Oral History: Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth Building Front
  • Written by Eva Hagberg
  • Photography by Justin Chung

In March 2016, a new gallery / bookstore / restaurant / public space, now complete with a post-opening massive oak tree (and chickens!) opened in downtown Los Angeles. It was a collaboration between developer Creative Space, the Switzerland-based global blue chip art gallery Hauser & Wirth, the architect Annabelle Selldorf, the landscape urbanist Mia Lehrer, and, in many ways, the city of Los Angeles. The space was an immediate hit. The first show was dedicated to abstract sculpture by women; following shows featured Piero Manzoni, Zoe Leonard, Alexander Calder, and Mary Heilmann. The restaurant, Manuela, was lauded by the Los Angeles Times, Eater, and GOOP. Since its opening, the space—with its classic Selldorfian clean lines and long stretches of breezeway and its even more classic Los Angeles openness and sense of welcoming creativity—has found itself home to everything from ad hoc birthday celebrations to refined dinners to visiting artists making the most of the extraordinary space. It feels, on a visit, like it’s exactly as it was meant to be; as though no other space in no other city could fit to itself as well as this one. But sometimes architecture that feels intuitive is actually the most difficult; sometimes an urban project that feels obvious almost didn’t happen.

This is an oral history of what it was like to try and build Hauser & Wirth, to actually build it, and what happened next.

The Beginning
Hauser & Wirth had long desired to open a Los Angeles location; when the opportunity presented itself in a 100 year old, out-of-use flour mill, Creative Space was tapped to undertake the overwhelmingly massive, incredibly special, repeatedly problematic, wild west of art gallery developments.

  • Tyler Stonebreaker
  • Creative Space

Working with a global gallery like Hauser & Wirth was central to our vision for Creative Space. This was a prototype of what we had set out to do - we felt we had the ability and sensibility and capability of working at this level at this pressure for this type of global client; this project gave us the opportunity to prove that.

Hauser & Wirth Building Interior with Garden Box and Plants
  • Geoff Anenberg
  • Creative Space

[The painter] Laura Owens ended up introducing us to the gallery. It was through a few twists and turns, but we ended up in front of Hauser & Wirth while they were looking for a space in LA. Stacen [Berg] was already working for the gallery and in incredibly close collaboration with their artists because so many of them live in Los Angeles. So, she became instrumental in the hunt for a space. I had been in this building 901 East Third Street a few times over the years and it hit me like lightning, this is where the gallery has to go. That was the feeling, kind of inspired, but the road to getting this building delivered to the gallery was a gauntlet run.

  • Stacen Berg
  • Hauser & Wirth

I think for a lot of Europeans LA is this kind of weird, magical city. And so it's a place that Iwan and Manuela always wanted to have a gallery; it was just a matter of when.

Geoff: The recent history of this building, of 901 East Third Street, was tied back to this guy, Art Fleischman, who bought it for his janitorial supply company in the 70s or 80s. His son Don and Don’s wife Geri are the current owners.

Don is a brilliant guy. He studied astrophysics or something like that, had a whole career with JPL, and he ended up inheriting this building maybe a decade ago; by the time we'd started going around and looking at it for the gallery, he’d already spent a few years going through and cleaning out parts, basically by himself. He and Geri would be in there driving a forklift and moving things around with a few guys helping them.

They had signed up a few tenants who paid basically no rent – but they took on cleaning up their own spaces in exchange for paying super low rent. There was a guy making furniture, paying basically nothing, and illegally subleasing spaces out… it was a total mess.

Anyway - there was so much stuff left behind. It was like Chernobyl.. the first time I went in there, in the “bank” building, there were offices that had all the gear in them- phone books, adding machines, rolodexes… even a pair of coke bottle thick eye glasses sitting on a desk – all just sitting there with like 20 years of dust on everything. It felt very Indiana Jones pushing these old doors open.

So with the gallery, we know this building is there. We know it's this gorgeous thing. And we essentially just start trespassing and walking around, looking at it. Every time we went in, we braced ourselves to get yelled at by the “tenants” in there… I mean, they knew what we represented, that the party’s over… Anyway, every time we went in, we fell more in love. And that started this year-long process, this year-long lease negotiation, which had just so much hair on it, it's like every possible complication or obstacle finds its way into this process… all the while, Don is getting offers for 45 million bucks... so he’s holding in his hand this eject button to just take the cash and bail… which would have been incredibly underwhelming. The groups making these purchase offers were just going to tear the building down and put up another totally anonymous wood-frame and stucco mixed use, with no trace of what was once there.

And our appeal to Don was, this is an opportunity to do something incredibly special and put something incredibly special in the city of LA, one of the great art galleries of the world: that pedigree will make it immeasurably more valuable.

Hauser & Wirth Building Interior with Garden Box and Plants
  • Evan Raabe
  • Architect
  • Creative Space

The Cliffnotes version was, “we took a 100 year old, out-of-use flour mill that was 10 interconnected buildings and reimagined it into a world renowned art complex, with galleries, restaurants, offices, and ancillary spaces.” That's kind of my one-liner that I tell people and that tends to get enough of it to make people understand the scale of it, both physically and from a reception standpoint.

  • Ed Workman
  • former Director of Global Property
  • for Hauser & Wirth

This giant project of a building—several buildings—I loved it, I loved the energy that that creates. It was like in the wild west, like anything was possible, and in that kind of environment that kind of defined the energy of the project for me, it allowed things to happen quickly.

Geoff: We ran into every possible issue. Taking an unreinforced masonry building, a building that, structurally, from a seismic earthquake perspective, was very problematic, and in order to make it safe and permissible to bring the general public in— there was a big structural question, a fire life safety mountain to climb. There's an exiting issue because it is a giant inwardly facing compound, so you're in the middle of it, and there's an emergency, how far do you have to run to get out of there. And there wasn’t some unlimited amount of money to just throw at problems. This whole thing really required a lot of ingenuity.

Stacen: The gallery has a history of working with historical buildings and repurposing them. So that was really appealing. That's why we were looking at, kind of a “the quirkier, the better.”

  • Annabelle Selldorf
  • Architect, Principal,
  • Selldorf Architects

I was immediately impressed by the scale of the former mill in LA and the layers of history that were evident, from original decorative details to the more recent graffiti.

Tyler: Instead of being seven or eight different projects [which we’re used to], it was one project, one location, one client. To us it was about breaking it down into those pieces and then thinking about how best to put those pieces together into a unified vision and framework. The challenges still came down to building conditions - program, budget, schedule.

Stacen: The other thing that was happening at the same time was that Iwan and Manuela were working on opening the Somerset location, which is in the countryside, two hours outside of London, and it's where they live. They saw this old kind of decrepit, like, medieval farmhouse that they wanted to restore and bring to life and then turn that into a gallery, a restaurant, a garden. They were fully engaged in that project when we found the LA location and that thinking influenced the LA project. It kind of immediately grew from, “let's open a gallery” to “let's create an urban version of Somerset,” in Los Angeles.

Ed: Coming from my perspective, the landscape, the cityscape, the context is very different to where I’m coming from here, where I am right now in the English countryside, so for me the project was defined by the energy of what was going on in downtown. You had all the kind of contradictory stuff of Skid Row, and then massive amounts of money being piled into a kind of historic arts center that didn’t really have a center, and it was just kind of a boiling pot of things going on, and then you throw into the mix Hauser and Wirth and contemporary art.

Hauser & Wirth Building Patio Seating Dining Rustic

Evan: Tyler, Geoff and I had all been in that building for probably a period of about two years before discussing it with Hauser and Wirth. And there were scary moments. There were places we didn't go, places we just didn't want to go because it was dark and untouched and we didn't know what you're gonna discover or run into.

Geoff: It was just a non-stop, very tension-ridden process working through the lease. There were negotiation elements, like Don and Geri not wanting the whole thing to just turn into a giant beer hall. So we had negotiated an amount that could be used for other things. We had to figure out how much could be a restaurant, or outdoor seating. So we had to keep rehashing these little schematic breakdowns to show percentages of the footprint that would be commercially feasible for a restaurant operation, but that also would stay within an acceptable use limit from the landlord's perspective to make it okay. And that was just one example. The gallery wanted as much optionality to do whatever they wanted that they felt would support their overall program. Meanwhile the owners had been burned before in some of their other real estate… including their tenants in the building at this point… so they wanted to keep a very short leash on their liabilities and they also didn’t have a lot of exposure to this kind operation, not a lot of people do, so it was a big learning curve.

The tension and drama kept flaring up as these two outlooks collided.. the global gallery meeting the local industrial property owner… and it was very stressful at times, it actually made the blood vessels pop in my eye.

Tyler: There was no one telling us, or assuring us, that it was in fact going to happen. We just believed that we had done everything correctly and that there was enough desire and conviction to make it happen. My job was choreographing the outcome - we had everyone working towards a common goal - and sitting back and reassuring everyone, and also biting the bullet on the ledge of this giant ship. I just had to keep everyone calm.

Geoff: Then finally, after over a year of negotiating this thing, everything led to the lease getting executed. And then came the magical work of doing the damn build-out.

Hauser & Wirth Building Exterior

The Architecture

Hard work, sheer talent, mutual admiration and constant collaboration defines the design and construction process that ensued at Hauser & Wirth. In the end, the site was masterfully brought back to life, creating a luxurious — but accessible — space for visitors to enjoy, indulge and escape.

Stacen: The really distinctive factor is the breezeway that runs through the space, which is part of the architecture. I think we all saw that and thought, that's the thoroughfare: you could widen it, open it at both ends and create what is this really welcoming space that people can stumble upon, and the whole idea of a blue chip gallery, you know, traditionally, they're sort of inaccessible, so we flipped that on its head to make it a space that feels really accessible and feels like you can wander in there and, and kind of discover it.

Annabelle has such a good sense of how to create gallery space, how to create the kinds of space that we need to show art.

Annabelle: Hauser & Wirth was committed to creating an art complex. They wanted the site to be used throughout the day by a range of people. Providing spaces of different scales for 2D, 3D and projection-based art as well as lectures, films and seminars was inherent to that vision.

Geoff: Selldorf had the narrative, the vision, the design direction, this is 100% her jam. And then Evan, this is so much of his hard work, he had to take her vision and make it conform to local code and make it comply, so that it could work in LA with all of our specific zoning and building code stuff. Evan had to dig into all kinds of investigation, interpretation, and a phenomenal depth of construction drawing to make it all work.

Ed: I think it was a challenge for [Selldorf] because a) she was sat in the kind of consultancy role, and b) her style is much more contemporary or modern, mid-century really, but kind of very monolithic, crisp, clean, straight lines, and we had this big mess of a building that we had to kind of try and rationalize in some way without spending a hundred million dollars, so it was kind of challenging - I think she actually enjoyed it, I know she’s building the new Hauser + Wirth gallery in New York.

Evan: Annabelle was brought in by the gallery as almost an architectural advisor. And she oversaw the big picture, the flow, anything that we would present from a design solution standpoint, she would always opine on whether she thought the approach did or didn't work. She would review from a big picture standpoint, and make sure that, from a functional standpoint, it worked for the gallery, because she knew—and still knows—the Hauser and Wirth gallery, and their own operation and their needs at a much more intimate level than we did. She really steered through that to make sure that it made sense.

  • Mia Lehrer
  • Landscape Urbanist

I only met her once, actually. And the parti [an organizing thought], I really appreciated and respected that parti, allowing for a public quarter to happen. They were already starting construction when I started the conversations with Tyler. The parti was hard to criticize, it felt so right. And then I think there was a really nice camaraderie with everybody who was working in the garden and all the people managing the restaurant.

I think it's an example of how little you can do to make a space come alive and how a few significant moves that can make a difference, and it's memorable. It's a place that people create memories in. A lot of people have been there and just think of this place with so much warmth.

Hauser & Wirth Building Exterior Back Door

Annabelle: Providing pathways for people to move through the building and the site was critical to creating new connections to the larger surrounding. With an internal courtyard we were able to create something akin to an internal street that connects the project to the surrounding streets and opens the site to the city melding public and private use in unique ways. This interstitial connection works both as a place for long-term public installations as well as events such as a Holiday Market.

Geoff: [Working with Selldorf] was like somebody coming in and bringing this really radical magical vision that was so refreshing and admired, and then us dealing with all the local stuff and all the deal points. It was just like a brilliant person who was able to land in, lead the landscape and help define an incredible narrative. And it was also validating, because we're freaking ourselves out in a good way, as the Creative Space side, it's like, “oh, my God, we're earning the privilege to not only work with this gallery, but to work with this architect. This is something magical.” It was just unfolding as one of the great privileges. So being on ground level for the project, especially for Evan, but with the whole range of complications that come up with an adaptive reuse project like this.. [it felt like] “You just have to figure it out, you have to figure out the way… it can not fail, every problem has to get solved because this simply must happen, it's so special, you can taste it.”

And friends that we met along the way like Mia Lehrer, the landscape urbanist, who's pretty epic in her own right: she was on Obama's Arts Commission, she is one of the great placemaking thinkers alive.

Mia: The clients are Swiss, so dry California was something that was a little unusual for them to digest. We found this incredibly beautiful oak. And what happened was that birds started following the tree. It was chock full of birds before we finished planting. What happens when you bring in a big tree like that, first of all, there's all these permits that you have to get to move a big load on the freeway, and then start moving down the alley. And the truck in order not to keel over has to have these long legs that sort of hold it down, that are part of the truck. And then the crane starts moving in and bringing it in. It doesn’t take a minute, it takes hours. And, and then, you know, the birds start going crazy. It’s a fantastic memory. Everybody loves the tree.

I have two other memories that are kind of important. One is the small Calders arriving, and there being this color exhibit with the oak tree and all the other shrubs that disconnect us from the real world and the Calders. I was like, “ I know I died and went to heaven. It's like, I have these Calders to myself.” Like, I was so excited. Of course, it was funny that there was a guard for each Calder.

  • Amanda Craig
  • General Manager,
  • Manuela

I come from opening a lot of restaurants and hotels and stuff and that's kind of what drives me: that kind of pressure of like, “Okay, well, this is the day you're opening, it should be ready” and you're not always ready but you make it work.

Every day is a little different. But we've been very lucky with the space and what it allows us to do. And I think that what we get from a lot of guests and customers is that, it's a beautiful space, but what you add to that as far as the actual food and the staff can make or break it, because it's fine when you’re sitting in a warehouse type space, but if everything else is not up to par, then it's not enough. So we're always trying to push the envelope in that sense to where we're embodying the whole space. And it all comes together as one kind of escape or luxury experience, but in a casual setting.

Tyler: We really wanted to make sure that the buildings were preserved as close to their as-is state as possible. One of the most interesting discussions was this debate, whether or not to retain the exterior grit. They ended up painting [the exterior walls] and it was a really nice balance between old and new.

The Challenges

Unending hurdles plagued those involved in the project until the very day (literally) Hauser & Wirth opened its doors to the public.

Geoff: I can't believe the therapy sessions that were devoted to: “I am not defined by this outcome.” And also: “If it succeeds, don't inflate yourself and puff yourself up; and if it fails don't kick the shit out of yourself. The magnitude of this project, its meaning and impact, just how glorious it could be, it was all so internalized… and in that way, it was a great karmic teacher.

Evan: The week leading up to the opening, you’ve got 1000 invites out to the most prominent people in the art world worldwide, who are flying into Los Angeles with hotel reservations or villa reservations, and we have the city of LA pretty basically telling us that we can’t open because there was a fire alarm issue and an occupancy issue. And that was literally the entire project for three months.

And so I end up in a meeting with the city of LA with the head of Building and Safety, the head of the Fire Department, and the Director of Global Property for Hauser and Wirth, a representative from the city councilmember’s office and myself, figuring out a way to get an approval to then allow us to move forward. And we get that, and this is the week of the opening. And then three days later, the day before the opening, I’m sitting inside the city of LA, virtually refusing to leave until I get a temporary certificate of occupancy, so that the gallery can open the show the next day. That was very much that whole week. And those two events were very much moments of, you know, “I don't know how this is gonna work.”

I knew the only thing I could do is literally refuse to leave without it. Because there was no other option. They could kick me out, arrest me, or give me the temporary occupancy so this event can happen.

Everything had been approved, it was just down to paperwork. And it was a Friday because the event was happening on Saturday and the city didn't like to do things on Fridays. And there was just no other option, and I knew that. So I just hunkered down and sat down and said “I’m not leaving without this.”

Hauser & Wirth Building Patio Barn Sliding Door Plants Seating Rustic

Ed: Dealing with the city from my perspective was an interesting process; we thought we had certainty in terms of the plans that had been submitted and approved, and then the inspectors pulled the rug from under us, making us do things and changing things, and that ended up with me down at city hall signing an affidavit basically saying that we wouldn’t exceed occupancy of a certain amount of people so that they would give us the sign off so that we could actually open. I sat there the day we had the press preview, we had about a hundred top press arriving, and I was sitting down signing a document so that we could actually open.

Evan: I ended up getting the certificate of occupancy the day before the event, I walked into Iwan’s office, who was in town from Somerset. And he's there with Ed and Manuela. I hand them the certificate of occupancy and then say “I'm going home” and I turned around and I walked to my car and I drove home because I just couldn't do anything more that day; just the pressure and the stress to me exhaustion had caught up to me at that point, and I didn't want to celebrate, I didn't want to drink, I just wanted to go home.

Geoff: We had the most extreme kind of reactions and the most extreme hopes and fears because it was such a radical, and once-in-a-lifetime kind of situation.

Their Favorite Things:

The uniqueness of this project is what resonates with those involved; both in that it could only ever be done in Los Angeles, but also that nothing of its kind existed yet in the city — with its expansive courtyard, ingenious mixed usage and incredible community gathering space.

Stacen: Creating that home for artists. There's exhibitions we can do in LA that we can't do anywhere else. Because we have 120,000 square feet: you couldn’t do that in Manhattan, or in London. So the fact that we can have that much space in an urban setting is so unusual, and also we have the audience for exhibitions.

And there are also artists that want to have a show in LA, it still exists as a kind of exotic place a little bit; it’s a city that artists love to be in. So there's a lot of desire to have shows here. So we've been able to have exhibitions that we couldn't have had anywhere else.

Ed: Probably the courtyard - I think not because of any redeeming architectural quality but I just think of the generosity of that courtyard, you don’t find those sort of spaces in LA, and I think in the modern world where every square inch or so is being developed within an inch of its life, the generosity to make it not gallery space, that defines the project.

Annabelle: The courtyard has been critical to the success of the project as it is populated and animated throughout the day by different groups and into the night with the wonderful Manuela restaurant. It has been really gratifying to hear from people who have visited how comfortable and welcoming the entire complex feels.

Hauser & Wirth Building Chickens in Coop

Amanda: One of the great things about the gallery too is when you do come, it's an experience. You can go look at the galleries, you can go to the bookstore, you can go out in the garden and see the chickens and you can spend a day here, which is not something that you can always get at just a regular restaurant.

Mia: Everybody was very excited about growing all the vegetables, for all the food and like looking at the sun condition there… it’s not going to happen. But we tried it, and we did do our best and then of course the chef said, “What about chickens?” and we all said “let's do chickens.”

I was at a conference where I was speaking. Right before we were going into this event I get a call from one of my associates saying “the chickens are flying away.”

“What do you mean the chickens are flying?”

I had no idea chickens flew! It turns out that usually their wings are trimmed. If you don’t, they fly. I had no idea.

Tyler: My favorite thing is the lasting memories and relationships that formed through this project and as a result of this project, and then one overriding element is the public gathering opportunity that this project has generated. It’s a place so many different people can come visit and experience, both as a gateway into the neighborhood as well as a nexus to all these artists and farmers. It’s an incredible meeting place for the community.

Was It Worth It?

Hauser & Wirth was phenomenal. Rewarding. Unfathomable. Revitalizing. All consuming. Interesting. Energetic. Once in a lifetime. It was like catching a mega wave at the perfect time. In short, of course.

Geoff: Tyler assembled through gut feeling, through experience, this great range of talent that made up Creative Space. Like, all together, we’re so good at channeling a sensibility, like being spirit and style co-pilots for our clients on their projects… and that gets you so far, but the real difference maker is also how good we are at interpreting code and turning buildings around, delivering great outcomes… As a group, we’ve become so trusted by people in the city that we can have real conversations: we’re not relegated to the desk, we’re having more meaningful conversations to interpret and drive things.

This project was a real gut check, like catching a mega wave. So now, are we big-wave surfers? We ended up white-knuckling through a lot of tough moments, through a lot of uncertainty… and having gone through it and sort of survived it and delivered on it, having met challenges and [having ridden] through every stomach-ache and upsetting problem, we definitely leveled up. I think we knew that we were valid participants at this level, but it’s a different beast actually going through the validating part. And now it's like the ultimate calling card, this super dynamic experience that kind of alters our vantage point from which we look at other things that we approach and how we can participate in that way again.

Stacen: It's been phenomenal. Absolutely amazing. The timing was so good with the Arts District really starting to kind of bubble up, and I think that our opening was timed with a few other things happening at the same time, and that just led to even more of the Arts District becoming a real destination for galleries, for restaurants, for boutiques, and you know, just like a little hub in LA, but very different than the rest of the city, because you actually can walk or bike around the Arts District, it's a more dense sort of urban feeling, which we don't have much of in LA: it has pedestrian traffic, a lot of apartment buildings opening up, a lot of like, young people choosing to live downtown because of all of this activity.

It certainly wasn't because of us, but I think that we kind of rode the wave right at the right time. And then there was a lot of action that followed us because we were there.

Hauser & Wirth Building Interior Museum Sunroof

Evan: I absolutely love going back there - it’s such a great place to be. I would go there and just sit outside or inside: it’s just nice to people-watch and relax, and it's calm there. And that's a nice reprieve from the rest of that neighborhood.

Stacen: Our programming, which was really about gathering people to see our exhibitions, to hear artists’ talks, to come to lectures, book signings, and family programs, putting the space together with the mission, they fit really well. I mean, I think part of what's really interesting is how the architecture just naturally allows for all the things that we wanted to happen there.

Geoff: It's truly to this day one of the great outcomes in this neighborhood. And in the city, I think, but certainly in this neighborhood, where people that have been here for thirty, forty years, some for generations, they’re all feeling appreciation that we delivered this outcome. This thing has such a gravity to it.

The biggest thing I would try to change going back was: I wish in a way I was better at modulating my emotions and anxieties, and fears and hopes and, frankly, detachment from outcomes. But, maybe, the little doubter inside of me wonders: maybe that's part of what helps make the damn thing happen in the first place. For us, we turned it into a life-or-death thing. As much as I talked in therapy, about not wanting to be defined by the outcome, I defined myself by the outcome. I defined us by the outcome.

And we didn't want to have this handed to us, or put in our face by some other, bigger more corporate firm, where they come in and deliver where we could not. None of us were willing to accept that.

Amanda: You look back and you're like, Oh my god, like how do we survive? Like how did we open this place, and have this management team and have all of these things?

Stacen: As we're talking, it just- it makes me a little sad because the space is quiet now. It's so activated by people being there and gathering there. And we're just so far away from that now.

Hauser & Wirth Exit Sign On Door

Evan: It’s a space that went from very little access and very little energy to being full of public life and full of newfound energy that hadn't existed for decades.

It's still probably the best project I've ever done. I mean, I hope to do something at that level again, I don't know if I'll ever have that opportunity again.

Geoff: It was a once in a lifetime thing. And no matter how hard we work, no matter how cool we are, no matter who calls us to work on something, it’s improbable that something this magical will come together again, just because of the radical confluence that made the whole thing.

Tyler: I would say that with the right people involved and the right intent you can overcome most if not all hurdles. We were able to convince the building owners to preserve the building, we were able to convince Hauser & Wirth to go forward, we were able to get the city on board, and the fact that it went against the normal gentrification winds of “highest and best use” from a traditional real estate return-on-investment standpoint is the greatest outcome of this.

Evan: That project is how I learned the dust from flour processing is explosive. I did not know that until that project.