In the midst of the New Sculpturalism exhibition at MoMA and the Pacific Standard Time Modern Architecture programme, Tom Partridge spoke to Hagy Belzberg, designer of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, about what it’s like to practise in LA.
Tom Partridge: Why did you set up your practice in Los Angeles?
Hagy Belzberg: I grew up in Los Angeles and, like any person growing up in a big city, the small town never goes away. When I graduated from Harvard in 1991 a lot of my classmates were going to the East Coast, Europe and Asia, but for me going back home was natural because I really love Southern California and the culture that it provides. I was hired to design a house so I left Frank Gehry’s office after only a very short stint and started my own practice.
TP: Did architects like Gehry, Mayne and Moss have a big influence on you?
HB: It would be difficult for them not to, especially Morphosis. Although I grew up in LA, the freedom they had in manoeuvring through the building environment was intoxicating.
TP: What cultivates that freedom in LA?
HB: The culture here is embedded in many areas. Obviously there’s Hollywood and the act of filmmaking with which comes a fantasy, escapism and storytelling, but there’s also the aerospace industry that’s embedded here in Los Angeles. These industries along with the music and art scenes give you a culture of imagination that seeks to find and make taste.
TP: What role does the sprawling urban fabric of LA play?
HB: Compared with most European and East Coast cities it’s a young place, especially the suburbs where most people actually live. Places like Santa Monica, where we are based, are thought of today as LA proper, but these are very young cities with young architecture. As a result the land values exceed the improvement value very quickly and you have this natural occurrence where every 20-25 years the structure on a piece of land gets replaced. It’s unlike London, which is very historic and can’t be touched; it’s the difference between building in a museum and having a blank canvas to experiment on. The result is that you get a ripe environment for experimentation – good or bad.
‘The culture of LA is one of fantasy and escapism providing Balzberg Architects the opportunity to imagine and experiment in a way unique to the city’
TP: You’ve built a lot outside LA.
HB: We’ve built in Hawaii, Arizona, Washington and Canada, so we do have the opportunity to experiment outside but we’re not competing against local architects in other regions; we are lucky enough to be sought to try our hand at projects elsewhere.
TP: What role does teaching play in your practice?
HB: I’ve taught at three of the schools in the area: USC, UCLA and SCI-Arc. Architects who practise and teach weave in and out of different institutions and so everybody knows each other. It’s also a very supportive environment and to me it feels like a very small community. The discussions that are had inside the classroom extend to outside the classroom, so there’s this kind of continuity that happens with the dialogue. That’s what keeps this large city feeling more like a town.
TP: What impact has the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust had?
HB: Anyone lucky enough to do a project like this is changed for the rest of their life so I’m very different as an architect and as a person than I was before we started the project. The survivors hugely influenced our decision-making in terms of design. It’s one thing to be driven by budget, programme and code, but it’s very different to be influenced by personal experience that you somehow need to evoke. That’s not only tough to do, but it influences you to the core. It has become a very personal project.
TP: What makes the design relevant to LA?
HB: There is obviously the element of the content, but also the strategy of maintaining open park space. There had been a monument on the site for decades, which is a long time in LA terms, and just after the war it was one of the geographical centres of refugees that came to LA. The city decided to make a small museum in that location and building in a public park gave us a responsibility to the greater city, so it’s an urban response as well as one to the survivors. We decided to lower the building into the ground, and the metaphor became the unearthing of these stories. At the same time we were able to set a precedent for other projects in LA of maintaining open park space.
TP: Are you still designing private houses?
HB: Our office is influenced hugely by our experimentation with homes because the clients seem to be a lot more willing than on some of the other projects. In the New Sculpturalism exhibition we had two projects, a museum and a corporate headquarters, but our homes are where we do some of our most radical experiments. We’re then able to transfer that information, more highly honed and skilled, into commercial and institutional work. So we need those residential projects to test our ideas.
TP: What’s on the drawing board?
HB: There’s the new museum for the City of Hope, which is to celebrate the milestones of this institution over the last hundred years, and we’re also finishing the Center for Global Affairs at Occidental College where we have experimented with the classroom arrangements and the ways in which students are able to engage, share information and have dialogue in a larger interactive environment.