Part II: Architects Propose Their Vision for the Civic Center
Note: This is final half of a two-part series discussing the Long Beach Civic Center. Click here for part one.
Perched up on the 20th floor of the 111 Ocean building, looking over the Civic Center was–and this is understated–a sad sight. A miniscule concrete metropolis from up above, the cold site lacked any form of vibrancy: dingy orange and blue-white lights fed off little more than concrete and more concrete, while the library’s roof–what was once a garden that architects thought could somehow maintain itself without a formal system for that small detail known as drainage–was barren and patchy with elements of rot and disregard.
And in an open invitation to Studio One Eleven by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Long Beach Heritage to show off proposals by local architectural firms’ conceptual ideas as what they would (literally) do with the dilapidated site, the lack of city presence was alarming: not a single governmental soul, antithetical to the program’s overall aura of communal input.
Instead, it was mostly a crowd preaching to the choir, with architects, designers, historians, and lil’ ol’ me. Perhaps that was for the better since, minus myself, nothing inhibited creativity and critical reflection.
The array of differing concepts–all, unfortunately for me as I stated in my first piece, surrounding the one cohesive idea that Don Gibbs’s classic-brutalist albeit fascistic tower stay standing–remained the most impressive force of the evening: we don’t have to tie ourselves down entirely to the old nor do we have to engage in something entirely from scratch; there is a fluidity between high architectural concepts and civic reality that we can explore.
Michael Bohn, one of Studio One Eleven’s principal architects, presented a strategic study from a 2001 steering committee after the city sought ideas that mainly focused on waterproofing, security, and isolation issues: the lack of a slope on the library’s building caused massive leakages with every storm; the tragedy of 2001 brought about questions of inept protection; and the space itself seemed removed entirely from civic activity.
Despite the leaks, the structure of the library itself was still in good condition–the building was on the good side of history, not facing entire demolishment. And this good side of history was a driving point for Bohn’s presentation: the study, infused with open park space and a reorganization of the street grid which would drive people in from more directions, was driven by nostalgic memories of Long Beach’s Civic Center during the 20s, where multiple activities and programs brought people–shocker–actually together to engage.
“There was always a reason to come to the Civic Center,” as Bohn stated.
Referring to the success of Bryant Park in Manhattan–which, after being an unsafe haven for drug dealers and homeless persons during the 70s, saw a resurgence of life after a four-year effort from 1979 to 1983 brought a variety of programs to the space–the 2001 hope for the Civic Center centered around multiple cultural amenities that would draw in crowds from the otherwise-blocked stretch of Ocean Boulevard and open up all angles of the Civic Center to the park.
Nader Ghassemlou, designer at Objekt Studio, saw an opposite approach that embraced human creation–his proposal had a lack of green space, trees, and natural features, instead opting for large, open stretches of contemporary architecture that were largely uninhibited by objects a la European plazas–to reflect our city’s attachment to the ocean.
While his design largely kept the buildings intact, he mostly ripped everything out and, as he put it, brought the ocean inwards. Removing the dirt berms that cover the majority of the library’s facade, Ghassemlou would have water flowing off the edge of the roof via a pool to provide sounds of water as well as kinetic aesthetics, with his water sculpture largely blocking the library’s structure–an indirect, tongue-in-cheek homage to the infamous design of the leaky library rooftop as well as the fact that the bunker-like berms make it look as if the library doesn’t even exist.
“You rarely see the ocean from the Civic Center,” Ghassemlou explained. “The ocean used to be right there before the landfill so I wanted to introduce that factor back.”
Cameron Crockett’s public-private (YES!) proposal largely ignored–purposefully–every part of the Civic Center minus the library and its roof. And again, it was antithetical, at least aesthetically, to the proposals of Bohn and Ghassemlou. This design’s focus was centered around landscaping, particularly inspired by community and sustainable gardens, and bridging the line between landscaping and architecture.
“Where Gibbs and crew were taking architecture and adding nature’s appliqué, we’re attempting to makes berms and nature look more architectural and make our architectural pieces look more like terrain,” Crockett explained, pointing not only the designs most dramatic feature–a patterned, linear-edged rooftop that mimics the shading of a jungle canopy–but also the iPad/mobile centers where people can charge and sit with their mobile devices while reading or sipping coffee on the rooftop.
Crockett’s main critical thrust (and the most direct of the evening)–and one he admitted came from a pejorative position–was the simple fact that the library is “bad architecture”: it lacks circulation, it lacks activity, it lacks space that promotes civic engagement. His removal of the planters alone lifted so much weight that, even with the addition of the his design, saved 50% of the structural weight, thereby improving earthquake resilience, waterproofing effectiveness, and visibility.
In the end, there isn’t a lack of creativity as to what or where, in its final determination, the Civic Center can be or go. These creative minds are doing what many others are not: putting a foot forward.
Let’s just hope next time, the main proprietor–the city–decides to hear them out.