Recreating L.A.

Online fashion retailer Nasty Gal relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Photography by Laure Joliete

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“Historic” is a relative term when it comes to architecture in Southern California. In Los Angeles—a city celebrated for its sense of newness and of-the-moment culture and design—history often seems fleeting as what’s old is often discarded to make way for the contemporary. But that perception is not entirely true today, especially in commercial real estate. A significant number of once utilitarian, inelegant structures—former warehouses, film production buildings, or manufacturing facilities—are being renovated and reused as vibrant workplaces for innovative companies in the technology and entertainment industries. What’s old is being adapted, not discarded.

An evolving economy marrying tech and entertainment, a renewed appreciation for recent history and existing structures, and a greater desire for a sense of informal architectural character are driving the adaptive reuse of once-forlorn buildings in Los Angeles. The impact is evident in the region’s real estate market, and the work of area architects and designers.

Establishing a precedent

Creative offices are proliferating in many neighborhoods, including the Westside, where the economic engine was once primarily based in the film industry and further bolstered by the post-war industrial boom—notably the aircraft industry led by Howard Hughes. But as manufacturing largely left, many of these warehouses and similar structures were abandoned. Beginning in the mid-1980s, interest in adaptive reuse led to notable projects such as the transformation of the Hayden Tract, a 60-acre former industrial park in Culver City, by architect Eric Owen Moss into a mixed-use neighborhood including varied workplaces.

In the decades that have followed, other significant projects of this type included Frank Israel’s warehouse conversions for the headquarters of the Hollywood film production companies Propaganda Films and Limelight Productions, and Clive Wilkinson Architects’s headquarters for global advertising agency TBWAChiatDay within a 120,000-square-foot former pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Playa del Rey. Firms that have recently completed similar conversion projects—or are working on them—include SOM, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Shubin + Donaldson Architects, Rapt Studio, RAC Design Build, Wolcott Architecture | Interiors, and Felderman Keatinge & Associates.

Culture based on reuse
The influx of companies in Los Angeles focused on content-generation, such as app development, video production, and social media engagement, has pushed renovation and adaptive reuse projects in the city into overdrive. But why reuse an outmoded building when new construction allows companies to tailor buildings to their needs? In most cases, it’s simply more affordable to renovate an existing building and achieve the aesthetics—such as exposed brick walls, metal or wood structure, and polished concrete floors—that have come to be associated with creative office spaces.

“Reuse is part of the culture of what it means to have a cool office in L.A.,” says Emmanuel Soriano, market and development partner at Industry Partners, a real estate services firm specializing in the representation of landlords, tenants, and developers. The company’s portfolio includes the transformation of a former Santa Monica carpet cleaning company into the headquarters for J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions by Joey Shimoda, Contract’s 2013 Designer of the Year. Also in Industry Partners’s portfolio: the Beats by Dre office (Contract, September 2014) in former warehouses in Culver City and Nasty Gal’s Downtown headquarters in what was an outdated office space in the PacMutual building, both designed by Bestor Architecture. “More often than not, tenants in L.A. are looking for space in an older building that has been able to retain its character—whether that be the bland and utilitarian architecture of the 1930s or the more beautiful Beaux Arts buildings like PacMutual,” Soriano says.

Some companies that are redefining this century’s new economy have also redefined vast stretches of Westside real estate in Playa Vista, where the Hughes Aircraft Company had built the Spruce Goose. Shimoda designed a 50,000-square-foot headquarters in an old warehouse here for TOMS Shoes, and Lean Arch created ad agency 72andSunny’s workplace within World War II-era structures (Contract, May 2015). With tech giants like Google and Facebook making a home in Playa Vista, the area has become known as Silicon Beach.

Building as branding opportunity
Former warehouses and similar large buildings offer abundant, uninterrupted spaces that inventive companies desire. And, with nondescript exteriors, they are not so far removed from Los Angeles’s storied movie studios. “The interiors of creative office spaces are often self-contained enclaves designed to be fantasy worlds,” explains Li Wen, principal and designer director at Gensler’s Los Angeles office, which has completed several conversions such as Playa Jefferson that transformed a Citibank ATM manufacturing facility into an office campus with tenants including Omnicom. “Many creative office spaces feature a ubiquitous exterior that gives way to a powerful moment on the interior, which is a very L.A. thing,” he says.

“‘Authenticity’ is a word that comes up a lot with clients,” says Sejal Sonani, director of architecture at HLW’s Los Angeles office, which recently completed the conversion of a former U.S postal distribution center into The Reserve in Playa Vista. When buildings lack original character, “we treat the building as a background canvas and add new layers of design through architectural details, lighting, landscape, and graphics,” Sonani says.

Another way to reflect company culture is to create onsite amenities—such as outdoor lounge and meeting areas, cafes, fitness centers, bike repair shops, dog parks, and even car washes. “It’s casual in L.A.,” Wen says. “There’s a casualness already with this typology that allows it to be translated in a multitude of creative ways as opposed to a monofunctional office tower, which immediately insinuates some level of formality. Southern California is not about formality.”

The office tower often does not have the informal, ‘cool’ factor that is innate in these others structures and that, in part, is resulting in higher vacancy rates in Downtown. According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District’s second quarter 2015 market report, the area’s vacancy rate is nearly 20 percent. In consistently desirable areas, such as Santa Monica, vacancy rates are below 10 percent.

With this real estate data and the push for less workplace formality in mind, Soriano foresees a need to redefine the look and perhaps even the use of purpose-built office towers. “I’m curious to see what’s going to happen to all the traditional Class A, B, and C buildings in Downtown,” Soriano says. “How will owners adapt and how will those buildings be reused?”


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