Cover Story: History Renewed

July 20, 2009

Gensler breathes new life into one of the world’s largest wooden buildings—the former home of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.


Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen has served up all the thrills required of a summer blockbuster. But a quieter and perhaps more unexpected transformation has taken place in the same cavernous building that houses the soundstage where the movie was created. Besides soundstages and movie production facilities, the Southern California behemoth, known as Building 15, is home to an intimate office and marketing center for a Tishman Speyer and Walton Street Capital joint venture.

The dull corrugated aluminum façade of the huge Playa Vista, CA, structure, also known as the Cargo Building, gives no indication of the rich history of the site—or of the magic that takes place there. For the past 66 years, the building has been devoted to the twin passions of its builder, Howard Hughes: aviation and movie making.

The main components of the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ legendary 150-ton flying boat, were assembled inside this vintage 1943 double-bay hangar. Due to wartime materials shortages, the plane, which is actually made of birch and officially named the Hercules, is constructed entirely of wood. So was its 225,000-square-foot hangar, right down to the leaders and downspouts. The aluminum exterior panels were added in 1971, decades before the Army Corps of Engineers evaluated the 11-building complex—now known as the Hughes Industrial Historic District—and determined it eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

The flight of the Spruce Goose lasted only a minute, but the Cargo Building has been in continuous use since its construction. It has been a center for aviation and aerospace research, and has housed helicopter and armament manufacturing. Building 15’s more recent incarnation as a motion picture production facility now shares space with Tishman Speyer’s development offices and a marketing center for the firm’s 64-acre Playa Vista office campus.

The bright and welcoming 3,700-square-foot development and marketing space is situated in the spine that runs between the hangar’s two big bays—in the heart of the one of the largest wooden structures ever constructed. Tishman Speyer wanted a permanent development office on-site at the Playa Vista project, with room for architectural models, marketing and advertising materials, offices, and presentation space for groups of two to 15 clients. The different functions couldn’t interfere with one another in this compact multipurpose area. “The space had to be laid out so people in offices could talk on phones and do business without interrupting a presentation,” says Gensler’s Eric Stultz, the project’s design director.

The developer also wanted the transformation to feature the history of the building and maintain some of its natural features. “We wanted to try to preserve the integrity of the core and shell and the original components of building, while transforming the interiors to give the space a second life,” says Matthew Biss, senior director at Tishman Speyer. “The Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction, [and] we had to receive their approval for modifications. They were receptive to our ideas. They were great to work with; we got a lot of their attention.”

Among the original components featured in the current design are five sets of structural trusses that punctuate the space. These rigid roof supports are made of molded, laminated wood, a cutting-edge technology developed by Hughes Aircraft in the early 1940s that was also used on the Spruce Goose. “The columns are the one piece that had the most character when you walk in,” explains Stultz. “We wanted to reveal the bones of the building without taking away years of wear.”

The original ductwork and sprinklers are visible overhead, and the concrete floor was preserved, too. Here, as on the columns, some traces of old paint remain. Major holes and cracks were filled, and a clear-coat finish applied “to leave evidence of all those years of wear and significant use,” notes Stultz. The cleanly designed white interior keeps the columns and floor in the spotlight.

Reusing existing space and components within a historic building helped to qualify the project for a LEED Commercial Interior (CI) certification. Other qualifying factors include water reduction through efficient fixtures, construction and demolition waste recycling, increased ventilation, use of regional materials and low-emitting materials, and nontoxic post-construction green cleaning.

A 5-foot by 9-foot architectural model of the development project is a focal point and natural gathering place. “When someone walks into the room, the first thing they do is go to the model,” says Biss. “Early on we were considering using a lot of technology to present our materials. We explored things like intricate AV systems, touch screens, holograms and projections. At the end of the day, we went back to the basics: The anchor of the marketing center is the model. It’s a better platform for conversation and explaining the development than a moving image.”

The model’s wood and metal base was designed to complement the Cargo Building’s architectural details. The model also inspired the color palette. Gensler senior designer Tracy Sonka Stultz aimed for natural colors that would work in harmony with the wetlands and outdoor environment surrounding the development site, and that would not conflict with the presentation of the marketing materials. “The model and back-lit pieces are very vividly colored. The idea was to let a lot of the space fall to the background and allow those to be front and center,” she says. “The site model has a lot of warm colors, and we picked up on them.” Sonka Stultz points out that the shade of chartreuse in the model is reproduced in the custom wool and silk rugs that warm the room.

Lighting was inspired by a “retail attitude: focus people on the product,” says Sonka Stultz. The space has no natural light, which turned out to be a plus. “We didn’t have to worry about variations of light coming from outside throughout the day,” she adds. “That allowed us to control the light focusing on the model and marketing materials. With natural daylight pouring into the space, the sales materials would lose their effect during the day.”

Brighter lighting differentiates the central public area from the offices around the perimeter, and helps direct clients into the presentation area at the rear of the space. “I wanted the clients to be able to flow through the space and end in a home-like setting geared toward social interaction,” explains Sonka Stultz. Clients gather in a comfortable lounge area with a flat-screen, low tables surrounded by lounge furniture, and a tall, white marble custom bar with stools.

“It has a tiered, theater effect,” says Stultz. “People sitting at the bar can see over people sitting in lower space. The bar is a natural place for people to stand and gather, both at a presentation and at the end of the workday. It’s a highly flexible space.” When the office is humming with activity, hidden traverse draperies can be drawn to close off the presentation space, muffling sounds from the work zone and enhancing a feeling of intimacy.

Extra soundproofing was used to minimize the impact of any audio effects generated on the neighboring soundstages. However, “Few days go by without hearing a major explosion of movie magic going on on the other side of the wall,” notes Biss. “This is a pretty interesting place to work out of; we’re in our own little world.”

Visitors to the marketing center and development offices might feel the same way when they enter the virtually unmarked door of the elderly hangar and discover the brightly lit, warmly welcoming space within.

Elzy Kolb is a White Plains, New York-based freelance writer, editor, and copy editor. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Westchester magazine, TheStreet.com, and other industry publications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Cassina | 1
(+39) 0362-3721 


Kouzouian Fine Custom Furniture | 2
(818) 772-1212

Zenith Intl. Handmade Rugs
(310) 823-6233

City Design LA
(310) 202-8211


(800) 344-2600

Lighting Design Alliance | 4
(562) 989-3843

Hudson Valley Lighting | 3

Design Within Reach
(800) 944-2233


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Rockefeller Center
45 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10111
(212) 715-0300

Walton Street Capital LLC
900 North Michigan Ave.
Ste. 1900
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 915-2800




2500 Broadway, Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 449-5600

Kevin Heinly, AIA, LEED AP, project principal

Eric Stultz, AIA, LEED AP, design director

David Frank, senior designer

Tracy Sonka Stultz, ASID, LEED AP, senior designer

Victoria Szalay, designer

Sihenne Ng, designer

Olivier Sommerhalder, designer

Margaret Fitzsimmons, LEED coordinator

Tishman Speyer

Clune Construction Co. (offices)

Turner Construction Co. (marketing center)

Zinner Consultants

Architectural Resources Group

Engineering Economics

Amir Daghigh

Tom Farrage & Co.

Ryan Gobuty

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