By Neville Agnew and Jeffrey Levin

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Preservation pays, as many studies have shown. A recent analysis, for example, by the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University found that historic preservation projects provide an economic boost to communities greater even than that created by new construction. But preservation is more than dollars and cents; it can work to sustain the character and vitality of a community.

In the urban context, conservation ordinarily focuses on the preservation of historic structures and landmarks of high aesthetic and cultural value, often with little or no direct attention paid to the identity or well-being of the local community. But sometimes what is required is a broader vision of conservation, one that addresses not simply individual structures but the community as a whole. An area in physical and economic decline is more than a damaged, inanimate artifact whose repair can be put aside for a convenient time; it is a living, struggling place where the hopes and aspirations of people wither as jobs evaporate and layoffs occur. All is change in urban communities, and the trajectory over time can be rapid, whether upward or downward.

When the trajectory is downward, the result is the big-city version of a ghost town. Once the economic lifeblood of a community runs out, all that remains is an industrial wasteland, a haunting relic of bygone prosperity. One or myriad factors—the flight of jobs to countries where manufacturing is cheaper, demographic changes, or shifts in the industrial demands of a global marketplace—can prompt a slide from prosperity to poverty.

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Many sections of Los Angeles—a dynamic and fast-growing city that historically has had plenty of space for expansion—have experienced bewilderingly rapid turnarounds from boom to bust, as the city grew and fed on its own energy. As new areas developed, others slumped. Venice, for example, the beachside mimic of its famous Italian namesake, is one of California's characteristic schemes and dreams—the turn-of-the-century vision of Abbot Kinney, who arrived in the Golden State in 1880. After a period as a popular resort, the area slipped into shabbiness, decay, and crime, and its canals were filled in or clogged with trash. From the mid-1920s to the 1970s, the area languished. Yet Venice had something going for it that the ghost town does not—prime seaside real estate. Sooner or later its natural endowments could be counted on to reinvigorate it. Today it is the quintessential California beachside community, but with enough of its former seediness still present to provide a piquant vitality.

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A few miles inland from Venice is Culver City, an incorporated city with its own local government but surrounded by greater Los Angeles. Long established in Culver City have been components of the entertainment and aerospace industries. Because the city is not blessed by sea and sand, the decline of its industrial east end—after its decades of boom (in response to the defense needs of World War ii and the Cold War)—was precipitous. As industries closed or moved away, factory and warehouse buildings fell vacant, and the district began to die. Bordering on south-central Los Angeles, the city was wracked by riots in 1992 which dealt the area a further blow. This industrial section was set to become, as have many other urban areas in the United States and elsewhere, a wasteland of decaying buildings, graffiti, weeds, and trash—an industrial ghost town that L.A. motorists sped by on their way elsewhere.

Would this part of Culver City—that once had been a thriving community with factory workers who lived in the nearby modest single-family houses, served by corner stores and the amenities of a stable environment—have to enter a terminal phase of utter ruin, wait 20 to 30 years for the economic tide to change and flow in its direction again, and then be redeveloped after the bulldozers had done their work? The answer to this question was fundamentally an economic one. An area such as this, a symptom and a victim of economic forces, could only be revitalized with its inherent workplace character restored if the realities of the market were incorporated into the solution.

A Vision of Renewal

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Culver City's eastside industrial district—locally known as the Hayden Tract—contains 57 acres and over one hundred buildings. The stimulus for its renewal has been a visionary partnership of developers Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith and architect Eric Owen Moss that began about a decade ago. It was a time of economic decline for the district. According to Frederick Smith, by 1991 1 million of the 1.4 million square feet of industrial space in the tract lay vacant. In an area that once employed 3,500 people, only 870 workers remained.

The Smiths, who own 15 acres of the tract, are developers whose agenda is to restore the vitality of the area in innovative ways. As Frederick Smith says with some passion, there is "an ecological need for developers to learn how to recycle, rather than to destroy pre-existing structures." In Southern California's notoriously restless and expansionist development milieu, where disposing of old buildings remains the norm, the idea of recycling derelict factories and warehouses as a means of revitalizing a local community is startling. Yet this is what the Smiths have done, building upon what existed, as opposed to leveling structures and starting from the ground up.

Frederick Smith's family has long had business associations with the area, and so the tie was there. It was a tie that he felt even more strongly after the 1992 riots, when public perception of the area worsened. "One can't just take from a neighborhood in good times and then desert it in bad," he has explained. "Our family had earned a profit off these buildings for years; we had a moral obligation to help the neighborhood through the crisis."

"The economic future of the community was being destroyed," observes his wife Laurie. "You've got to have the guts to say, 'I'm not afraid of what's going on in this neighborhood. There is hope for this neighborhood.' If you make an attempt to defeat despair, you can conquer."

To conquer, the Smiths have collaborated with architect Eric Owen Moss. People focus on the architecture of Moss—it is hard not to—for its exuberant transformation of worn-out industrial buildings into exciting geometric forms. This is architecture as sculpture, designed to grab the attention of the passerby—sophisticated living sculpture intended to inspire and stimulate the creative people who work in the buildings. Moss's approach is to utilize the shell and body parts of the old warehouses and industrial spaces to create entirely new configurations that maintain a link, through structural elements, to the buildings' previous incarnations. Architect Philip Johnson called Moss "the master jeweler of junk." Here indeed are weathered trusses and wooden beams, columns showing their scars and rough warehouse uses, nail holes and residues of paint, and original unplastered brick walls. At the same time, the buildings are functional, offering a dynamic workplace for the people who use them daily. As an executive at one of the companies occupying a Moss building states, "the difference between a conventional office building, which is conformist, and here is the difference between suffocation and spontaneous combustion. The space really lends itself to the fury and flurry of activity that the creative process demands."

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That Moss is a leading architect is indisputable. His designs for Smith projects have won award after award, including five national American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards. The Los Angeles chapter of the AIA in its 1997 design award for one Smith-Moss structure declared that "the building recollects forward, acknowledging its past and the history of the area, while moving decisively forward to create the landmark headquarters for a digital graphics design company."

It has been said cynically of architecture that form follows funding. The Smith-Moss coalition proves this, but in a positive way. Here development has been turned into an art form: it adapts old buildings to new uses; construes the architecture to appeal to the owners and a clientele of emerging technology companies; and recharges the community through job creation and economic activity based not on destruction but resuscitation.

Still, the Smiths' approach has required that a premium be paid for Moss's expensive buildings, and the constraints have been difficult to overcome. Early on, Frederick Smith's vision was seen as "too bold," and his financial advisors told him it was "a mad step." Moss's designs are expensive to build; banks are reluctant lenders in an area previously devastated by riots. Even with over a decade of success, banks will still lend only 50 percent of the financing needed for Smith-Moss projects.

But the contribution these projects have made to the community is now acknowledged. In 1996 Steven Gourley, then mayor of Culver City, wrote that "Mr. Moss and the Smiths have converted these older industrial buildings into spacious high-tech palaces bathed in natural sunlight. They have reshaped those spaces in ways that are so completely new and so far outside our previous realm of experience that they stimulate and challenge our creative energies. . . . The work of Moss and the Smiths has influenced our debates on public art, the relationship between art and architecture, and the manner in which city government interacts with private entrepreneurs."

The Culver City Council, once skeptical of the Smith-Moss efforts, has come around as an ardent supporter. Recently it agreed that the building that is now home to the graphic design firm Pittard Sullivan can be categorized as art—architectural art—and thus qualifies for a one percent art subsidy from the city.

An Equation for Success

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How is success measured in an undertaking like this? By return on investment? By sustainability? By community acceptance and revitalization? Is this an area on an artificial life-support system provided by courtesy of one couple's vision and money supplemented by reluctant bank loans to finance an architect's personal desire to build eye-catching, award-winning buildings? Certainly the business world has been attracted. Kodak and Sony are the big-name tenants, but other high-tech and media firms, as well as start-up companies, are there too, bringing the number of people employed in the district to around 4,500.

But the goal of the Smiths is more than business expansion through the rehabilitation of existing structures—it is to create a new-media business community mixed with a theatrical/arts community. One building is home to two architectural firms, a ballet company, an artist who works in metal, and studio, gallery, and café space. The Smiths' equation for success is nothing if not ambitious: melding the performing arts with high-tech information industries. They want people working on the cutting edge of technology to have contact with art and culture, so that they are aware of the societal implications of their work. Says Frederick Smith, "we are hoping to create a center where culture won't intimidate." Laurie Smith, whose background is in theater, adds, "to us, it's an urban experiment. . . . We're building a little city here."

As part of creating that city—based on a concept they have called "Conjunctive Points"—the Smiths have long worked on initiating an elaborate plan to use an abandoned railroad easement to creatively link the various parts of the district. The unused easement runs through the tract, and the Smiths envision its long-term development with buildings in the airspace above it and parkland underneath.

The revitalization of the Hayden Tract has been one of the catalysts for improvements in other areas of Culver City, including a face-lift in the business district by the city's community development department. The appearance of tiredness after a long ailment is gone, and new vitality is transforming the city. Sony, which in the early 1990s bought the MGM studios in Culver City, is playing a major role by restoring and expanding its studios. The city's central location and relatively reasonable rents have also helped. Says the president of a film and record company that moved into one of the Smith-Moss buildings: "I wanted to be close to where we do business, which is primarily Beverly Hills, but we looked there, and in order to get the same amount of space it was going to cost twice as much money to get half as good a building. I thought to myself, 'why am I paying this kind of money to be in an uninteresting building, when I can go 10 minutes south, have a really gorgeous building designed by a totally interesting, on-the-edge architect, built to my specifications, for half the price?'"

The Smiths have proven that the apparently ineluctable urban decline of their area of Culver City can be reversed. The nucleation of a vibrant new-media area has stimulated other initiatives elsewhere within the city, and others have taken note. In 1994 the Los Angeles Times reported that "neoindustrial enterprises are attracted to the area, which has become a beehive for computer scientists, filmmakers, and graphic and video designers." In describing the work of Smith and Moss, a 1996 Times editorial noted that "the Los Angeles seen from there is not as charming as the old Spanish Mission-style architecture that has symbolized the city's cultural heritage ever since the beginning of the century. . . . It is, instead, an image of the old brick and corrugated metal warehouses from which most of Los Angeles's prosperity emerged, and the newfangled office structures that we hope will ensure its prosperity in the future."

Even the East Coast has noticed, with articles in the Washington Post and New York Times. A 1997 New York Times story described the area as "an impressive fusion of economic renewal, innovative design, and cultural awareness. Factories left empty by the export of manufacturing were transformed into a lively boulevard of the informational city."

The mix for success has included the determination of the Smiths, over the long haul, to persuade, cajole, and convince, as well as a canny business sense counterbalanced by a willingness to accept lower profit for social and community benefit. Playing an equally vital role in turning a sow's ear into a silk purse was finding the right architect to translate vision into structure and to transform dereliction and the depredations of time into buildings that would draw creative businesses like a magnet. This bold conjunction of the social vision of the Smiths, the architectural talent of Moss, and the industrial potential of Culver City has produced a triumph of economic and community restoration that both preserves and creates anew—a model for others to follow.

Neville Agnew is group director for Information and Communications at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Jeffrey Levin is editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.