New Fellows Visit Future Site of Scholars’ Campus in Santa Monica Mountains

Christopher Eldred

2021-2022 cohort discusses and reflects on the Institute’s place in the natural world with renowned landscape architect Mia Lehrer

On September 2, the Berggruen Institute’s new cohort of 21 Fellows gathered at Monteverdi, the site of the Institute’s future headquarters and Scholars’ Campus in the Santa Monica Mountains. There, under a gray sky and framed by stunning views of the Los Angeles basin, the Monteverdi leadership team gave the Fellows a tour of the site and an overview of the project’s intellectual, architectural, and environmental vision.

“Building our campus here is an opportunity to reflect deeply on humanity’s relationship with the natural world,” said renowned landscape architect and design and environmental team member Mia Lehrer, who recently was awarded the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture. “This space will help Fellows like you think across disciplines to uncover new realities.”

Lehrer and project lead Chris Kiley introduced the campus’ layout, illustrating how its design would both facilitate the Fellows’ work and exemplify the Institute’s mission. Pathways, gardens, and courtyards will enable the spontaneous, interdisciplinary collaboration that is crucial for the development of new ideas. And set within a restored, flourishing Mediterranean landscape, with preserved open space and accessible hiking trails, it will celebrate harmony among planetary systems–human, natural, and otherwise.

“More than anything else, the Berggruen Fellowship is about bringing together diverse minds to imagine new ways to think about the future,” said Institute Vice President of Programs Nils Gilman. “When opened, this campus will be an instantiation of that mission.”

Lehrer discussed in detail how the campus will be designed to support and enhance the function of the Mediterranean biome to enable greater flourishing, from plants and animals to the community of Los Angeles. She began by introducing her academic background in the field of systems thinking, a holistic form of analysis that seeks to explore and calculate how complex systems’ constituent parts interrelate over long periods of time, on which she has relied for this and other projects over the course of her career.

Noting that a portion of the site sits atop a former landfill, Lehrer described how the campus would integrate greater than current levels of native plant material within strategic landscape design. This approach will enrich biodiversity, encourage habitat, and promote resilience to fire and earthquakes. By restoring and managing the natural landscape with intention and care, the campus can serve as a model for innovative urban design and ecology.

“A lot of the vegetation native to these mountains has been lost over preceding generations,” said Lehrer. “What, how, and where you plant is all tremendously important for the overall health of the environment, and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to do that kind of work in these mountains.”

Lehrer also described how gardens, public spaces, and improved access to hiking trails would help share this thriving natural environment with the Southern California community. These features can enable greater knowledge and reverence for nature in a part of the world better known for its pavement than its ecosystems. By encouraging awareness of human embeddedness within natural systems, the campus helps further the Institute’s core programmatic goals. And through partnerships with local community organizations, Lehrer noted, this project can celebrate natural systems for future generations.

“Many people in Los Angeles don’t have easy access to nature,” she said. “By restoring this landscape, we can help people truly understand the part of the world they live in.”

Throughout the discussion, Fellows asked highly engaged questions with relevance to their respective fields of study. One example was Future of Capitalism Fellow Mark Paul’s detailed inquiry about the campus’ energy systems and the potential for the project to run on net-zero standards.

The Fellows’ visit concluded with a brief walking tour. After a year-plus of the pandemic, the Institute was excited to have the Fellows gather at the site of the Fellowship’s future home, where, in view of a city that has inspired the world’s imagination, they might imagine new futures for the planet and humankind’s place within it.

“We’re working to design and build a landscape that inspires human connection, cultural expression, and reverence for nature,” said Lehrer. “When our social and environmental systems are undergoing stressful transformations, this kind of work can nurture the important conversations we need to create a sustainable and resilient future for all.”