Google reinvents historic Spruce Goose hangar to create the ultimate tech launching pad in Playa Vista
In early November we opened our inboxes to find an invitation we’d been hoping to get for two years: a guided tour of Google’s newest office space, located in the historic Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista. Finally, after spying though gates and dust to get the tiniest glimpse of what’s inside those cavernous wooden walls, Google was opening its door to us.
What’s most impressive about the storied hangar is its aeronautical history. 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.
The result is 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.
Mayor Eric Garcetti led members of the press into the hangar’s main atrium to admire a hanging “Perception Sculpture.” Upon first glance the sculpture appears to be a cloud of small metal spheres. But if you step back to view it from a distance, the ghostly image of the Spruce Goose magically appears. It’s truly stunning.
Sean Madden, founder of SJMDesign, who worked with ZGF Architects and Arup Engineers, said, “It’s
the Ghost Ship, coming back to its home. Some of that inspiration came from wondering if there’s a ghost in the building.”
Though Madden hasn’t personally experienced anything otherworldly while working inside the hangar, one of his employees did.
“One of my artists was working at night and said, ‘I felt something weird. Not really scary, but just a presence.’ So it’s possible,” says Madden who seems to really like the idea of a haunted workspace.
“We tend to embrace it, why not? One of the pieces of art is called the Ghost Star and it has a little, discoverable ghost of Howard Hughes that no one even knows is there. The population of the building will have to find it. You may be one of the first people to know about it,” said Madden.
In an interview we did with Hercules Campus Development Manager Milan Ratkovich back in 2016, he said there were reports of some paranormal activity at one of the structures, but he declined to say which one. Now we know.
Beyond the atrium, newly constructed workspaces 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,” said Paulson. “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. 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.”