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The USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles by Belzberg Architects Shines Light on the Darkest Events in Modern History

PROJECT NAME USC Shoah Foundation
LOCATION Los Angeles
FIRM Belzberg Architects
SQ. FT. 10,000 SQF

In 1994, a year after the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, the director founded a nonprofit organization to videotape and preserve the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew). Initially, its home was a series of trailers on a Universal Studios Hollywood backlot. A dozen years later, the organization relocated to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where, renamed the USC Shoah Foundation–The Institute for Visual History and Education, it occupied cramped offices on the ground floor of the Leavey Library.

In Los Angeles, visitors interact with touch screens in the lobby of Belzberg Architects’s USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving survivor testimony of the Holocaust and other modern genocides. Photography by Bruce Damonte.
 
The visitors lounge has seating upholstered with custom fabrics printed with vivid patterns derived from traditional artifacts from Rwanda and Guatemala. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

Designing and constructing the new headquarters was a 3 1/2-year, multifaceted project, but one that was full of resonance and personal meaning for Belzberg Architects. While the firm had already shown poetic sensitivity in its 2010 design of the mostly subterranean Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, founding partner and Interior Design Hall of Fame member Hagy Belzberg can also recall hearing stories of his own father’s escape from Poland and the Nazis.

Allied Maker’s pendant fixture illuminates a table and chairs by Minimal in the distinguished guests conference room. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

The foundation’s previous chopped-up quarters had fostered tribal work habits among the permanent staff, which now numbers 82. “We aimed for an open, hyper-functional plan,” Belzberg begins. “There would be a level of scales: from neighborhoods and clusters to the larger whole,” lead architect Lindsey Sherman Contento adds, outlining the collaborative, flexible environment they envisaged, which would include opportunities of respite from the frequently harrowing work.

Nicola Anthony’s stainless-steel sculpture in a skylit area off the lobby incorporates the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

This dual essence—remembering hatred in order to overcome it, an endeavor at once painful and healing—is palpable right out of the elevator into the central lobby, which functions as both reception and an exhibition space. “It’s intentionally warm and dark,” Belzberg notes of this public zone, an environment designed to generate a sense of safety while providing museum-quality viewing conditions. Subdued LED light filters through perforated powder-coated-aluminum ceiling panels. Opposite the elevator bank, a wall sheathed in seven floor-to-ceiling touch screens offers a panorama of interactive content. Visitors can further explore foundation programs at freestanding digital kiosks—individual touch screens set in totemlike panels of backlit perforated aluminum framed in dark walnut—that fill the room. “It’s like walking through a forest,” Belzberg says.

In the office area, bays of bench-style workstations flank a broad pathway of carpet tiles and engineered-oak flooring. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

The tenebrous space doesn’t feel claustrophobic, however, because a broad portal at one end opens onto a semicircular skylit area that commands views of the campus and cityscape beyond. Suspended beneath the skylight, Nicola Anthony’s stainless-steel text sculpture incorporates the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Passageways on the left and right lead to private wings.

Custom benches with upholstery patterns inspired by traditional Chinese and Armenian designs furnish “think tank” booths. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

The larger, predominantly open-plan wing houses most of the full-time staff. A broad blond pathway of engineered-oak flooring and nylon-carpet tiles cuts a diagonal swath through the light and airy work space. Right up front, a casual visitors lounge hugs the wall of windows so that its colorful ottomans and cushy lounge chairs sit in the abundant sunshine. Facing them across the central aisle is an open kitchen that, for film screenings and other events, conjoins with adjacent classroom and conference spaces via sliding glass panels. 

Panels on the lobby’s interactive kiosks are perforated bronze-anodized aluminum. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

As the pathway proceeds deeper into the office area proper, it is flanked by open bays of workstations that provide bench seating, sit-stand desks, and other individual or group work options. Every staff member has a designated place, but each “neighborhood” includes a central table that encourages collaboration. Sculptural built-in banquettes, finished in gleaming white paint, line one section of the path, which culminates in what Belzberg calls the “think tank”—a quiet space divisible by pocket doors into two separate niches.

Molded MDF with bronze insets forms custom banquettes and standing-work desks. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

The smaller wing accommodates distinguished guests and researchers needing the privacy of enclosed rooms. It also has facilities for recording and editing survivor testimonies—the most compelling example of which can be viewed in the distinguished guests lounge: Here, Pinchas Gutter, a Polish survivor born in 1932, appears as a life-size interactive-screen image to tell his story and answer viewers’ questions with the help of AI.

Sliding glass panels open the kitchen and adjacent classroom space for large events. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

The wing is notable for its tranquil, light-filled atmosphere. “Early on, we learned that trauma victims can be sensitive to certain triggers,” interior design lead Jennifer Wu explains, which determined the calm, neutral palette with particularly thoughtful textile and wall-covering choices. “We called for artwork and artifacts from affected countries and used them as inspiration for digitally printed patterns.” Examples appear on lounge seating, pedestal cushions, and phone-booth walls.

In the distinguished guests lounge, custom acoustic panels, installed in a custom pattern, span the wall and ceiling around an interactive display of ?a Holocaust survivor. Photography by Bruce Damonte.

 

Despite the overwhelmingly painful histories with which the foundation must deal, its aura remains positive and hopeful. “We were able to avoid genocide tropes,” Belzberg says. “There is no manipulated emotional response.” With perseverance, study and education will preserve the past and help prevent its recurrence.

Project Team: Cory Taylor; Ashley Coon; Adrian Cortez; Barry Gartin; Aaron Leshtz; Corie Saxman; J. Joshua Hanley; Alexis Roohani; Susan Nwankpa Gillespie; Katelyn Miersma; Melissa Yip: Belzberg Architects. Egg Office: Custom Signage. Maude Group: Exhibition Consultant. Mad Systems: Audiovisual Consultant. Newson Brown Acoustics: Acoustics Consultant. Burohappold Engineering: Lighting Consultant, Structural Engineer, MEP. USC Capital Construction Development: Project Management. Clune Construction Company: General Contractor

Product Sources: From Top: Roche Bobois: Ottoman (Lounge). Pedrali: Lounge Chair. CB2: Side Table. Bernhardt Design: Sofa. Maharam: Sofa Fabric (Lounge), Curtain Panels (Conference Room). Oritz Custom Upholstery: Stools (Lounges). Coalesse: Table, Chairs (Conference Room). Designtex: Chair Fabric. Allied Maker: Pendant Fixture. Haworth: Workstations, Storage Units (Office Area), Tables (Booths). Teknion: Task Chairs (Office Area). Spectrum Oak: Custom Banquettes. Martin Brattrud: Custom Benches (Booths, Lounge). Resident: Pendant Fixtures (Booths). Guilford of Maine; Valley Forge Fabrics: Wall Covering. West Elm Contract: Barstools (Kitchen). ICF Group: Tables. Fornasarig: Chairs. Eureka Lighting: Pendant Fixtures. Seeley Brothers: Custom Cabinetry. Caesarstone: Countertops. Schoolhouse Electric: Cabinet Pulls. De La Espada: Side Table (Lounge). Lindstrom Rugs: Rug. Throughout: Koster Construction: Custom Metal Paneling. Opuzen: Custom Fabric. Arktura: Custom Ceiling, Wall Paneling. Stile: Wood Flooring. Tandus Centiva: Carpet Tile. Through Vista Paint: Paint. 

> See more from the May 2019 issue of Interior Design

Continue reading The USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles by Belzberg Architects Shines Light on the Darkest Events in Modern History

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