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Going the Extra Yards

After reviving communities in Los Angeles with arresting, cutting-edge architecture, Eric Owen Moss Architects and developers Samitaur Constructs are rehabilitating the historic Albuquerque rail yards

By Nalina Moses, AIA

In flight time, Albuquerque is about two hours from Culver City, Calif., the section of Los Angeles that’s been given over to Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, and to some of the most bracingly contemporary and aggressive architecture in the nation. But in spirit, it’s far, far closer. Both cities share similar latitudes, desert-like landscapes, industrial histories, and cultures with strains of Hispanic influence. But now Albuquerque is about to get a dose of Culver City’s extraordinary architectural charisma.

Eric Owen Moss Architects (EOMA) and developers Samitaur Constructs (SC) famously reinvigorated Culver City with a building program known as Conjunctive Points. By remodeling and building commercial structures one at a time, over decades, with Deconstructivist contemporary architecture, they fashioned an entirely new image for the place and ushered in an economic revival. Now that team is applying the same logic to the Albuquerque Rail Yards, a historic 27-acre facility that was once an important service hub for western railway lines. The site, which hasn't been used since the 1980s, contains many of its original warehouse-like industrial buildings.

The city of Albuquerque acquired the property from a failed developer in 2007. In 2010, at the recommendation of the Albuquerque Rail Yards Advisory Board, a dedicated group of government and community leaders formed by the City Council, they solicited proposals for its redevelopment. Then, in 2012, the city awarded SC, working in partnership with EOMA, the contract to develop, build, finance, and market the site. The team released a master plan for the site in September, which earned them an ARCHITECT Magazine Progressive Award. In late July, the City of Albuquerque signed a formal agreement with Samitaur Constructs to begin development of the site. This agreement will allow Samitaur to start predevelopment activities, like negotiating potential leases and working with the city and the state historic preservation office.

Making a historic site present

The master plan draft accepts the basic layout of the site, which lies west of active rail lines in central Albuquerque. It rehabilitates the largest existing structures, including the machine shop, flue shop, and boiler shop, as commercial spaces. It also rebuilds two original buildings that had been demolished, brought back with contemporary forms and materials: the C-shaped roundhouse and its tower-like smokestack. Finally, it adds several small new buildings for residential and retail use.

The plan places parking below ground and connects buildings with a network of walkways and green spaces. To the north and south ends of the site, it adds two broad, flat, one-story buildings called paseos, whose roofs serve as broad pedestrian plazas accessible by stairs and ramps. High, wide berms along the edges of these plazas, called acoustic mounds, provide greenery and privacy from the street.

Slicing east-west down the middle of the site is the transfer table, a 650-foot-long open trench filled with machinery that once hauled locomotives back and forth between service bays. “The transfer table is the heart of the project,” says Dolan Daggett, project director for EOMA. “We understand this space as the symbolic meeting point of two different neighborhoods: Bareles and South Broadway.” The plan transforms the transfer table into Perpendicular Walk, a covered passage that pulls people in from these two adjacent residential neighborhoods and, at its east end, carries them over the rail lines on a pedestrian bridge.

Community building

While EOMA’s work is best known for its formal energy and innovation, Daggett reiterates that their work at the rail yards has a social focus. He says, “Job creation is the economic engine that makes the rest of the project work. It’s the cornerstone of the project. We’re incredibly optimistic, incredibly hopeful about it.” Frederick Samitaur Smith promises, “We're going to create a city within a city. And we hope it will change surrounding neighborhoods, and the entire city.”

“[EOMA and SC have] created opportunities in places where there might not have been opportunities,” says Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. “They have the architectural chops but also the record of working with low-income communities and helping their boats rise.”

In Culver City, EOMA and SC built about 1,000,000 square feet of commercial space, luring in creative and tech businesses as tenants. At the rail yards, they will build about 870,000 square feet of new space. Mayor Berry believes the new office space will become the center of the city’s Innovation District, and that businesses here can support initiatives at Sandia National Laboratories, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the University of New Mexico.

As a teaser, the city has already renovated one existing structure at the site, the blacksmith shop, which is being used as an event space. The master plan, which divides the site into 10 separate parcels, will be implemented incrementally and organically, responding to financial and civic priorities. While they're eager to start construction, neither EOMA nor SC knows how many years the plan will take to complete. It’s likely that parcels with revenue-generating programs will be built first.

A ‘slam-on-the-brakes’ moment

Though in disrepair, the existing rail yard (established in the 1880s) has a striking machine-age glamour. The immense masonry sheds where trains and engines were maintained are built from plain concrete block and brick, and opened with banks of steel-frame windows. Some have exposed-steel roof trusses, glass clerestories, and integral hoists and rigs inside. The towering scale, simple geometries, and unadorned expression of the architecture create a powerful Modern vocabulary. But adaptive reuse, not preservation, is the goal, Daggett says

High Modernism is not the goal either. Like all of EOMA’s work, buildings at the rail yards are certain to be built with brash, inventive form-making filled with unexpected ruptures and jagged edges. It’s an aesthetic cudgel SC wields strategically. “What we're trying to achieve is an emotional reaction,” says Laurie Samitaur Smith. “At Culver City, we had to make a huge, aggressive statement of change in the community. We wanted people to see a new building there and say, ‘What is that!?’ and slam on the brakes. In Albuquerque, we have to tread lightly in respect to the existing structures. But we want the new structures to bring attention to the neighborhood and be an announcement of change.”

It’s an announcement that’s welcome in Albuquerque. “At community meetings, when we presented the master plan, people were very excited about the idea of new architecture in the city,” says the city’s lead planner Suzanne Lubar.

The project revels in its industrial-age components and machinery, telling the story of the rail yards’ long history. For EOMA, one challenge will be to honor this industrial history without nostalgia or mimicry. “The rail yards were state of the art, and the new buildings will also be state of the art in their technologies, sustainability, and materials,” says Daggett. “We want to reimagine the spirit of the place so for visitors it’s vital and alive, not suspended in time.”

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A site model of the Albuquerque Rail Yards. Image courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects and Samitaur Constructs.

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A site plan for the rail yards. Image courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects and Samitaur Constructs.

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A historic aerial shot of the Albuquerque Rail Yards: A.T.& S.F. rail yard, 1930, Frank Speakman, The Frank Speakman Collection.

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The former machine shop will be rehabilitated into commercial space. Image courtesy of Eric Owen Moss Architects.

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A bridge crane at the rail yards circa 1943. Jack Delano Photographer, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress).

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Visit the Albuquerque Rail Yards Redevelopment website.


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