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Since the mid-2000’s Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station Arts Center has been a lightning rod for debate about what the future of the city looks like and who decides. With post-recession rents skyrocketing and the impending arrival of the Expo light rail line in 2016, the city, which owns most of the land on which the center’s galleries sit, has been eager to redevelop the creative zone, which includes the hangar that is home to the Santa Monica Museum of Art.
The project’s official RFQ, released in 2012, asked for designs that would “protect and enhance the area’s arts and creative uses” while bringing a greater mix to serve the anticipated influx of over 3,000 light rail riders per day.
On September 9, after five hours of deliberation and more than one hundred speakers, the Santa Monica City Council selected a redevelopment scheme by Frederick Fisher and Partners. Fisher was the architect for the original Bergamot Station & Galleries project in 1994 after American Appliance had decamped from the sprawling industrial complex.
Courtesy Frederick Fisher and Partners
Fisher’s proposal begins with the Station’s original DNA, retaining the industrial shed vernacular for most of the new buildings. The new museum, for example, is a playful interpretation of the pre-fab shed typology, lifted up and placed on a glass box for its entry lobby.
The designs show a restraint that respects the scale of the original, making liberal use of corrugated metal and perforated metal screens. There is also a strong emphasis on public space and view corridors, linking building circulation that was pulled to the exterior with landscaped courtyards. Bergamot is seen as a gateway, making connections to the new Expo light rail stop and the surrounding community while holding onto its character as an eclectic enclave.
Under the developer umbrella of Bergamot Station Ltd/Worthe Real Estate, Fisher’s design team includes the landscape architecture firm Office of James Burnett, Community Arts Resources, which is known for art-centered planning, and SBE Hotel Group.
Courtesy Rios Clementi Hale
Two other development teams had been vying for the opportunity to transform Bergamot: 26Street TOD Partners/The Lionstone Group with Rios Clementi Hale Studios and Rethink/KOR Group with Michael Maltzen Architecture and David Hertz Architects.
Rios Clementi Hale’s approach utilized a Butler building system, so new buildings would maintain a low-slung profile and complement the local vernacular. They proposed to reuse elements from dismantled buildings in the new construction, all tied together by a monolithic, industrial-style folding roof. For the Rethink/KOR Group proposal, David Hertz and Michael Maltzan formed a “design collaborative”, which also included Hornberger + Worstell, Katherine Spitz Associates for landscape, and John Bela’s Rebar Group known for “user-generated urbanism.” Their concept kept all the original buildings—modifying only one—and enhanced the campus-nature of the area with new landscape elements and amenities.
Despite the choice of Fisher, who is known for his sensitive reuse work, some surrounding residents and gallery owners are not so convinced. They see the overall plans for Bergamot Station as a way to drive out creative uses and build another Watergarden, a self-contained office complex locals cite as something they do not want again. In May, a citizen-launched referendum spurred city council to reject the mixed-use Hines/Gensler Bergamot Transit Village, just north of the Bergamot Arts Center area.
But with the arts district’s smaller, less-dense scope, things might be looking brighter for Bergamot Station. All the competing teams put forth visions that seemed to reinforce the unique village-like character of the place while adding architectural adventurousness that connects with the arts crowd.
“We know that Bergamot Station is a unique project for Santa Monica and that the ultimate shape for it will come from collaboration and engagement with all stakeholders. We embrace this,” said Fisher.
The Jane B. Eisner Middle School is the latest chapter in a success story for Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a community-based association that has combined idealism and a firm grasp of practicalities in educating children in LA’s immigrant communities. Like Green Dot and other non-profits, it offers a free alternative to failing public schools. In 1999, Camino Nuevo hired Daly Genik Architects to create their first school from an empty mini mall in MacArthur Park, and the firm has extended the Burlington Campus three times since then. For their seventh school, Camino Nuevo selected Frederick Fisher and Partners (FFP), which had never before designed a school but offered experience in cost-efficient renovation. The school, named for the Jane Eisner Foundation, is located in Harvard Heights, a historic neighborhood just west of downtown.
FFP is best known for its art spaces, most recently an addition to the Colby Museum in Maine, and college buildings from Otis to Princeton. But they got their start doing low-budget loft conversions for artists who anticipated the recent renaissance of downtown LA by thirty years. So they responded enthusiastically to the challenge of turning a 1920s PacBell service facility into a creative environment, as they had with the Bergamot Station tram depot. The building is an LA Historic-Cultural Monument and its windowless cement plaster walls and cast stone Churrigueresque portals were left untouched. The raw interior, with its concrete floor, exposed brick walls, and bow truss roof vaults was divided with minimal white walls that enclose nine classrooms, an assembly hall, computer library, learning lab, administrative offices and service spaces. The former service yard became a playground.
Seismic reinforcement was a priority, and much of the budget was invested in a structural steel frame that exceeds the usual requirements for historic structures. Roof openings bathe the interior in natural light and are supplemented by industrial light fittings. Broad corridors run around three sides and down the middle, feeding into the assembly hall, which can be separately accessed for community events after hours. Bowed wood slats conceal the insulation inside the roof vault, incorporate sprinklers, and muffle noise. Cable trays are bracketed to corridor walls for easy maintenance of the extensive wiring.
The whole job was brought in for the surprisingly low figure of $225 per square foot. But the sensitivity of FFP’s interventions lift the spirits of teachers and students. It helps that this is a solidly built historic structure with interiors far loftier than those of new-built schools. It’s already a local landmark that is well loved by the community. For Fisher, it has the same creative potential as a loft for tech startups in Santa Monica or SOMA. Found materials are accented with tones of red and green, and the whole space is a subtle play of light, shade, and varied textures.
“We believe our buildings should contribute to community pride and support a collective culture of learning,” said Philip Lance, president of Pueblo Nuevo Development, and co-founder of Camino Nuevo. “Hiring talented design architects that embrace this philosophy is essential to a successful partnership.” In contrast to the LAUSD, a Gulliver constrained by a net of bureaucratic procedures and regulations, the charter schools encourage creative freedom for designers and teachers alike. Some have failed, but that is the price of experimentation. Walking around Jane Eisner and watching the attentive faces of its students restores one’s faith in the promise of free education.
One of the hidden gems of Los Angeles is the lush Descanso Gardens, located in the small town of La Cañada Flintridge, on the property of former LA Daily News owner E. Manchester Boddy. Contemporary architecture is a rarity in this area full of landscape and history, but a notable exception is the new Sturt Haaga Gallery of Art, an adaptive re-use and expansion of the historic Boddy House garage into art spaces by architects Frederick Fisher & Partners.
Two galleries have been fashioned from the landmarked Boddy space, which had to be “rebuilt from the inside out,” as Fred Fisher put it, maintaining the historic shell but completely updating the rest. A third gallery was built from scratch and then camouflaged with green screen structures and tucked into a hillside with an additional outdoor room added for sculptures and events. “We used plant materials as brush strokes,” explained Fisher. Inside, the new gallery features 12-foot ceilings, a large skylight, and indirect lighting around the perimeter. In the existing spaces skylights could not be installed due to preservation restrictions, so much of their lighting is created through tucking fluorescent lights behind fabric and plastic scrims to establish a uniform illuminated surface.
“We wanted to create these very calm, serene spaces for viewing small scale works of art,” said Fisher, noting that the light helps the spaces feel much larger. “It feels like it’s really expanding because of the quality of light.”