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How landscape guru Mia Lehrer will fight fire with design for mountaintop think tank

Landscape designer Mia Lehrer, founder of Studio-MLA, stands in a cactus garden adjacent to her studio
Landscape designer Mia Lehrer, founder of Studio-MLA, stands in a cactus garden adjacent to her studio.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The policy think tank Berggruen Institute, whose plans for a campus in the Santa Monica Mountains were announced in 2016 by its billionaire founder, Nicolas Berggruen, is set to announce the addition of landscape firm Studio-MLA to the design team on Tuesday morning.

Founded by designer Mia Lehrer, the L.A.-based Studio-MLA has worked on master plans for the Los Angeles River and the Silver Lake Reservoir and has completed landscape designs for the Natural History Museum Los Angeles as well as SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. Last week, Lehrer was named to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Board of Commissioners (pending confirmation), a body that helps guide governance of the utility.

Her firm joins Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, working in concert with the Gensler firm’s L.A. office, on the design and conception of Berggruen’s 450-acre site, which lies north of the Getty Center and Mount St. Mary’s University, west of the 405 Freeway.

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Lehrer, whose studio has worked on previous projects in the Santa Monica Mountains, says the plan will provide important public access to the mountains — “the ability to get to the mountains, to see the view, to get a sense of the expansiveness.” The site will also provide an “opportunity to study what is the human connection to our ecology and how do we preserve that connection and how do we celebrate it.”

A rendering shows people walking along a decomposed granite pathway shaded by trees between sand-colored buildings
An architectural rendering by Herzog & de Meuron shows the planned Berggruen Institute campus in the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Herzog & de Meuron)

As part of the plan, the Berggruen Institute has pledged to leave 95% of the property undeveloped and make it accessible to the public via a network of trails.

While the land is wild, it is not pristine wilderness. Previously, the area had been zoned for construction of 28 estate homes (real estate parlance for what are generally known as McMansions). Before that, the site was employed as landfill, with some of its ridges graded during the 1980s.

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Initial architectural plans for the institute were released in 2017, showing a slender, one-story concrete structure elevated above the ridge on columns. At the time, architects Herzog & de Meuron said they intended to keep the footprint generally light.

“We want to make a contribution to a sustainable way of building,” said Jacques Herzog, one of the firm’s founders, in 2017, “not just another golf course or luxury five-star hotel.”

A view of intersecting trails amid dry grasses in the Santa Monica Mountains
A view of the trails that currently lead to the ridge where the Berggruen Institute will be located.
(Studio-MLA)
A rendering shows hikers on a trail bordered by wild grasses and trees
A rendering shows how the trails to the Berggruen Institute might look after landscaping is completed.
(Studio-MLA)
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Last year, the Getty fire, sparked by a tree branch that fell on power lines in the Sepulveda Pass, consumed 745 acres and a dozen homes near the site of Berggruen’s complex. Lehrer says that the landscaping of these kinds of fragile ecosystems, at a time of explosive wildfires, is something she has been studying and working on for years.

“How do we deal with fire? How do we deal with resilience?” she says. “There is a lot of interesting new research.”

“I did a conference about three months ago about the importance of soil and how healthy soil can help slow down a fire,” she adds. “If it’s dry, then the fire goes into the cracks — fire moves differently on different soil. So the idea of what we have to do is make our soil healthier in our mountains.”

Landscape designer Mia Lehrer is photographed through models in her studio
Mia Lehrer in her Los Angeles studio.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Her firm’s landscape for a children’s camp in Santa Clarita, in the vicinity of Magic Mountain, dealt with these issues. There, Studio-MLA used resilient vegetation with spacing between plantings and structures.

In 2013, the Powerhouse fire tore through the area. “There was smoke damage,” says Lehrer. “But nothing burned.”

These are some of the issues she will be tackling as her team prepares to conceive a design for the Berggruen property. “We’ll probably work with university professors and nonprofits to experiment,” she says.

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In a statement, Berggruen says, “Mia’s deep knowledge of the Southern California environment and her ability to translate those qualities of place through community through design will help us create something extraordinary for Los Angeles.”

“Together, we will help to preserve and protects hundreds of acres of opens pace while providing increased access to nature for all.”


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