that is the point. These are building blocks for a continually evolving neighborhood.

Tom Bonner Vespertine
Vespertine roof terrace, with view of reticulated steel canopy
Tom Bonner Vespertine roof terrace, with view of reticulated steel canopy

The one regret I believe both the Smiths and Moss have (even if they would not say so publicly) is that the notion of this as a true community, with housing and facilities for a diverse population, has not materialized. The Hayden Tract is, and probably will remain, a creative compound largely inhabited by workaholic yuppies.

Since the Hayden Tract project started, other renovations of former industrial buildings have taken shape around the globe, from the 798 Art District in Beijing to the rehabilitation and reuse of vast tracts of the Ruhr Valley’s factory complexes in Germany. None of these other projects, however, have the concentrated sense of carrying out Sol LeWitt’s try-this-then-try-something-else dictum for art that makes this collection of buildings and environments in Culver City so worth visiting. Bravo, AIA, for recognizing architecture in, through, and beyond building.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.