Founded in 2010, the mission of the Berggruen Institute is to study and apply new ideas to the workings of social, economic, and political institutions. The Institute’s programs represent various disciplines, largely from the humanities and social sciences, most importantly philosophy, political theory, political science, law, anthropology, and linguistics. The Institute funds scholars, organizes academic workshops, and supports lecture series. These activities currently take place on campuses around the world. In May 2016, the Berggruen Institute announced the decision to consolidate its activities in a new campus in Los Angeles, at a site in the eastern portion of the Santa Monica Mountains near Topanga Canyon State Park, in recognition of the forward-looking, entrepreneurial spirit and profound connection to the natural world that are ingrained in Southern California
Herzog & de Meuron were appointed as the architects for the new facility after an intense phase of conversations with various architects around the world, visits to their buildings, and meetings with their clients.
The Berggruen Institute requires an inspirational setting for research and study, a framework which fosters the exchange of ideas and knowledge and provides the opportunity to live in a shared environment. Spaces for individual study and venues for seminars, symposiums, and workshops are combined with living quarters for fellows, academics and other thought leaders. Additional temporary accommodations are provided for visiting participants at the Institute’s academic workshops. Some of the staff of the Institute will also work on the new premises.
The new Institute building must strike a careful balance between the needs of the individual and those of the collective; it must allow for the quiet routine of the everyday to coexist with the requirements of larger gatherings. A compelling reference is found in monastic architecture. Since ancient times, monasteries have been places for individual study and reflection as well as group exchange and gathering. In line with such scholastic tradition, the program incorporates the natural surroundings. The Southern California climate makes it possible to provide spaces for exchange both indoors and outdoors, accommodating small, concentrated study groups as well as large symposia.
Two Ridges of Deceptively Unspoiled Natural Beauty
With this diverse program in mind, the Berggruen Institute has acquired a significant 450 acre plot of land in the Santa Monica Mountains above the City of Los Angeles.
The site is largely defined by the pronounced topography of two long mountain ridges that flank a steep canyon with native Southern California vegetation. At first sight, the place feels untouched but the crest of the eastern ridge has actually been scraped and flattened, a cut-and-fill operation carried out in the 1980s in order to cap a landfill active since the 1970s. Vegetation has colonized the former landfill, concealing its past. At their peak, the ridges rise to an altitude of 1,700 feet, offering magnificent panoramas of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Los Angeles metropolis, and the Pacific Ocean.
In the larger context of Los Angeles, the site lies within a corridor of cultural and academic institutions including the Getty Center, Mount St. Mary’s University, the Skirball Cultural Center, and the American Jewish University. The Berggruen Institute’s closest neighbors are a golf course and the residential community of Mountain Gate. The current entitlement allows for 29 residences to be built on the property.
Architecture and Landscape – an Intricate Bond
The Berggruen Institute is a landscape vision as much as it is an architectural project. Crucially, to minimize the impact, the project will be built, where feasible, only on land that has already been modified. The flattened and scraped eastern ridge will be transformed into an elongated park—a gardened plinth, surrounded by a retaining wall and clearly distinguished from the dry, untended vegetation around it. The gardens are self-sustaining; drought-resistant vegetation is coupled with water collection, cleaning, and re-use. Water management becomes a tangible part of the garden experience, similar to historical predecessors, like the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
The linear park will house three salient features of the Institute campus: the Institute Building, the Scholar Village, and the Chairman’s Residence.
A sense of transition from one place to another is underscored by the long winding road that already existed. It leads up to the eastern ridge from the heavily trafficked Sepulveda Boulevard down in the valley.
Half-sunken earthen walls structure the ridge, becoming inhabitable at the Scholar Village. Fellows with families as well as short-term visiting scholars live here in single-story courtyard buildings. From a distance the village disappears from view within the gardened plinth. Beyond a narrow saddle and as a terminus to the campus, the Chairman’s Residence is situated north of the Scholar Village in a garden of its own. Like the Scholar Village, the house consists of inhabitable earthen walls beneath a slender, deeply cantilevered roof. It encompasses living quarters combined with large open spaces for entertaining indoors and outdoors.
The Institute Building on the opposite, southern end of the ridge is a rectangular concrete frame supported by just a few elements so that it appears to be hovering above the steep topography. The building encloses a garden that offers unobstructed views all around, of the city, the mountains, and the ocean beyond.
Inside the concrete frame, wooden walls and ceilings are inserted to house both the private and communal functions of the Institute. Covered and shaded areas remain in between, to be used for outdoor study and exchange. In line with monastery tradition, the majority of the fellows study, convene, share meals and sleep within the Institute Building.
Two spheres complement the rectangular frame of the Institute: the smaller one is a water reservoir, the larger one houses the lecture hall. The latter lies on the topography and leans against the frame in one corner of the courtyard. It is split horizontally into a bowl and a dome with glazing in between that allows for views out and light in. The smaller sphere of the water reservoir—a key component of the Institute’s self-sustaining ecosystem—rests on top of the frame at the entrance to the courtyard. The spheres both physically and symbolically represent the socio-cultural and ecological ambitions of the Institute.