For the many thousands of Santa Ana Freeway travelers who pass it each day, the Assyrian-style former Uniroyal tire plant is a wonderful diversion.
The fanciful, 1,700-foot-long facade resembles a set from the Babylon sequence of D. W. Griffiths' silent spectacle "Intolerance." The old factory's crenelated battlements and cast-concrete wall are incised with giant Babylonian warriors and griffins--mythological creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.
Closed for 10 years after Uniroyal Tire Co. abandoned the building in 1978, the former manufacturing plant recently reopened as a $118-million mixed-use project that combines factory-to-retail discount outlets, an office park and 201-room hotel.
Renamed the Citadel, the 35-acre site in City of Commerce, nine miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, has been imaginatively transformed by a team of landscape architects, architects and environmental designers to take on a fresh and vigorous new life.
The factory was originally designed for the Samson Tire and Rubber Co. in 1929-30 by noted Los Angeles architects Morgan, Walls & Clements, and became an instant landmark.
With a grand vision producer Cecil B. DeMille might have envied, the architects were inspired by ancient Assyrian palaces. They believed Assyrian architecture would suggest that Samson tires shared the biblical strongman's fabled strength.
Sixty years later, the inspiration for the new Citadel project is a shrewd mix of stylistic bravado and commercial savvy. The savvy comes from Trammell Crow Co., a Dallas-based developer with a branch in City of Commerce. Trammell Crow conceived the idea of transforming the derelict building into an outlet center backed by an office park and hotel.
"We saw an opportunity to create a direct factory-to-customer outlet collection that could draw shoppers from all over the Los Angeles region, from Santa Barbara to San Diego," Trammell marketing representative Keith Kennon said.
"And the famous wall, which is such a visual marker along the freeway, gave us an instant identity."
The name, Citadel, suggests a city within a city. "The idea was to create a stylish urban, not suburban, signature," Kennon said.
To evoke this urban signature, Martha Schwartz, the San Francisco-based landscape architect who devised the master plan, cut a 120-foot-wide main automobile entry in the famous front wall. She linked this opening to a broad, palm-lined avenue she calls a grand allee, the French term for a broad boulevard.
The allee bisects the site, dividing the retail section to the left from the office and hotel park to the right. Another road at right angles to the allee serves the surface parking areas at the rear of the site.
"The challenge was to retain the strong local identity of the Assyrian wall while opening up the interior to public view," Schwartz said. "The grand allee is the site's main organizing principle, and we laid out the buildings to reinforce its presence."
The allee is a visual tour de force. Two hundred and fifty palms, ringed with white concrete bases that resemble inflated inner tubes, separate traffic and pedestrian lanes surfaced in gray and red concrete pavers.
These rows of palms, which appear to be floating above the roadway, establish wide and open views within the project, allowing the visitor to encompass the layout at a glance.
To the 250,000 motorists who daily drive by on the freeway, the only indication that a shopping center featuring mostly clothing and footwear exists behind the Citadel wall is the presence of the allee , plus a modest metal tower sign.
To the left of the allee is the Citadel Outlet Collection, a 157,000-square-foot retail court lined with stores selling directly from factories to customers.
Created by Los Angeles-based environmental designers Sussman/Prejza Inc., the Collection comprises a vividly colored series of courts and arcades built within the shell of the old tire factory.
Attractive blue-and-yellow walls lining long colonnades are linked to the parking lot by high steel galleries painted yellow ocher and rust red. Free-standing pavilions in steel and glass sport purple columns, and pillars supporting the arcades are acid green.
In the food court, fountains crafted by sculptor Eric Orr spew water down slim vertical washboards that sparkle in the sun. The food court sits under a remnant of the old factory shed roof and trusses, strengthened to resist seismic forces.
Landscaping within the court, designed by Sussman/Prejza and executed by landscape architects Peridian Irvine, comprises a series of zigzag paved paths bordered by a mix of palms, cacti and shade azaleas.
A touching detail in the retail area is a line of glazed floor tiles that reproduce drawings made by local schoolchildren. Signed by "Cassie," "Joey," "Farah," "Paco," and a host of other budding artists, the tiles charmingly suggest the cultural diversity of Southern California.
Overall, the Collection has the air of a lively and artful small town. Pleasant paths and convenient benches encourage visitors to stroll around or just sit and people-watch.
"Our aim in the Outlet Collection was twofold," said designer Deborah Sussman. "To create a feeling of being in a street rather than a shopping mall, and to preserve the industrial skeleton of the old factory and flesh it out with fresh colors and imagery."
One witty example of this fusion of past and present is a pair of stylized Assyrian archers topping a post that supports the cables for the retractable canvas roof covering the retail court. These simple metal cutouts suggest an advance guard readying the way for the Emperor Ashurbanipal to shop for discount sneakers.
Through such lighthearted details the designers have allowed the old tire factory and its pseudo-biblical features to retain a real presence throughout the new Citadel.
And whole sections of the original architecture remain intact. The fine Art Deco lobby, with its Assyrian friezes and stylized papyrus bas-reliefs, has been restored.
The great front wall has also been recolored. Beige battlements top the pale gray concrete surface. Around the entry, accents of apricot and terra-cotta pick out the front door frame.
The 1930 design featured strong, even garish, colors, say historical experts. By comparison, the present color palette, which drew complaints from some architectural aficionados, is quite subdued.
The section of the old factory wall to the right of the new entrance has been left as a free-standing screen, like a prop on a movie set. The office buildings are recessed back from the wall, leaving an awkward gap that the architects and landscapers seemed at a loss to design.
"We didn't want to interfere with the old wall," said Randolph Young of the Nadel Partnership, the overall project architects. "We wanted to leave it standing free, as a reminder of the building's history."
The office buildings, constructed in tilt-up cast concrete, attempt to update the original factory's style in a manner that might be dubbed Assyrian Post-Modern. Ranging in height from two to six stories, the office blocks are the least elegant elements in the Citadel's design. Fortunately, these buildings are dominated by the visual power of the grand allee .
Despite its tight budget of about $50 per square foot for buildings and landscaping, the Citadel complex manages to seem classy.
This is due to the skill of its designers, and particularly to landscape architect Schwartz's adherence to bold design strategies executed with strict simplicity.
"We felt it was vital to create a strong image, an immediate identity," Schwartz said. "Creating a clear image signals the old building's fresh incarnation, and conjures up a truly urban sense of place."
The Citadel is a brilliant example of how to recycle our architectural heritage. In this instance, commercial interest and design imagination fuse seamlessly to give a Los Angeles landmark a new lease on life.