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30-Year Construction Draws to a Close for Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles

By Carren Jao
October 28, 2013
Photo © Timothy Hursley
Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion

The Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish educational institution in Los Angeles, has completed the fourth and final phase of its campus with the addition of Herscher Hall and Guerin Pavilion. The additions mark the completion of a 30-year masterplan conceived by architect Moshe Safdie. His new buildings comprise an 80,000-square-foot complex with classrooms, meeting rooms, and a grand hall that fits up to 1,200 people, all at the cost of $99 million raised from families and foundations.

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“It does not feel like 30 years,” said Safdie in a recent interview in one of the center’s many patios, recalling his first building for the campus, completed in 1996. “In some ways it feels like it was almost yesterday.” Once the site of a garbage dump, Skirball is now a 15-acre campus bearing Safdie’s signature use of powerful geometric forms, and containing a museum, performing arts center, libraries, and a café. The concrete buildings have a muted palette—bands of grey concrete alternate with those of pink Tadoussac granite—and glittering, stainless steel roofs.

Built in four phases as needs and funds arose, Skirball is a series of structures linked with pavilions, courtyards, and gardens. It is a plan that grew out of site constraints presented by the mountainside terrain. “It was difficult to believe you could build on [it],” said Safdie. Some areas were prone to mudslides, another section was a fire hazard. “By the time we got through [the reports], we couldn’t build very much.”

Safdie turned setbacks into opportunities, designing a wide-mouthed, U-shaped campus that hems in the Santa Monica Mountains. Its orientation toward the mountains muffles the roar of the always-busy 405 freeway, while positioning the line of sight toward the soothing landscape. Skirball’s amphitheater doubles as a retaining wall to prevent mudslides. (Mountain stabilization in succeeding years obviated this function.)

Beauty and functionality go hand in hand in Safdie’s work, which visitors can experience by walking through Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, an exhibition one view now at the Skirball. Making its U.S. debut, the show chronicles almost five decades of Safdie’s work across the globe. More than 30 models—and the Skirball itself—impart Safdie’s fearlessness when it comes to integrating landscape and built form. The exhibition will travel next summer to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which the architect recently designed.

With a portfolio as diverse as Safdie’s, it is no wonder the architect’s view of good architecture is wide-ranging. “Architecture is as varied as our life is,” said Safdie. “The greatest buildings are ones that work very well and at the same time do to our sprits what they need to do.” Judging from Skirball’s audience of more than 600,000 annually, it’s clear this one-time dump has become a haven.

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