I have an extensive series on how the new Long Beach Civic Center came to be. For Part I, which explored the two initial RFP proposals and the history of the civic center rebuild, click here. For Part II, which explored the option of possibly keeping the current civic center intact, click here. For Part III, which explores the City’s developer/design choice, click here. For full renderings of the project, click here.
Photos by Brian Addison
On immediate reaction, the new Long Beach Civic Center being constructed in DTLB comes off, at best, as compulsive.
The current Civic Center—a late-modern/brutalist structure that was built by a dream team that included mid-mod master Edward Killingsworth and prolific Long Beach architect Don Gibbs while eventually being inducted into UCLA’s list of architectural landmarks—is one of many civic architectural wonders that simultaneously garners vast misrepresentation and worthy repugnance.
Built in 1978, many are rightfully concerned as to why, in an all-too-Long Beach way, we are tearing it down only to rebuild a new one, stoking fears that this new, nearly $520M Civic Center will meet the same fate forty years later, questioning why we can’t preserve the structure, why we spent so much time and money and, and, and…
And they’re right in a sense.
However, here’s the main issue with that immediate reaction: it largely ignores that the current Civic Center isn’t civic-feeling at all.
City Hall would make for a gorgeous hotel—seriously: strip the windows of their dark tint, turn the council chambers into an underground pool and you would have one of the most unique hospitality joints on the West Coast.
It, however, makes for a nightmarish civic building.
The space is absolutely desolate minus the handful of homeless men and women who gather there despite the removal and fencing off of Lincoln Park. The library is continually faced with flood and leaking issues since Gibbs created a now-defunct rooftop garden on a flat space with no drainage system. Concrete pillars create vicious wind tunnels. Sunlight—metaphorically and often literally—rarely reaches the space.
This is an important aspect of architecture; not just the purpose of a structure but the feeling. Surely, ego comes into any architectural design—one could argue that Gibbs missed the Civic Feeling mark by creating a phallic, concrete structure—but where a building is placed and for what purpose combine to create the feeling of a building; the way people respond to it.
And the blunt reality is that, while I find the structure to be beautiful, most do not and, far more importantly, they don’t wish to engage with it. They do not wish to engage with a building that is meant to encourage civic participation. That, no matter how you dice it, is a huge problem.
The last mayoral election in 2014 had a dismal voter turnout, not even inching past 21%. The decade’s average for every election in Long Beach has been just that: 20%. Four-fifths of those that can vote don’t vote—and that, again, is a huge problem.
Which is why former Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, the last time I spoke to her before parting ways with serving Long Beach as an elected official, is so right in calling the civic center the public’s living room.”
Lowenthal could be easily deemed as the Champion of the New Civic Center and, arguably amongst many highlights, the largest achievement in her 10-year tenure as Councilmember for the 2nd District.
At the beginning of this tenure, Lowenthal faced a debilitating belief that ran rampant on on the 14th Floor of City Hall: “Long Beach just isn’t ready.”
Long Beach isn’t ready for larger business to move in. Long Beach isn’t ready for a more progressive port. Long Beach isn’t ready for more streets that cater to people over cars. Long Beach isn’t ready to ban plastic bags.
Long Beach isn’t ready.
Lowenthal found this ideology not only inefficient but outright wasteful, leading to City-led projects that lacked sustainability and failed to cater to the residents who depended on them. It resulted in lackluster projects that were destined to be demolished—rather than stellar projects that can stand the test of time—all in the name of placation because “Long Beach wasn’t ready.”
“Sometimes you have to get really angry and irate to find out the things that really move you and what you are destined to do,” Lowenthal said. “Had that not have happened, I would have taken a pass.”
Had she have taken that pass, it would be largely suspect that the city’s largest project in decades—building an entirely new Civic Center—would not be happening.
“It’s the public’s living room,” Lowenthal said. “It takes me back to the quad in front of my church and school in India. What I remember about that quad was that it was a theatrical space—that function was provided by the church. Because in a dense space like Madras, you don’t have space like that—so where else are people going to congregate? Rich, not-so-rich, the homeless… They sat together and watched theatre together. That’s what the public living room is.”
Commonality and a sharing of the same experience defines a civic space. And for Lowenthal, these key aspects, paired with indelible memories where she didn’t feel the need to distinguish herself from, say, a child who lived on the street, spoke volumes in her advocacy with altering our own Civic Center.
Even more, providing spaces and structures in Long Beach that last—the places like Bixby Park, the Lafayette building, the Walker and Kress buildings…—is a part of our history and culture. In this sense, defenders of the current structure stand tall.
However, planning—particularly within the public sphere—is an emotional experience as much as it is an analytical one. Here’s how Lowenthal puts it:
“If you sit a planner or an architect down and get them comfortable, all these things don’t come together because they look good on paper,” Lowenthal. “They come together because someone’s emotions went into it and they thought through it… I am in in no place to make someone’s art unimportant and if I can make sure that happens, I will. The issue with something as important as the Public’s Living Room is that, unfortunately, those who tackled it did so at the wrong time and place… For the better part of the past ten years, I’ve driven in, gone to City Hall, and driven out—the only time I, a councilmember, stays is if we have an event. And that’s weird.”
It is weird. Perhaps even stranger are the current and formerly homeless who took up residency at the Civic Center not to shame us with their presence or call us into action but because they could easily hide; no one ever went there unless they had to.
It was the precise opposite of a living room for the public. It was a hiding space.
And if we are to sit here, expecting our society to be more informed, more engaged, more careful with this tedious thing we call democracy, it certainly won’t happen in a space that encourages the opposite.
Is this going to magically create more diligent voters? Not entirely but it is a damn good start.