Culver City is an area west of Los Angeles that has seen many of its industrial buildings turned into striking, high-profile architecture for design and technology companies. The same trend occurs in this renovation of three factory and warehouse buildings for Herman Miller. It is an understated design but no less striking. Architects Christian Lynch and Simon Eisinger answered some questions about this West Coast project.
View of entry at dusk
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
We were initially selected to be the architects for Herman Miller’s new Los Angeles showroom as the result of an RFQ and then an invited competition. Early during the design process, we were introduced to the building’s owner, Dean Nucich, president of Urban Offerings, Inc. He promptly asked us to submit a proposal to design the whole site and the base building rehab, as well as the showroom interior. This was a good thing, since our showroom design took some real liberties with the building (including demolishing large swaths of it). After we had completed construction documents for the showroom, Herman Miller - for reasons of their own - decided to go with a different site. By then we had a good relationship with the landlord, and we stayed on to complete the project working directly with him. About a year after they pulled out of the lease, a Herman Miller representative drove by the nearly completed building and decided they wanted back in. So in the end, their LA showroom is there as planned, though they made changes to the showroom interior, without our involvement the second time around.
Entry pavilion interior
Can you describe your design process for the building?
Although initially we were asked to think about the interior showroom space, our interest in the project was always in how it fit into the urban landscape, and what kind of an effect it could have from the inside out. We wanted to invite the public into and through the building, while extending and enriching the passage from sidewalk (or car) to interior. The site is on the fringe of Culver City, a part of Los Angeles with a growing art and design community, and with real potential for pedestrian traffic. We wanted to give the building a chance to be a hub for that population, should the occupants want to foster such a thing. The large floor plate made it clear from the beginning that to get adequate light into the building we would have to cut away big pieces of it, but we didn’t want to lose the street-wall and be left with loosely defined exterior spaces. So the exterior spaces became as much a part of the building as the interior ones. The front courtyard, screened and enclosed by the entry pavilion, becomes the main space for the whole building, even though it is accessible without ever actually going inside. Initially this was part of a sequence of sky lit gathering spaces that culminated with the rear courtyard. Although the showroom interior wasn’t built as planned and the sequence was lost, the two courtyards still function well as active outdoor rooms, while allowing light deep into the building.
The existing buildings themselves were classic mid-century LA industrial sheds, with beautiful wood roofs and bow-string trusses. Our approach was simply to expose as much of the base buildings as possible, leaving no doubt as to what was old and what was new. We used rigid insulation on the exterior of the roof, in order to keep the curved wood planking visible from the interior. The new glass walls and steel moment frames look nothing like the existing wood trusses, pipe columns and tilt-up concrete walls. There are almost no finishes in the whole project. The structure is exposed inside and out, and almost all expression of new construction is through the shading systems, a combination of perforated cor-ten steel, galvanized gratings, and wood slats screens.
View from main showroom
How does the building compare to other projects in your office, be it the same or other building types?
We are often asked to work within existing buildings, with limited ability to affect the core and shell. That can be frustrating when we see clearly how the whole building or site could be improved, but we don’t have the means to affect such changes. Working for the tenant first and then the landlord meant really being able to work on the project as a whole. It is encouraging, since we like to start all our projects with a much bigger picture in mind: if we are designing a building, we think about the city, if we are designing an apartment, we think about the building. This time it paid off, and it’s good to be reminded that there are clients out there who are receptive to such an approach, and even recognize that it can be very good business.
View of rear courtyard
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
The building had to be at least LEED Silver from the start (we ended up with LEED Gold), but in some ways that was a distraction from the basics of good sustainable design. Under the LEED system, there are points to be earned, but no demerits, and almost no credit for simply doing less. You actually stand to get more points by adding a flooring material with some recycled content, for example, than if you just omit the floor finish altogether, and use the existing slab. It is also inevitable that once the project is registered in the LEED system, everyone involved starts counting up the points rather than talking about and striving for what actually makes a more sustainable building.
Are there any new/upcoming projects in your office that this building’s design and construction has influenced?
We rarely work on something that doesn’t affect everything we do subsequently. We actively try to bring seemingly antithetical ideas from one project in to challenge another one we are working on. Sometimes it is a fundamental design concept, other times a construction technique. We’re currently restoring the hundred-year-old Hawthorne Barn in Provincetown, Massachusetts, converting it from an un-insulated painting studio to house a new year-round artist residency program. The decades of paint on the interior walls is irreproducible, while the exterior shingle cladding can be easily replaced. So we’re looking at adapting the external insulation system employed in LA to insulate the entire shell of the barn. A new building on the same site, which is embedded in a hillside, may also make use of the peripheral courtyard idea, in order to bring in daylight while extending the positive space of building beyond its interior footprint.
E-Mail Interview conducted by John Hill