Is Los Angeles still the sort of city that pursues hugely ambitious cultural and architectural projects? Or is it a city that's running out of room and chastened by increasingly aggressive opposition to new development?
Preliminary designs for the Berggruen Institute, just north of the Getty Center, suggest it's both. Or maybe navigating a slow transition from one to the other.
On a spectacular site covering 447 acres, the billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen is planning, as the new headquarters for the 7-year-old institute that bears his name, a low-slung and generally restrained campus of buildings. It will be designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron (with L.A.'s Gensler) and set within a landscape by Michel Desvigne and Inessa Hansch.
Berggruen gave The Times an advance look at the preliminary designs, which he said he planned to file Wednesday with the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. They're executed in what Herzog & de Meuron co-founder Jacques Herzog called a "basic, very archaic" register, to be built mostly of concrete and untreated wood.
The proposal has the feel of a last-of-its-kind design. It recalls a Los Angeles that has just about disappeared, a city of grand projects built on huge swaths of open land. At the same time it reflects the limits that come with both distrust of new construction — especially on the Westside — and a rising ecological anxiety.
The institute (which is also planning a smaller satellite location in the MacArthur Park section of Los Angeles) is a public-policy think tank of sorts focusing on good governance in California, among other subjects. At the new campus it plans to make space available for scholars in residence as well as limited public programs.
The designs call for a linear park — what the architects call a "gardened plinth" — made up of three sections and strung along a ridge pointing south, offering views over the Pacific Ocean in one direction and toward downtown and the San Gabriel Mountains in the other. Near the northern end of the ridge will be a residence for Berggruen and his family; in the middle will be a "village" for visiting scholars, consisting of 15 units with private patios and gardens and partially sunken below ground; and to the south will be the largest structure, lifted 12 feet aboveground and known as the Frame, holding meeting rooms, offices, study spaces and other facilities around a garden courtyard. Emerging from the Frame will be a pair of spheres, the larger one holding a 250-seat lecture hall and the smaller a water storage tank.
Berggruen and Herzog both stressed their interest in maintaining a light footprint on the site, just west of the 405 Freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, with at least 90% of the land remaining undeveloped. The residential community of Mountain Gate, directly north of the institute campus, will be keenly interested to see what Berggruen plans to build.
During a walk across the site on a recent afternoon — during which a rattlesnake reared up out of nowhere on a dusty path and rattled loudly, as if to warn against bringing too much activity here too quickly — Berggruen tried to sum up its appeal.
"Up here you're in the middle of L.A. and you're totally removed — both," he said.
It's this quality — this combination of seemingly unlimited space and proximity to the rest of Los Angeles — that sets the project dramatically apart from a city that is growing increasingly dense and vertical, one that now spends a good deal more time and architectural energy rebuilding than building from scratch.
The site, formerly a landfill, has been engineered to a degree, its ridges flattened in the 1980s. (Berggruen said he would limit the campus largely to what a press release called these "previously graded areas.") But for the most part it appears vast and untouched. Berggruen said walking trails across the site will be actively maintained and kept open to the public.
"It's one of the last really amazing sites of the city," Herzog said. "Not only because of the views but because it's a kind of wilderness."
As such it calls for a generally restrained architecture, he added. "We want to make a contribution to a sustainable way of building, not just another golf course or luxury five-star hotel, another flashy piece. This place is very specific to Los Angeles, in the good sense but also in a not-so-good one — lacking water, and all these things."
Herzog compared the evolving design to a monastery: "It will be a place of knowledge, of research, of curiosity, and also of some privilege at the same time. It will be something that ideally helps to make our societies work again" — a mission the architect said was especially important "at this difficult moment when nobody knows where things will go politically and even what democracy will be."
The tricky part, he said, will be splitting the difference between a public and private institution. "Can we build in our cities campuses or specific zones or sites that are closed off but nevertheless can have a fruitful impact on the rest of the city? That for us is the key question with this particular project. On the one hand you don't want the neighbors to be concerned that it will be a fully public place that will be noisy, et cetera. On the other you don't want to create a place that is completely closed off, that is a kind of a gated community."
Architecturally, Herzog said, he's interested in a contrast between the rough concrete and wood forms that will predominate and the delicacy of the spheres. "We want to use the spheres in the purest possible way, to make them almost immaterial. Not an expression of new technologies or a heroic engineering solution. They shouldn't show any sign of effort or structural expression. We were just interested in this idea of the purity of the form — in its innocence, so to speak."
He said the project as a whole would be characterized by "a relatively held-back formal language." He compared it along those lines to the firm's Parrish Art Museum on Long Island (2012) and its new hotel in New York City for Ian Schrager, Public. In its largely unadorned and muscular concrete form-making it also has clear similarities to Herzog & de Meuron's proposed apartment, retail and hotel complex in L.A.'s Arts District.
Berggruen said the campus could be complete within five years, "if we don't run into too much trouble."
1:50 p.m. This article was updated to revise some language and structure.