Berggruen’s Ridgeline Campus Plan and the Environment

Aware that the Santa Monica Mountains represent the last hope of the region for a protected ecosystem and wildlife habitat, and learning that a globally-oriented think tank has unveiled a project designed by an internationally known architectural firm, gives one pause and cause for alarm.

Will the fragile ecosystem and local community values be acknowledged and respected?

A hilltop campus built along a mountain ridgeline planned by Santa Monica-based Berggruen Institute and designed by the architectural firm, Herzog & de Meuron, will be sited, literally, in Topanga’s back yard. One can only hope that both the Institute’s sophistication and Herzog & de Meuron’s wide experience will be keenly aware of and sensitive to local environmental issues.

The campus plan and design respond to the Institute’s commitment to respect the 447-acre site by preserving more than 90 percent of its open space. Described as “a landscape vision as much as an architectural project,” the design calls for concentrating development within previously graded areas and limiting topographic alteration. The principal site is a mountain ridge that was scraped and flattened in the 1980s to cap a landfill. The project calls for the ridge to be restored and transformed into a linear park landscaped with drought-resistant plants and incorporating collection, filtration and re-use of water.

The “low-density” campus will feature meeting and study spaces and scholars’ residential quarters. Using existing infrastructure, including the Serpentine Road that leads from Sepulveda Boulevard to the Institute’s main entrance, will leave surrounding landscape undisturbed. Public hiking trails crossing the site will be maintained to provide access to the campus.

Jacques Herzog notes, “The Berggruen Institute’s architecture is intertwined with a specific landscape concept. The rough coastal scrub and woodlands on the hills and ridges of the property within the Santa Monica mountains range will be juxtaposed with an abundance of specific and diverse gardened areas.”

The Institute will undertake a comprehensive planting program to mitigate the impact of construction on the site’s oaks and other protected trees as well as a riparian habitat restoration plan. To minimize the risk of wildfires, a fuel modification plan will establish buffer zones around all structures, dictate the type of vegetation permitted and specify requirements pertaining to landscape irrigation, vegetation thinning and removal of brush, dead plant materials and non-native plant species. A helipad is planned for emergency use by firefighters.

The Berggruen Institute’s Mission

Founded in 2010 by philanthropist and investor Nicolas Berggruen, the Institute’s mission is to develop ideas and shape political, economic and social institutions for the 21st century. This goal envisions “enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world.”

Projects developed by the Berggruen Institute have been implemented by its three committees: the 21st Century Council, the Council for the Future of Europe, and the Think Long Committee for California, which worked with state officials to pass the California SB 1253 Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, strengthening the integrity of the state’s initiative process, which Governor Brown signed in 2014.

In 2015, the Institute expanded its mission with the creation of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center that engages in the comparative study of different philosophical traditions and draws on Western and Eastern thinking, much as the Berggruen Governance Center has done in its political work. The Center has launched fellowship programs at several universities, including Stanford University, Harvard University, New York University, Cambridge and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Nicolas Berggruen notes, “The mission of the Institute is to develop and encourage new ideas for a changing world and to propose practical solutions that can transform society—and humanity—for the better. By building our campus here on the Pacific coast, we hope to advance the position of Los Angeles as a world center for ideas, linking the East to the West. By commissioning this visionary design from Herzog & de Meuron, we demonstrate our intention to make an important contribution to the architecture of Los Angeles and the world.”

The Campus Facilities

The principal facility on the main campus, called The Frame, is supported 12 feet above ground and frames and contains a courtyard garden. Within it the study, living and convening accommodations comprise one level. Spaces include live-work lofts, meeting rooms, study spaces, offices, artists’ studios, and media, dining and reception areas. A sphere nestled within the open courtyard houses a 250-seat lecture hall. As the tallest structure on the campus, the sphere rises approximately 45 feet above the roofline of the Frame. A second, smaller sphere, which sits atop the Frame, serves as a water storage tank.

To the north of the Frame, a Scholars Village occupies the central area of the Institute ridge, with approximately 26,000 square feet of residential use for scholars and guests, as well as support services and recreational facilities. The third main area on the eastern ridge is the site of the Chairman’s Residence, a 26,000-square-foot compound that includes a library, conference room, dining and catering facilities and staff quarters, as well as residential areas. Immediately north of the Chairman’s Residence, a heavily landscaped area and gardens serve as a buffer zone between the Institute and the neighboring Mountain Gate community.

Sustainable Strategies

Through passive measures, such as building orientation, shaded overhangs, cross ventilation and thermal mass, the need for mechanical systems is drastically reduced. In open public areas, shade tree canopies and permeable pavement for pathways and parking provide livable exterior spaces, all linked into a water management system for irrigation of the landscape and gardens. Aside from passive environmental strategies, low-energy lighting systems, electric vehicle charging stations and renewable energy sources further reduce the project’s environmental impact.

Herzog & de Meuron

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron established their office in Basel in 1978. An international team of six partners, about 40 associates and 380 collaborators, works on projects across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The firm has designed a wide range of projects around the world from small-scale private homes to large-scale urban design and has been awarded numerous prizes.

If more development of the Santa Monica Mountains landscape is inevitable, as it appears to be, the synergistic efforts of the Berggruen Institute and Herzog & de Meuron to mitigate ecosystem impact and enhance land use strategies could serve as a template for future projects in the area.


By Bob Mendel


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