Part I: Architects, Advocates, Ponder Future of Long Beach Civic Center

“Civic Center, 1978. Photo courtesy of Wayne Thom.”

Monday night, Long Beach Heritage (LBH) and the Long Beach/South Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) hosted a discussion posing one question: What are the possibilities for our Civic Center?

That question–simple albeit absolutely essential–was mainly focused on the 1978 Civic Center that currently huddles between Ocean Blvd/Broadway Ave. and Magnolia Ave./Pacific Ave. Many consider the building dilapidated given questionable structure analyses, as well as uninviting given the abandoned rooftop garden that once sat atop the Main Public Library along with the center’s overwhelming brut architectural style.

Dr. Suja Lowenthal opened the evening with the most philosophical of presentations, discussing the relation of a civic center to its citizen. For her, the “public living room” is not just an essential space, but a deeply personal one as well:

“I’ve only lived here for 15 years and there is something to be said when you choose to live in a city and fall in love with it–as opposed to when you’re born here and you inherit the culture,” supplied the Council Member. “There comes this desire to be a part of the fabric of this community… I think that makes it more magical to come together to revision [sic] and envision our Civic Center.”

This particular form of discourse–to come together to discuss possibilities–seemed to be the main thrust of the evening. After all, the concepts of Long Beach’s civic center ideals over time were highlighted through a historical review via Maureen Neely, a librarian and historian whose approach with history–how do we regard what we proposed and did in the past in order to gauge our civic future?–seemed to open the evening up to a multitude of angles and discussions.

However, the night’s overall arch seemed driven by a singular point: to figure out how to “fix” Don Gibb’s 1978 center. And by fix, I mean that conversation seemed relegated to renovation rather than revision.

“City Hall, the monument that sits at the center of Civic Center.”

Presenters Alan Pullman of Studio One Eleven and moderator Rick D’Amato seemed overwhelming praising of–and far more importantly, less critical of–Gibb’s architectural monument, offering comparisons to and influences ranging from Le Courbusier and Louis Kahn. While I understand and appreciate the historical connectives that tie the timeline of architecture’s history together, to show the Unité d’Habitation–Le Courbusier being whimsical before every sense of whimsy was ripped from it for Brutalist architecture to engage itself–and the Salk Institute–Kahn’s beautifully symmetrical buildings that are clean modernism at its finest–in pairing with Gibbs’s Civic Center seemed cheap; not on an historical-etymological level, but on a level which was supposed to be addressing the key question.

After all, we’re talking about the possibilities of a space–keyword–which is supposed to engage citizens–and engagement cannot be enacted through cold, monotonous spaces. Brutalist (or, if you’re kind, what some would call Late Modern) architecture, particularly Gibbs’s Civic Center, does anything but engage: it is deeply uninviting, with a singular monument dedicated to power standing tall, while the low level gardens–some odd attempt to present a contrast–sit on the rooftops of the encased spaces below.

If one has ever wondered why critics call Brutalist style totalitarian, one but has to walk through Long Beach’s Civic Center. It is continually empty save for the homeless who stay in Lincoln Park since, ironically, no one visits the Civic Center. And once the sun sets and the wind tunnels via the endless slabs of concrete surrounding City Hall kick up, the place is cold both metaphorically and literally.

While I am not sure if it was Gibbs’s presence and therefore a lack of confidence amongst some to question a great architect’s choice or whether it was Lowenthal’s projections that renovating the Center would be in the $78 million range while replacing it would be in the $150 million, it remained entirely clear that no one was willing to discuss the possibility of something entirely new. It seemed, within the realms of this interaction, Gibbs’s monument was here to stay.

Structural engineer Ken O’Dell made his point succinctly about keeping the integrity of the building when he stated, “In making your case [with regards to what to do with the space], you must emphasize that value of what is here doesn’t stop with what you see. The value of what you have here is the historical context: you have where it was and you can see where it can go. And structurally speaking, there is no reason why you can’t move forward with something from the past.”

With regards to this emphasis on keeping architectural history alive, I was perturbed, for one, that no one on the panel, at least from my knowledge, had engaged in projects like the renovation they were pushing forward. Pullman did show the recently renovated Oakland Museum, designed by architecture Kevin Roche and whose style was eerily similar to that of Gibbs’s rooftop gardens, to show how an update can be beneficial without having to tear down an entire structure. So why didn’t we have someone from Mark Cavagnero’s design firm? Or someone perhaps more local who has done a similar project?

Furthermore, it seems a bit counterintuitive, at least on a discussion level, to vacate the idea of replacing the space entirely due to cost. Or in other words, why no one presented the idea of funding an entirely new civic center–one driven to engage its space and not renovate one which lacks civic space on almost every level–via a public/private partnerhsip such as the conference center and hotel in Bremerton, Washington. And given the fact that, up one block from the Civic Center, is the new Long Beach Court Building which is being constructed under a public/private partnership, one couldn’t help but feel slightly let down.

I know this is, after all, just a discussion–and that is why I am slightly more critical. If we’re just discussing, why aren’t we discussing everything?

And to counter my own point, I am not saying to destroy the thing either. There is merit to keeping a structure that we created to replace a previous one. Tabula rosa urbanism is not always the answer. But there is also merit to being frank.

The next discussion in the series will address the Pine/Ocean intersection and will take place on Wednesday, October 24, at 7PM at the Ocean Theatre. Tickets, set at $5 each, are currently available by visiting www.aialb-sb.org/events.

  • PC

    I’m just going to say that I’m deeply, deeply depressed by the fact that in the world of professional architecture and urban design, people can still liken the aesthetic of a cluster of buildings to that of Corbusier and mean it as a compliment. And not be laughed out of the room (as Le Corb himself was, over and over, by the Parisians when he proposed to give their city the towers-in-a-park treatment).

    I’m even more depressed to see that a rare public discussion on Long Beach’s miserable Civic Center and what to do about it has come and gone with (apparently) no serious consideration of razing it and building something for humans. LB has actually been somewhat bold over the last few years when it comes to identifying and undoing some of the implementations of bad twentieth century ideas. Razing and replacing the Civic Center instead of giving it a facelift could be the best $70 million its taxpayers ever spent if it resulted in a place that people actually wanted to visit.

  • BrianU

    My curiosity is peaked by “Part 1”

    Whether it is Star Fleet, the Cylons or the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, the Civic Center deserves complete destruction. Most prior eras (never say all) deserve historic preservation because they contribute to a complete urban environment.  Brutalism though old enough for historic preservation are blights on city building and human engagement.

  • Ubrayj02

    This place looks like a horrible waste of space and money. The most valuable real estate in town is being gobbled up by some lame architects vision – and it can’t even pay its own bills?! A dirt lot with a bunch of food carts would generate more revenue and a more sociable atmosphere.

  • Daniel

     I actually don’t mind the tower.  Growing up in LB, it’s pretty iconic, and I have a slight sentimental attachment to it.  In addition, I think in Southern California, we have a terrible habit of tearing down everything our parents or grandparents have built without considering how future generations might perceive or embrace it.  Also, the mere fact that people hate it so much (based on the comments and what the author wrote) seems like a good reason to keep it. On the other hand, I agree the public space definitely needs some work.  It’s not inviting at all and wastes valuable property.  Maybe this is for part 2, but it seems premature to discuss possibilities for the Civic Center without considering what will come of the current LB courthouse.  That’s a large chunk of the parcel and will definitely be razed due to structural integrity.  On a slightly different note, it would also be nice to know whether or not the Port is moving to downtown since that might induce enough demand to build more class A office space.

  • PC

    “Say, Billy, do you see that tower over there?”

    “Which one, Grandpa? The one that looks like it was designed and built by the lowest bidder for a client that was actively contemptuous of the people that would visit it?”

    “That’s the one! Did you know that it was built way, way back in 1978?”

    “Ah….that explains a lot. My Urbanism teacher in fourth grade told me that the Seventies were pretty much a low point in building design around here.”

    “Your *what* teacher?”

    “Never mind, Grandpa.”

    “You know, Billy, I’ve always had a slight sentimental attachment to that building. Yessir, it really brings back a moderate number of mildly pleasant memories! Why, one warm summer night back in 2010 I was on a date with a lovely young gal and I worked up the nerve to ask her to go steady. Well, we were both looking at this tower in the distance-way, waaaay in the distance–when she said yes.”

    “Really? And that girl…was that Grandma?”

    “Hmm? Nah, just some girl. We broke up three weeks later. Anyway, Billy, can you believe that some shortsighted people wanted to knock this old tower down, around the turn of the century? Then I would never have been able to show it to you! Good thing nobody listened to them, eh?”

    “Uh. Yeah. Good thing, Grandpa.”

  • Daniel

     Actually, the memories are from looking at the entire city from one of the top floors while visiting in elementary school, walking around downtown throughout the years, and seeing the skyline from various lookouts in the city.  Also, Billy will likely have at least 3 grandpas.  Nice try, though. 

  • Daniel

     Actually, replacing it would be in the $150 million range according to the article. 

  • Daniel

    Maybe you’re right.  Maybe we should just raze it.  Just like we razed the Pacific Coast Club.  That thing was weird looking.  Or maybe like the Jergins Trust Building (where there has been a big gaping hole for 24 years on Broadway and Pine, a main intersection in downtown Long Beach). Or maybe like the Barker Brothers Building (where there has been a parking lot for 18 years now across from Congregation Ale House on the Promenade).  Those buildings were starting to get old, decrepit and out of fashion!  Or how about the Fox West Coast Theatre downtown or the Crest Theatre in Bixby Knolls? (nobody uses aging single-screen theatres for anything these days!)

  • PC

    Yes, exactly like that. Except that this one will have richly deserved it–which in the real world means that it will be there forever, along with the New Pike, City Place, the office towers on Bunker Hill and every strip mall ever built.

  • PC

    @Daniel, your figure is correct. $150M to replace. By “best $70 million they ever spent,” I meant the difference between that and the $80M it would cost to renovate, since presumably they have to do one or the other. I probably could have expressed that better, though.

  • Having lived in Long Beach for the better part of my entire life, I have always hated city hall and the greater civic center. City Hall is ugly, monolithic, has a heaviness to it (and is just as ugly inside) and undignified. I like the idea of the library partly underground with a park above (essentially 1 floor up) but it was a disaster from the get go. The entire complex feels more like a prison than a civic center. The tower certainly needs to go.

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