Jacques Herzog explains the spheres in his design for the Berggruen Institute

Billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen has likened his planned research center and think tank in the Santa Monica Mountains to a secular monastery. Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron is designing it. What is the Berggruen Institute, will the neighbors welcome it and what's the thinking behind the spheres?

Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, has ambitious plans for a mountaintop in the Santa Monica mountains, west of the 405 and just north of the Getty.  There he plans to build the Berggruen Institute, a research center and think tank devoted to governance and philosophy, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.

Renderings of the campus show three main components. They include an almost 100,000-square-foot institute, a one-story, long low building that is lifted off the ground and made of a raw concrete frame and roughened wood. Protruding above this are two large spheres, one of which will hold water and they other which will serve as an auditorium. Then there’s a 28,000-square-foot scholars’ village of sunken, adobe-style buildings.

The Berggruen campus design feels elemental, from its stark organization to the unadorned materials and its platonic spheres.

Berggruen — son of the late Heinz Berggruen, a prominent art dealer, and brother of art critic and historian Olivier Berggruen — says the spheres “anchor the building but also let you dream a little bit.”

Spread across the more than 400 acres of land, a one-time landfill, will be walking trails for the visiting scholars to reflect and explore the restored natural beauty.

But will this dream-scheme get built? On reviewing the design, LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote: “Is Los Angeles still the sort of city that pursues hugely ambitious cultural and architectural projects? Or is it a city that’s running out of room and chastened by increasingly aggressive opposition to new development?”

There is already pushback against Berggruen’s project. It’s coming from homeowner associations in Mandeville Canyon and Mountain Gate, which is a neighborhood of gated communities and two golf courses.

They are already expressing concerns about the project, arguing that the site emits methane gas; that it is a wildlife corridor whose native animals and vegetation will be disrupted by construction and the campus operations from light pollution to traffic and human activity. They are worried about existing wildlife trails and unstable slopes being bulldozed. And, they say, fire danger is paramount.

Berggruen says they plan to manage methane emissions, perhaps even using them to generate energy for the site. He says he will improve fire roads, increase the fire buffer, install irrigation that can help the LAFD and make available a helipad and water from the spherical tank in the event of fire. As for the wildlife corridor and trails, he and the design team aim to restore and enhance them.

East passage into 6AM (rendering courtesy Herzog and de Meuron.)

And Jacques Herzog told DnA, “there is no project in Los Angeles that can compare in how carefully we treat nature. Ninety percent of the total land will be totally left as it is, very natural. We will eventually add trails for people so that there will not be mass tourism or masses of tourists or other people or guests come up. We will not have bus traffic and all of that. We will try to become a model for how to treat landscape, how to use existing energy, make it sustainable. The project in itself will be much more sustainable than Mountain Gate and other comparable neighborhoods.”

While Herzog and de Meuron takes the ecological concerns very seriously, the architects of Beijing’s Birds Nest, the Tate Modern in London and the proposed 6AM project in DTLA (above), are equally considered in the formal choices they have made.

Listen to this DnA segment to hear more from Nicolas Berggruen and Jacques Herzog about the goals for the institute, both philosophical and architectural. And read on for a deeper explanation of the spheres, which the architect refers to as both “banal and ordinary, like pop art or pop architecture, and something so spiritual.” The interview was edited for length and clarity.

DnA: You have described those spheres as representing the “socio-cultural and ecological ambitions of this institute.” What do you mean by that?

Jacques Herzog: Obviously this strikes everybody because that’s the most surprising ingredient of the design. The landscape and the sunken adobe style patio buildings are architectural typologies which we are more familiar with and the hovering [structure] is of course making a space for people to have a gigantic and striking view over Los Angeles. The adobe homes relate people to the earth, to the ground, to the nature, to the senses.

What we very strongly believe [is] that architecture has to display very archaic qualities which we miss so much in our daily lives.

The third typological element [the sphere] has actually almost never been used in architecture. [But] they have been fascinating for architects in so many centuries. We all know this utopian architecture of the 18th century — French 18th century — the Age of Enlightenment where the sphere had a very clear position, up to Buckminster Fuller where the sphere was in his interpretation the amazing technical achievement.

It has perhaps also a slightly polemical side because [it is] a very strong form and it’s intriguing and at the same time we haven’t created it. We have found it. I think that’s a first very strong reason why we use it because we wanted to add such an element of surprise and say to a certain degree I can make in a more innocent way. It’s iconic and it’s part of a very important part of the identity of the future institute.

But  it’s not like a Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid or Calatrava or some other architecture which has strong individual expression through the hand of the master who creates it. But in this case this is a more innocent contribution because the object itself or the form itself existed long before we existed, or long before we invented something. Does this make sense?

DnA: It totally makes sense. So that sounds as if you’re entering into a conversation with other architects.

JH: No, that would be totally wrong. I just mention these names because they stand today for architectures which take their expression from the individual behind it. So immediately the individual architect behind the oeuvre or the work becomes visible and that we didn’t want to do. Mostly in our architectures you cannot immediately say this is a piece of architecture designed by Herzog & de Meuron because we always change and it’s always a bit different. It’s not something that I say against one of these architects. I personally admire Frank Gehry’s work a lot. I think he’s a great master. I’m just saying that to better explain what the difference is to create a so-called iconic piece of architecture — you can use the form that exists already or you can bring in something new like a brushstroke that speaks of the individuality of the person who made that brushstroke.

I think that’s the true interest in this case and especially for the Berggruen Institute which is about knowledge, about research, about open-minded dialogue. It should not be marked by one individual author. But the driver behind it should not be immediately visible as the first kind of a thing, which very often is the case in contemporary architecture.

Zebulon Water Tower, Pike County, Georgia (photo courtesy Michael Rivera, Creative Commons)

That’s fair but anyway I wanted to say something about the sphere. And the interesting thing in our view is that the sphere is a ubiquitous form when it comes to water tanks. You can find it in American landscapes and also in Latin America and Europe. It is a water tank — a f**king stupid water tank.

Sorry to say that but it’s just really very banal somehow. And at the same time the form, the sphere, is extremely striking and extraordinary, especially that size that we use for the auditorium where it displays its universal side.

It’s a side that probably fascinated from Buckminster Fuller or Boullée or Ledoux and all these architects of the past who try to use spheres in architecture and give them a sense or give them a use or give them a purpose.

And so we very much like this double function that the sphere is – at the same time something banal and ordinary, something like pop art or pop architecture – and something so spiritual. And that’s why I want to highlight the spiritual side as much as the ordinary side.

The Montréal Biosphère, formerly the American Pavilion of Expo 67, by R. Buckminster Fuller, on Île Sainte-Hélène, Montreal, Quebec

We try to construct it without science of construction, unlike Buckminster Fuller. His great achievement is he used no columns, no auxiliary structures whatever. It wanted to express that structural effort or structural non-effort, so to speak. And in our spheres we want to hide it.

We want to use the pure form. Ideally it should even have no signs of materiality. They should be as pure like an idea for what it is — to best express this purpose like a think tank or like a brain, like the inside of the head almost. And this would then be even stronger when it’s juxtaposed or in contrast to other ingredients or other typologies like the aforementioned frame that is hovering above the ground, or the sunken patio adobe houses, which are very material, driven by inertia or gravity. So I hope to give now a better understanding why these three typologies which determine the design are what they are.

Ledoux Spherical House (c. 1770), An Ideal House

DnA: You mention Boullée and Ledoux and their preoccupation with spheres. Presumably it also brings to mind the Enlightenment in relation to the goals of the Institute?

JH: It also has another element. People who are more familiar with Boullee and Ledoux, professionals, if you look at them it’s also these designs are quite interesting. Because somehow these forms are stupid and [yet] they are so attractive to us.

And we found they have a very powerful presence in the design. On the other hand it’s very difficult to get into a sphere, how to do a door and entrance; how to hold them in place.

And they are like billiards, a big ball that seems to roll down.

So it’s also suggesting imbalance or nature against, let’s say, artificiality. So it suggests many other things with the sheer presence of just being there without giving any explications.

But it was interesting in the context of really how to put them in place.