Google reinvents Playa Vista’s historic Spruce Goose hangar for L.A.’s booming 21st-century tech industry

By Joe Piasecki

Google’s adaptive reuse of the Spruce Goose hangar preserves the historic structure around contemporary workspaces (Photo by Connie Zhou)

In 1947, aerospace tycoon Howard Hughes’ storied H-4 Hercules — an experimental wooden “flying boat” with a wingspan of 321 feet, more than 120 feet greater than a Boeing 747 and still the longest of any plane ever flown — emerged in giant pieces from a cavernous, four-story aircraft hangar along a dirt runway that’s now the ground below Playa Vista. Nicknamed the Spruce Goose (though actually made of birch), the aircraft still ranks among the greatest technological achievements of its time.

Seventy-one years later, the hangar that gave birth to the Spruce Goose has been reconfigured as a workspace for today’s leading innovators in digital technology: Google, along with sister company YouTube.

Last Thursday, Google officials led Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, LAUSD Board of Education member Nick Melvoin, beneficiaries of its charitable grant program, and local media on a tour of its recently completed adaptive reuse of the 450,000-square-foot Spruce Goose hangar.

The result attests to an ambitious architectural and design effort to preserve the integrity of the original structure while constructing multiple levels of contemporary workspaces inside of it — “a building within a building,” explained Kristi Paulson, a principal at ZGF Architects.

Look up from the polished concrete ground floor and you’ll see the hangar’s original wooden beams, curved like the bottom of a massive ship turned upside down, sanded down to the rich, warm brown of unpainted Douglas fir. Third-story windows that had been boarded up for decades and newly cut skylights flood the space with natural light.

Newly constructed workspaces (not included on the tour) are staggered one to three stories above the floor, set back from the hangar’s original walls and ceiling by at least 20 feet in order to preserve the expansiveness of the space. It’s a concept driven home by unobstructed hallway views of the east and west walls 750 feet apart — a distance of more than two football fields.

“We knew this was going to be a wooden cathedral. The space, the scale — you wanted to still be able to feel the hangar, even though we were going to build something new on the inside,” Paulson said. “It was also very intentional to make sure the new architecture had a very distinct look from the old architecture so that they were understood as separate things, although now they are intrinsically connected through the circulation.”

The narrow engineering offices that divided the original space in two along the length of the structure have been repurposed as collaborative workspaces connected by open stairways and bridges, allowing occupants to weave through a building spine that might otherwise be divisive.

“Google is not a static company,” said Paulson. “This is not static office space.”

Both Google and YouTube employees — there are already about 1,000 in Los Angeles, including the Binoculars Building in Venice and YouTube Space L.A. adjacent to the hangar — are expected to utilize the space for a variety of creative, sales and operational purposes, a spokeswoman said. The company is not disclosing its financial investment in the property.

H-4 Hercules construction in the 1940s; the empty hangar in 2015; and Melvoin, Garcetti and Bonin last Thursday with a Google-commissioned hanging sculpture honoring the Spruce Goose

Garcetti, whose office helped mediate lease discussions between Google and the hangar’s owner, used opening remarks to not only connect Hughes’ legacy of innovation with Google’s but also to speak about the Westside’s burgeoning tech industry as both an engine for economic growth and an opportunity for greater economic equity among Los Angeles residents.

Tech industry critics blame its rise for a spike in housing and cost-of-living increases, particularly west of the 405 Freeway, displacing low-income and minority residents whose demographics are underrepresented throughout the industry nationwide.

Through various city- and LAUSD-supported technology education, enrichment and internship programs as well as the recent Annenberg Foundation-backed venture capital diversity initiative PledgeLA, Garcetti said the city is redoubling efforts to ensure that the next generation of L.A.’s tech workforce more closely mirrors the city’s diversity.

“We’re creating tech jobs faster than any other city in America. In 2017 alone we brought in $5.6 billion in venture capital for startups. So we’re moving quickly, but we’re also looking backwards to make sure we’re not leaving anyone behind. … Folks who are traditionally underrepresented — women, people of color — must be able share in this innovation and creation,” Garcetti said.

“A city like Los Angeles is like a company like Google,” he said. “We are now such a tent pole, people will come to us no matter what. But we have to look right in front of us, too, to make sure we’re bringing up those who grow up here as well, and who look like this city.”

Prior to the tour, Google’s Head of California Public Affairs Rebecca Prozan awarded two $50,000 charitable grants related to education and economic equity — part of nearly $4 million given to L.A. area schools and nonprofits since the company’s 2011 arrival in Venice, she said.

Katherine Johnson STEM Academy, an LAUSD/Loyola Marymount University partnership middle school located on the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (formerly Westchester High School) campus, received funds to renovate, equip and supply its campus science, technology, engineering and mathematics laboratory.

Santa Monica-based job-readiness nonprofit Chrysalis received funding to support transitional employment programing for low-income and formerly homeless residents, including the cleanup crews that contract with the Venice Beach Business Improvement District.

“We want to make sure that growing and giving back to the community is part of our DNA,” Prozan said.

Facing questions after the tour about the sustainability of tech-industry growth amid a housing shortage and affordability issues, Garcetti told reporters that Los Angeles would not go the way of San Francisco. Space to build new housing is far less constrained, he argued, and growth is manageable if concentrated along an expanded public transportation infrastructure.

“We had good aerospace jobs and lost them. Do we not want to replace them with good middle-class jobs?” Garcetti said in response to a question by Peter Kiefer of The Hollywood Reporter. “This is very different than smaller cities where a huge company comes in and suddenly blows up. Our housing crisis isn’t caused by tech companies; it’s caused by not building enough [housing] for so many years.”