A Building in Motion

OneSantaFe-Exterior Lamb 050 med resFor Michael Maltzan Architecture, 2014 has been quite a year in Los Angeles. Significant debuts by the firm included Star Apartments (the Downtown complex with 102 apartments for formerly homeless individuals) and Haunted Screens (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) installation for the German Cinema in the 1920s exhibition, with Amy Murphy). One Santa Fe, the iconic, 500,000-square-foot, 438-residence, mixed-use community in the booming Arts District),  is the most recent project from the practice. Los Angeles’ newest landmark, OSF’s standout features include sheer length (one-quarter of a mile, making it L.A.’s longest building, and one of the longest residential structures in the world), a bridge levitating above a central opening, gardens and plazas that wind through branching forms of the project, and inspiring views towards downtown, the San Gabriel Mountains, rail yards and the Los Angeles River. Design Principal Michael Maltzan shared his thoughts.

What is behind the synchronicity of these new projects?

They all started at different times. It’s mostly a fortunate coincidence but as they are finishing construction, the diversity of scales is really interesting to me. It demonstrates that architecture can be present at many different scales and elastic in the ground it covers. The LACMA installation is a very different scale of challenge from One Santa Fe, but in each case we are trying to bring the full force of creativity to deal with design concerns in a positive, contemporary manner.

What are your thoughts on the extraordinary length of One Santa Fe?

It is a big building. I am very proud of it. It says that in L.A. it is still very possible to think, dream and build big. It is absolutely something we should celebrate. At the most fundamental level, L.A. faces its biggest challenges as it grows and becomes complex. One of the ways we match that complexity is with the full range complexity that exists, and by linking that with the creative culture.

Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s Los Angeles Times recent review of One Santa Fe expressed many ways it holds “unusual symbolic power.” He states that One Santa Fe’s elongated “monumentality” allows for urban “density not anxiety-producing (or necessarily vertical, for that matter) but forward-looking and charismatic.” Is it your intention for the building to help bring the right kind of density to the city?

Taking on the issue of emerging density in Los Angeles was a real ambition from the beginning.  The project imagines how density might be evolving in a city like Los Angeles, which has not been thought of as dense city, but is rapidly becoming one.  I think it is the role of architects to explore and speculate from an urban-planning standpoint how the city is evolving. Urban design and planning as we knew them from pre-war into the ’60s and ’70s don’t exist the way they did then, partly because government is no longer the grand sponsor of planning. There has been a visioning void that architects have the capacity to step into with ideas and images of what that city might look like and how it might function. One Santa Fe is looking towards the future of how density is going to emerge in the next 15 to 25 years. In that sense it’s projecting an anticipatory scale and density, as opposed to portraying the city as it is today.  In such a fast moving city, that would be a losing battle.

One Santa Fe seems to offer a somewhat playful mirror of its surroundings, especially the adjacent rail yards. Do you intend the building to be a literal expression of trains and locomotion?

I have no problem if people see that in the building. It’s not so much directly trying to recall rail, but the history of movement that still exists on that site—including the First Street Bridge, the Fourth Street Bridge, and the Amtrak, Metrolink, Gold Line and Red Line rails. Even the flow of the LA River. That is the combination of influences creating a building that is in motion.

As one explores the building, if offers layers of idiosyncratic surprises that give it even more character, like the unfolding of a complex piece of music: the many variations in floorplans, the townhome units that straddle the lengthy “bridge” section. How did you arrive at some of these moments?

Knowing the building’s size, we looked to create layers of experience at different scales. On one hand I wanted the experience of the building to be as large as it actually is, expressing its relationship to the scale of infrastructure and city around it. At the same time, it needs to respond to people walking and biking by, not just those driving or riding by on the train or the people who live and shop there.  That many scales, layers, and particular moments woven throughout the building should create real moments of connection and intimacy for those individuals.  And if we are talking about the scale of experiences over time for someone who is living at 1SF over the next five or 10 years, it has to have these many layers of discovery.

As to how we arrived at them, it’s more that we searched for them all through the design process.  There are ways that the city: the bridge that opens to the river and perhaps to a new Red Line platform, the stairway entry oriented toward SCI-arc across the street; the many sizes and shapes of windows; even the wide diversity of the units themselves – all provide a great range of experiences across the building. 

The Arts District has had an explosion of growth and desirability. What do you think about the neighborhood’s future and the concern expressed by some about One Santa Fe as part of its growth?

The Arts District has an established culture of people who have lived there for a long time. Converting older buildings into lofts has offered a very desirable way of living – a model of a way of living that Los Angeles has not seen much. Now any time you have movement back to the city from the suburbs, there seems to be anxiety by people who staked out the community early, and concerns about whether they will able to sustain the culture they pioneered there. But neighborhoods evolve and the Arts District is feeling that change already.  Apart from One Santa Fe the First Street Bridge was widened and there is now a train line on it. Downtown overall is densifying. Disney Hall and Grand Avenue have brought enormous interest. Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights continue to boom. The River is now central to the city’s evolution. All of those places and developments are having as much and greater impact as One Santa Fe. It is part of the inevitable growth and evolution of the city as a whole.

I can’t speak for all of the buildings happening in the Arts District. Some of them are responsible and creative in their response to these challenges, and many are not. I believe One Santa Fe is channeling the energy of the Arts District and reinforcing that spirit that exists there. But to say there is a lot of development in the area, and we’re worried about it so we are saying all development is equally bad – that is not a sustainable solution to that worry.

Have you met any of the new residents at One Santa Fe? What is your sense of their reaction to living in such an extraordinary place?

I have met some of the new residents and I have noticed a real sense from them that they are invigorated to be in an exciting place.  Maybe that’s because it’s brand-new, but I certainly get the sense that they feel One Santa Fe is a distinctive building and they seem to enjoy being part of that.

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