Silicon Beach: New technology and old buildings

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This week we’ve been looking at the growth of Silicon Beach, as tech companies move westward to be closer to the sand, sea – and to each other. Many are looking for creative space to work in. KCRW’s Frances Anderton reports on Venice, and the meeting of new technology and old buildings in Venice.

Many tech companies have taken up residence in reused industrial and creative spaces; Google has taken over the Binoculars Building designed by Frank Gehry for Chiat/Day; a young start-up called MOTA is in the former studio of the late artist Robert Graham. But the digital community’s newest arrival is putting his studio in a building that some saw as the soul of Venice, a hub for its artists and quirky characters, the Venice Post Office.

“I don’t think that people understand Venice has historically been a small town. We are an island off the coast of California,” said longtime Venice resident and writer, Tibby Rothman. “And to live in Venice used to be to go that glorious post office, with the beautiful painting, which, yeah, exhausting, tedious, but you’d be welcomed by this wonderful post office worker who not only knew who you were, knew your story, knew about you, he didn’t work for you, he was of us, he was one of us, he was part of our community.”

Now the post office has gone, closed this summer as part of the nationwide closure of around 4000 post offices. Many feared that not only would the soul of the community be crushed but so too would the building, by developers who would not respect its architectural legacy. Enter Matrix and Diehard movie producer Joel Silver, who also happens to love old buildings.

“I mean it’s a magnificent building,” Silver said. “It’s a WPA, poured-in-place concrete structure that’s just spectacularly designed and in a great location. As soon as I saw that place I knew it’d be perfect for us.”

Silver also saw a synergy between the past and present uses. “What we do today is we bring information in, we process it, and we send it out. Which is what they did in the old days with the post office. Now people do that with movies and television, and we’ll have the state of the art digital technology available to us in that building. Not only do I think I can change the paradigm of Venice, I think I can change the paradigm of Hollywood,” Silver said.

By changing the paradigm Silver means moving out of conventional studios into a community like Venice. But how does he plan to turn the concrete halls of the post office into a high-tech digital company? He’ll preserve the pieces worth preserving, the exterior, the lobby and the celebrated “Story of Venice” mural by Edward Biberman.

“You know the rest of the building was, for all the processing of the mail, we’re just gonna use the structure to just carve out of it space for our offices, for a big screening room for us,” Silver said.

Even though locals are relieved the building will be saved, some are worried about whether the mural will still be accessible to the public it was designed for.

“Story of Venice” mural by Edward Biberman

“Most of these were designed in a custom way to identify the place in which they are, but to also tell the story of the place,” said Adrian Scott Fine of the LA Conservancy.

“This was a project of the people, by the people, for the people,” said Tibby Rothman. “And that mural brought beauty into the lives of everyone who walked into that post office.”

For Rothman, the issue is one of public space going private. “The entertainment industry has historically been an incredibly privatized community. Private chats, private screening rooms, private schools,” Rothman said.

Joel Silver is aware of this concern, and while the new Silver Pictures won’t have an open door, “the mural will be available for people to see it in a number of situations,” Silver said. “We’re talking about doing something with Venice High School, we’re talking about doing something with the LA Conservancy. We’ll have some issues of security – we can’t just leave the door open all the time. But people that want to see the mural will be able to see the mural.”

But what about the unique human legacy of the post office? Can Silver Pictures provide authentic characters, so Silicon Beach doesn’t become as synthetic as the silicone on the beach?

“I think I already am a quirky character, so I think I already fit in well in Venice already,” Silver said. “But I think we’re gonna find that it’s a great place to work and a great place to be and hang out, and I look forward to being there, I really can’t wait.”

Silver Pictures expects to move into its old post office in 2014.