July 2010

Tastemakers Frederick + Laurie Samitaur-Smith

City Counselors

The tale of the Samitaur Tower—that 72-foot-high corkscrew construction of rough metal and fanlike screens rising on the corner of National and Hayden in Culver City—takes a few odd twists and turns. It involves, among other things, Paris in 1968, Malcolm X and B movies. But those are mere pit stops and detours. Ultimately, this is the story of two idealists, Frederick and Laurie Samitaur-Smith, and their commitment to promoting the arts, creating jobs and fostering a sense of community in neighborhoods blighted by crime, unemployment and other urban woes.

Before his adventures in urban development, Frederick was a journalist and screenwriter, and Laurie was an actor. They were linked by a conviction that art and culture could connect people—and perhaps even save the world.

In 1968, while on assignment in Paris, Frederick witnessed police beating student demonstrators. Media attention only seemed to inflame the violence. “You can’t be an idealist and think you are going to correct something in society through writing and pictures and not feel grief at the realization that you in part contributed to people’s deaths,” he says.

Back in the States, Laurie’s life was unfolding in its own peculiar direction. After years of serious training in acting and classical Spanish dance, she found herself with small roles on Gunsmoke, Riot on Sunset Strip and Hot Rods to Hell. It wasn’t exactly how she had envisioned her life as an artist.

After returning to the U.S. in the early 1970s, Frederick moved between Northern California, where he managed his family’s prune farm, and L.A., where he began to distill a vision for an enlightened approach to business. He met Laurie in 1978, and a domestic and professional partnership blossomed. “We were talking about the same kinds of issues and ideas,” says Laurie. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but those issues and ideas became part of the foundation of our marriage—and our mission.”

Frederick recalls being influenced by Andy Warhol’s revolutionary experiments mixing art and commerce, as well as Malcolm X’s belief in the relationship between urban environments and the behavior of people who live in them.

He got the idea that real-estate development could be a path to progressive social action. “Maybe the facade of a building could be a palette or a canvas,” he says. “I could take some section of this city and repaint it...or put my dramaturgy in the mortar. This was a way of bringing art and hope to people who needed both desperately.”

“My reaction was, real estate?” Laurie says. “It was the farthest thing from how I imagined we could express what we wanted. But soon I got it.”

The Samitaur-Smiths began renovating derelict buildings in the then industrial no-man’s-land of Culver City in the early 1980s. In 1986, they selected Eric Owen Moss Architects for a building at 8522 National Boulevard. That collaboration—public-spirited developer meets avant-garde architect—still continues and has had an enormous impact on the face and fortunes of Culver City.

But nothing bears witness to the Samitaur-Smiths’ belief in the power of art and beauty like the new Tower project (designed with characteristic sculptural brio by Moss and his collaborators). This beacon of rusted metal and concrete—the first of eight the couple hopes to build along the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line, set for completion in 2011—is conceived for multiple functions.

Two open-air amphitheaters at the base can accommodate up to 300 for lectures, panel discussions, readings and screenings. The steel decks of the multistory structure are designed to make people want to gather. An adjacent landscaped courtyard lets the space expand to host up to 3,000 for arts festivals, live music and theater and dance performances. Nearby exhibition and café spaces bolster the concept of the Tower as the centerpiece of a truly public art forum.

The idea, as Frederick sees it, is that by making the best in human achievement and creativity as free and available as air, a sort of alchemy happens—the environment elevates the people, and then the people start to transform their environment. Jobs spring up. Crime evaporates. Prosperity blossoms. And not just locally—as part of the Tower project, the Samitaur-Smiths are developing a Website so that the whole world can be part of the conversation going on in Culver City.

“We hope to inspire and motivate others—something like a forest fire that just catches on,” Laurie says. Frederick punctuates the sentiment: “The deal is, we have a lot of faith in people.” —Samantha Dunn

• For more information, go to samitaur.com

• Read Christopher Hawthorne's architectural review of the tower