Q&A: Studio One Eleven

If you happen to be driving down Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood you will notice a colorful glass and concrete building sticking up over the strip malls, billboards, and palm trees. This is Formosa South. Before it was completed earlier this year, you could easily drive by and not notice that you were near one […]

If you happen to be driving down Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood you will notice a colorful glass and concrete building sticking up over the strip malls, billboards, and palm trees. This is Formosa South. Before it was completed earlier this year, you could easily drive by and not notice that you were near one of the most historically significant movie studios in the city, now called The Lot.

The architects, Studio One Eleven, recently completed the first phase of a new master plan for the movie studio and creative campus. Formosa South, is the first new building to go up on the campus in over forty years. It’s now home to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Will Farrell’s online comedy network, Funny or Die.

Through street improvements and redevelopment initiatives, including a community farm, Studio One Eleven also continues to make its mark in its home city of Long Beach, California. Operating in the spaces between architecture, landscape, urban design, development, and grassroots activism, they bring a fresh approach to transforming cities once dominated by cars into places where the public and economies can exist and thrive.

Guy Horton spoke with founder and principal Alan Pullman, AIA about the studio’s work, the future of cities, and what makes successful, viable places.

In your view, what is the ultimate goal of architecture and how does architecture relate to a city?

AP: We always think about buildings in relationship to their context. A building cannot be designed in a silo; buildings have a responsibility to respond to their urban environments. A city is a collection of various independent yet interconnected parts, the urban infrastructure and buildings being just one part, but to us those pieces have a responsibility to not only meet the needs of users and inhabitants, but also contribute to the vitality of the urban realm that sustains it.  

What are the best ways to enhance contemporary urban environments and how do you read these environments to determine the best design approach?

AP: As a practice, we tend to gravitate towards traditional urbanism in the sense of human scale, walkability, and a mixed environment. There should be a central core which neighborhoods radiate from. This doesn’t equate to Disneyland’s Main Street; rather it has a contemporary form. It’s about trying to repair cities that have been disfigured by cars, placing an emphasis on a symbiotic relationship between urbanism, complete streets and contemporary design.

How do you include clients and citizens in your process? Do you routinely do community charrettes or visioning sessions? And how do you use this community input in your process? How do you take it back into the office and translate it into a design?

AP: Every project is different, so the tools we use vary, but in all cases we’re very collaborative. It’s not about design authorship for us. We are interested in setting a stage for design. There is a part of what we do that is eager for external inputs to help craft design. When different players contribute, new possibilities can emerge. Also, we look at constraints as positives and we reject the notion that architecture is about authoritarian design control.

An example of this community-based approach is the Virgil Village Traffic Calming Plan, a project we did in conjunction with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. For this, we weren’t just looking for public input. We wanted a feedback loop, a conversation on the design process that could have a lasting effect on the local constituency. The intention was to leave participants with an impression of how the physical environment influences behavior, whether the speed a driver chooses or the willingness of a pedestrian to cross a street. By making this connection, the results of the process are not only a community-driven plan for the future of Virgil Avenue but a better educated public that can advocate for other improvements in their community after this effort is completed. To accomplish this we had to think beyond traditional outreach. We wanted to engage stakeholders in new ways. We held all meetings near the project area and conducted a series of mobile public workshops on Virgil Avenue itself. We also turned to social media to amplify and organize stakeholder input. So people weren’t limited to going to set meetings.

With projects like Formosa South you seem to be able to reference the past without necessarily recreating it or being retro. Was that the aim here?

AP: Buildings should relate to their context, and that includes the culture and history of place as well as physical form, but we really want the built environment to be relevant to our current time, how we think about building and living today. Specific to Formosa South at The Lot, we looked at the existing master plan that had been done a few years before and realized it didn’t do enough to protect the historic fabric of the area. We worked collaboratively with the client and city to revise and update The Lot’s master plan to preserve and respect the legacy of this site. The plan allows the new to contrast with history and pay homage. It’s a vision of what the twenty-first century media campus looks like, a mix of old and new. We want buildings like Formosa South to reflect the concerns of today, how we build, what materials we use, and sustainability.

There has been a lot of critique about designs that harken the past and artificially “re-create” an historic-like environment. How do you avoid such pitfalls when you are trying to make your designs fit in? Or, how do you make things look contemporary yet seem to belong where they are? Are you just picking up on different elements in any particular setting?

AP: To us there is less and less impetus to recreate historic environments. We don’t have a preset formal vocabulary to our work nor would we adopt a historic one. We want our designs to relate to the context and neighboring buildings but never subservient to a particular style. We start with a blank slate. What should it be? We think about the people interacting with the building. It’s responsive. Mostly our buildings take their form through articulation of program and an expression of how they are constructed, the materials they are made from. Our projects process an inherent understated quality. The building is more of a backdrop. Restraint is a good word. We use a lot of restraint.

You’ve done a lot of work in your home city of Long Beach. Are there any special considerations for working in this context? And how did Long Beach become your home base?

AP: What’s unique about Long Beach is it’s a fairly major Californian city with a waterfront downtown and one of the things that attracted me to it was this mix of it being urban, eclectic yet affordable. It has a metropolitan character, but, like Brooklyn, where I’m from originally, it’s a bit of an outlier. It has the typical problems other post-industrial cities do in that it’s been experiencing economic struggles since big industries and the Navy moved out. It has also suffered from mistakes made in years past with its urban fabric and the tug-o-war between its residential areas and the port. It’s unique in LA and it’s a great laboratory to think about the post-industrial city. It still feels like a working class town we’re comfortable being part of and I think that’s why it’s our home base.

What are some of the current projects you are working on for the city?

AP: We have several infill mixed-use projects going on right now that are fueled by the continuing demand for downtown housing, as well as several other office and commercial projects and incremental urban design initiatives such as continuing our street-deck program and streetscape improvements aimed at creating more livable and green infrastructure.  We’re on a team competing for redesigning the Long Beach Civic Center, and are remodeling a YMCA Community Center. We’re also doing a community farm with the non-profit group LB Fresh. We’re also implementing another urban farm in South Los Angeles with the guerilla gardener, Ron Finley. We’ve been doing urban agriculture projects for the last five years.

Do you find other cities are coming to you and asking for help as they envision their futures?

AP: We’ve started working with the City of Santa Monica on some small scale urban improvements to incentivize economic development. We’re also working with the cities of Santa Ana, Downey, Paramount, Norwalk, and Riverside on similar initiatives.

What are the dominant sources for your inspirations? Do you chiefly look to European precedents for urban design and placemaking? Or, what are your chief inspirations that you find you constantly look to?

AP: I would say Jane Jacobs. Her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities is especially relevant. Moreover, her ideas about economic development are also spot-on. Economics are ultimately the strongest determinant of form. One example of where her approach resonates is one of our adaptive re-use projects, 4th and Linden, where we took an incremental approach. We found this collection of really interesting old buildings just a few blocks from our office. We bought them and slowly developed them over time in a very strategic manner and without tearing them down. Our development strategy was to build upon what was already there. Successful cities are made up of smaller moments like this, not just the big things. There was no master plan. It was very organic and things evolved as we worked on the buildings. We also looked for creative tenants so we wouldn’t have to rely on traditional financing models. The emphasis was on building the local economy. We’re also inspired by tactical urbanists like the Better Block Group and grassroots groups that think about livability in the modern city. We like New Urbanism as well but diverge when it comes to issues of applying style. We don’t rely on a particular style. We live in a very diverse society and cities work when they are eclectic and mixed. People like our collaborator Ron Finley, the “guerilla gardener”, are inspirational to us.

What are the key elements that make great places?

AP: For us successful places are about people, vibrancy, and activity. We want to see people enjoying the places we design, there should be an ease and interactivity among people and the space. The physical form creates a vehicle for human interaction. We create a setting for this to happen. This is what drives our studio.

Recent Programs