L.A. Designer: Miriam Mulder, Architect of a City

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Students wait for bus at new stops outside Santa Monica Community College.

On this DnA we talked about Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus stops, the strong public reaction to their bold design and what the debate reveals about our expectations of public space.

But the bus stops are just one project among many city beautification projects in Santa Monica that are under the supervision of Miriam Mulder, City Architect. Others include the red-staired Parking Structure #6 on 2nd Street; Tongva Park, opposite City Hall; and the new Pico Branch library just opened in Virginia Avenue Park. These projects represent a commitment in Santa Monica to an enhanced public realm.

MiriamMulderMulder, left, was educated at SCI-Arc, when it was still in its infancy in Santa Monica, then set up her own practice. After doing a number of projects for the City of Santa Monica, she moved into the position of City Architect, managing many players in the process of city-building, including other architects, among them Lorcan O’Herlihy (bus stops), Christof Jantzen (parking structure #6), James Corner and Field Operations (Tongva Park) and Koning Eizenberg (Pico Branch Library, below).

DnA talked to Miriam Mulder about what a City Architect does, the kind of temperament that suits public work (calm!), the projects she never expected to work on and why 3rd Street Promenade, turning 25 this month, was such a pivotal project for the increasingly pedestrian-friendly city.

DnA: So what got you into architecture? Did you want to do it from childhood?

Miriam Mulder: No, absolutely not, in fact, my undergraduate degree is in the sciences and I was at UCLA actually doing research at the neuro-psychiatric institute after I graduated, and I used to ride my bike from my apartment in Santa Monica to UCLA, and right around the corner from me was a house that seemed to be in constant process and it happened to be Frank Gehry’s house on Washington, and I was captivated by it, and it began to sort of open my eyes to what architecture could be, which previously, I had not been aware of at least, and I started to take classes in it, and I started to immerse myself in it and ultimately went to graduate school in it. So it was a complete shift, but I can’t overstate how important that piece was to me, because it’s really what sort of veered me into the field.

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Parking Structure #6, Second Street, Santa Monica

DnA: But then you took on this role of City Architect?

MM: It was not intentional. I had a private practice and through people I knew at the city I started working on projects here and eventually fell in in love with an opportunity to be involved in things on a larger scale, being able to look at the way a community unfolds, and contribute in a larger way. It was really something I couldn’t pass up.

DnA: You have many projects under your belt in this city but the bus stops have become a kind of a lightning rod. Just tell us for starters what is that project?

MM: It is the bus stop improvement program, and it consists of, initially, 360 bus stops throughout the city that’s been modified slightly. It consisted of replacing low, medium, and high volume stops throughout the city and, in the case of the high volume and some medium volume stops, doing real time signage. It also was intended to provide an iconic identity for the the Big Blue Bus and for the city of Santa Monica with their bus stops. It also was intended to take what is often sort of a grab bag of metro signage, Big Blue Bus signage, maps, and things that are usually stuck all over the place, and unify them in one location, making it, what we hoped, more friendly and identifiable spot for transportation.

Students wait for bus at an existing shelter on Pico Boulevard.
Students wait for bus at existing shelter on Pico Boulevard.

DnA: You did a lot of public outreach. Did that include talking to bus riders?

MM: Absolutely. The Big Blue Bus wanted to be sure that the riders were well represented in viewing the new proposed bus stops.

DnA: And did all these groups that were brought into the process, did they see the design at earlier stages?

MM: They did, and I actually have gone back over to look at comments that were made about this, and the comments were overwhelmingly positive. One concern that came up was the amount of shade, and that is something that the designer did try to address, with shade is supposed to be cast over the seating at peak hours, not necessarily all the seating, but some seating has shade at any given time.

DnA: Is it true that there were going to be some stops initially that would have had no shade at all but wound up all getting at least some shade?

MM: Yes, in fact the first stops that have been built thus far are low volume stops, and they’re replacing what you familiarly see as a single pole with a triangle on it. It’s less than at the medium and high volume, but at least there is some shade provided, more than what was originally there.

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Lorcan O’Herlihy stands at a Big Blue Bus stop.

DnA: But just to those who say there’s still insufficient shade, what would you say?

MM: Initially Big Blue Bus went to City Council with a traditional structure. City Council clearly wanted these stops to be more representative of Santa Monica and rallied for this new approach, which was in a more custom designed structure. Traditional structures, even though they’re bulkier, they actually, through certain hours of the day, there is no shade whatsoever because the sun’s at a low angle, it might be shooting right in, whereas these, which are lighter, definitely provide some shade at any given time. The other concern that we hear from the community is that business owners wanted a light touch. They did not like the idea of a big, bulky structure obscuring the view to their business or, in the case of residents, something they had to look at from their home or whatever. So that’s how we ended up with these very light poles with canopies on top.

DnA: And what about the seats?

MM: Interestingly, as I’ve gone back and looked at some of these early meetings, there was very little comment about the seats at all, nothing negative. But we have taken to heart some of the comments and for people who might have trouble pushing themselves up off a stool or something like that, we are looking at adding some arm rests and modifying some of the backs on some of the seats. Additionally, these seats are twenty inches in diameter, and that’s not uncommon, in fact it’s actually slightly on the large side for stools, which are usually more like sixteen to eighteen inches. We’re going to push that out to 22 inches for the double seats because another concern is, in our double seats, I think people felt they were too close to other people. So we’re trying to give a little more comfort room there, and we will be making a prototype of that seat within the next few weeks.

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Pico Branch Library, newly opened in Virginia Avenue Park.

DnA: The stops are only part of an overall broad project that’s going on in Santa Monica that has to do with the public realm, and building transportation into the urban fabric. Can you talk about that?

MM: One of the really thrilling things about working here right now is that there are a lot of changes that are intended to change the way we really move through our city. The arrival of the Expo Light Rail is a huge piece of that, which will be up and running certainly within the next, well, no later than January 2016, and possibly earlier than that. And associated with that is the increased density that is certainly here, which arouses people in different ways, but with that comes a focus on really moving towards relying less on the car, being able to make this city more walkable, which is always an indicator of wellness within a community. And part of that is being able to weave transit, and connect all of those things with transit. And this project, the Big Blue Bus stop improvement project was an effort to make these more easy to take, so that it’s something you notice, “Oh, well that stop’s right there, I can go walk to that and then I can get to wherever I’m going, et cetera.” So part of that recognizability and, iconography of the bus stop, if you will, is a way of, as you were saying, saying “Hello, I’m here! You can come catch a bus right here and I can get everywhere.” And you start to notice them, and realize it’s a network, and hopefully realize it’s friendly and something that’s easy to use.

DnA: So then, ironically, you’ve got this very strong design, it’s very powerful and punchy and it does say “Hello, I’m the bus and I’m here!” But that’s also, ironically, triggered complaints of, “Why are we throwing this money at high design, over functionality. What happened to just the plain old bench?” How do you respond to that?

MM: Well I would argue that high design is about functionality. And I really believe that this design is the result of all of the input we got from Council, the riders, businesses and many other people. These were things that were actually asked for at the time, and this is, the design is the response to that. So yes, one of the things that was asked for was, essentially, a branding of the Big Blue Bus, an iconic, clear representation of the bus, and it is true, when busses pull up, I feel like that bus stop and the bus, it’s all of a piece, its clearly a family that comes together every time a bus stops at one of these stops, and I think it is functional, it is also, you know, well, designed. So, for me, that’s one and the same thing.

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Universally Accessible Playground at the beach and Ashland Avenue, designed by Katherine Spitz Associates.

DnA: So tell me some of the other civic projects that you have worked on, that fit into this picture.

MM: Well, I know that you’re aware of the parking structure number six. The city really tried to look at all the existing parking, with the goal of really not adding a lot more parking, but improving the parking we have, and part of that was to rebuild Parking Structure #6 and create a really safe parking structure filled with light, pull the circulation out to the front so that you’re not going some dark stairway that feels dangerous, but it also becomes, again, sort of an icon for walking and it’s being used in all sorts of ways, just as running up to get a view from the top level, and really trying to emphasize the pedestrian at the bottom as well with an enlarged plaza, with parking for bikes, another important element.

Another project would be Tongva Park, and Ken Genser Square, which was really meant as one of the pieces of the Civic Center specific plan, which was sort of a new heart to the whole community. It’s very close to the terminus station for Expo Light Rail. It provides a connection from both City Hall and the Civic Center parking structure, which was also part of the specific plan. And through that you can get to the pier, you can go to the beach, you can go to the downtown, it provides a gateway to Southern Santa Monica and Main Street, and what was really exciting about that project, when we finished it, which was done actually quite quickly, is that, instantaneously, pedestrians were using it, just as it was intended to be used.

Joggers run on Parking Structure 6The other thing that is right next to it is the Related Cos housing project, the Village, and that was also a very important piece, is to have people who live there and don’t have to get in a car and get anywhere, but can also, you know, it’s eyes on the park, that was a very important piece too, is that it’s the heart of a community in a sense, and so it’s uniting not just City Hall and certain recreational things like the pier and the beach, and Palisades Garden Walk, but there’s people living there and using it on a daily basis,

DnA: Do you feel there’s a kind of process of, sort of education about what the Civic realm can be that’s going on in these projects and do you find yourself having to sort of constantly justify the expense?

MM: You know, the park cost a fair amount of money, it was 42 million dollars, and there certainly were plenty of comments like “Aren’t there better uses for that money?” There’s a couple things going on there. One is certain funds only qualify for improvement of the public realm, for instance, or there are sometimes funds that can’t be used for education for instance, and are really earmarked for infrastructure or something like that. But that being said, I think, for instance, that project, even though there were some of those criticisms, as it has been opened and as it is being used, I feel less and less of that arise because people are using it and it’s being used in the way it was envisioned to really start to unite the community and make it function.

DnA: Third Street Promenade turns 25 this year, and although this was not under your purview, I wonder if that did actually help establish the direction Santa Monica was going to go in because it became this pedestrian destination that was so hugely successful, and took the center of gravity away from the mall, which had been the model for shopping in Southern California.

MM: It was clearly pivotal. I think those of us who have been here for a while can remember the Promenade from the Pee Wee Herman movie, which, I don’t know if you remember but it was a ghost town, and he could freely ride his bike down it without touching anybody else. And now it’s a sea of humanity and it pulls people in every day, large numbers of people. It’s thriving as a destination and I think there’s mixed feelings sometimes because there are issues that arise from such large numbers of visitors. But you can’t argue that it hasn’t become a destination that people want to go to because they enjoy walking through it, they enjoy using the amenities.

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3rd Street Promenade, following its 1989 opening.

DnA: And it sort of established Santa Monica as a city that could see itself as a walking city.

MM: Absolutely. Another thing that was somewhat visionary, and which we have, is the six parking structures in the downtown that were built in the 1960’s. I think the idea even then, even though the walkability was maybe less so then, was that you would come put your car in one of those structures and then you could walk everywhere else. And I think that is still a model that we’re striving for, is that, you park once, and then you can walk to all these different places.

DnA: Your work involves a lot outreach but outreach involves engaging with an enormous number of people and different groups and interests. Were you trained to do this in a architecture school?

No, absolutely not. But it’s a pleasure because I think one vulnerability of the architectural practice is not perhaps being involved in the populace in a general way. And I think one real pleasure for me is being involved with a community, and the complete community. One pleasure also is being able to do a number of different types of facilities that benefit many different people, from the access center for the OPCC which was part of the Big Blue Bus project, and getting to know all of the work that those people are doing which is so fabulous; and fire stations and public libraries — we’ve just finished the Pico Branch Library in Virginia Avenue Park. We even have a cemetery and we’ve done work out there.

So the breadth of exposure to different building types but also the people it benefits, and the opinions of people who have strong feelings about what constitutes a good city, a good building. I think this all enriches you. I think it adds dimension to the way you perceive architecture.

Annenberg Beach House, adaptively remodeled and expanded by Frederick Fisher Architects.
Annenberg Beach House, adaptively remodeled and expanded by Frederick Fisher Architects.

DnA: Is your job one that has to go to people who are by temperament quite calm? The responses from the public can be quite upsetting.

MM. I think a calm temperament is definitely useful. Certainly in construction, that stable calm temperament is useful in many ways because things happen in the course of a project and construction as well and it’s good to be able to see things as an opportunity as opposed to a problem and enjoy working through things. Similarly, working with people, it’s all the different personality types just make the world more interesting. But definitely having a calm temperament helps.

DnA: You mentioned earlier that you used to ride your bike to UCLA, and this was back at the time when it was Reyner Banham’s LA, it was car city. Were you the only cyclist on the street?

MM: Well that was aided by the fact that there was very little parking at UCLA for the number of students that were there, but once I started riding my bike, yes, you know, you had to pick your streets because, well I think it still is somewhat scary in a lot of places but it’s such a delight because your city moves by you at a different pace, you notice things you don’t notice in a car. You feel the breeze, you feel weather in a way you don’t when you’re inside a car. You actually talk to people when you stop at a stop sign and, I used to quite a lot, I don’t do it as much now, but that may change again.

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Miriam Mulder and colleagues on sites, center; left, Julie Silliman; right, Karen Ginsburg.