Belzberg Architects designs multi-generational Jewish community facility with ocean views in Los Angeles

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Amid the dive bars, fast food joints and tattoo stalls that populate a funky stretch of Venice’s famous boardwalk stands a luminescent gem: BAR Center at the Beach, a community establishment that’s part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Its stark white, three-dimensional facade, the work of Belzberg Architects, shines day and night like a sculptural installation amid towering palm trees against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Technically, the project is a renovation, as the building first saw the light of day in 1927. But in the extremely talented hands of BA, particularly founding partner and Interior Design Hall of Famer Hagy Belzberg and directors Lindsey Sherman Contento, Barry Gartin and Kristofer Leese, it’s basically a new build.

First built as a dance hall, the structure was expanded in the 1950s with a second floor for accommodation, which folklore says was used as a brothel. In 1964, the pendulum swung the other way with the building’s transition to the Israel Levin Senior Center, a haven for the area’s aging population, especially its many Jews. In 1994, the Northridge earthquake severely damaged the second floor, necessitating its removal. This is what ultimately brought the project to Belzberg and his team in 2013, leading to its recent completion this summer. “Part of the reason it took so long is that it was donor funded,” Belzberg picks up the narrative, referencing contributors Bennett and Allison Rosenthal, the center’s namesakes. There were also the complexities resulting from the various “additions that created a Frankenstein’s monster of a building”, recalls Gartin.

At the BAR Center at the Beach, a Jewish community facility that occupies a 1927 Los Angeles building renovated and expanded by Belzberg Architects, dimensional panels of powder-coated aluminum make up abstractions of the Star of David.

But any visitor who passes inside the airy and luminous volume will never know it. “It’s a gem,” says Sherman Contento of the center, which, among other activities, offers yoga classes. “It’s a small building programmed to do a lot,” continues Belzberg. The community is the main mission. The BAR is designed as a multi-generational institution bringing together old and young through events and activities, both spiritual and physical. Its reach is expected to extend beyond Venice to the Los Angeles Jewish community as a whole. In keeping with the history of the neighborhood, however, the doors are open to everyone, regardless of religion. “50 years ago, Venice was a rich cultural mosaic and a center of diversity while the rest of Los Angeles was ugly segregated,” continues Belzberg, whose firm also designed an addition to the LA Holocaust Museum and the USC Shoah Foundation.

While maintaining the same mandatory footprint, BA rebuilt the center’s second floor and added another level, bringing the now three-story structure to 7,000 square feet. Rearranging the spatial configurations, the reception, a spacious community hall and a commercial kitchen have been assigned to the ground floor. Classrooms, flexible spaces and a library are on two; they open to a new rooftop terrace that the company built above the community hall and outfitted with an angular trellis reminiscent of the chuppah to provide shade from the SoCal sun. The upper level is a three-bedroom apartment that offers free housing to recent college graduates in exchange for participating in on-site activities between older and younger Jews — a first for community centers within the federation.

Sandwich laminate creates a pattern in the glazing
The sandwich laminate creates a pattern in the glazing.

Interior finishes are durable while evoking a beach vibe. BA has newly wrapped the brick envelope with a white fiber-reinforced concrete mesh, except for the windrows on all elevations, which are now glazed. The flooring is made up of pale wood-look vinyl planks or sand-colored porcelain tiles. An oak slatted screen forms an entry canopy around the reception desk, its surface is a triangular pattern of laminates in graphic white, gray and metallic. In the adjacent community hall, the slatted wood transforms into an acoustic ceiling system made up of several triangles. The roof truss is another composition of triangles. Obviously, the form is an integral part of the project. Extrapolated from the Star of David, it is the firm’s subtle reference to Judaism. Durability was also a factor. “Taking advantage of its coastal proximity,” Belzberg notes, BA installed operable windows for natural ventilation as well as energy-efficient appliances and fixtures.

Yet the undisputed star of BAR is its façade, which bravely circumvents the Venetian norm. “Generally, the projects here are woven into the fabric. This is not the case,” Belzberg explains. “It’s meant to draw people in, not fade away.” Its dimensional look comes from steel-framed panels in white powder-coated aluminum. Using four software to design the pattern, the six types of panels are, again, triangular in shape and mounted on a hexagonal base. They join a patterned glass curtain wall via a sandwich laminate. The world being what it is today, the glass is ballistic, and the aluminum is treated with an anti-graffiti coating; in the event of vandalism, the panels can be removed and replaced. “We were asked a paradox: how to make it open and community-based, but secure,” comments Sherman Contento.

Combined, the elements form an abstract Star of David in varying scales, much like the pattern of the glazing. At night, everything is backlit by a color changing LED system. It’s not immediately identifiable, but, as Leese says, “If you look for it, you can see it.”

An oak acoustic system forms the 12-foot ceiling of the community hall.
An oak acoustic system forms the 12-foot ceiling of the community hall.
the community room functioning as a yoga room
With vinyl floor tiles, the community room can function as a yoga studio.
oak slats hide the reception area
Oak slats hide the reception counter, a personalized composition of laminates.
The exterior of the building.
Detail of the dimensional panels in thermo-lacquered aluminium.
stairs leading to deck
Beyond a series of four-panel folding and swinging doors, stairs lead up to the deck.
Custom perforated steel canopies provide shade over the new roof terrace.
Custom perforated steel canopies provide shade over the new roof terrace.
Steel-framed ballistic glass panels wrap around a corner of the building
Steel-framed ballistic glass panels wrap around one corner of the 7,000 square foot building.
the bridge with its truss above
Porcelain tiles cover the 1,500-square-foot rooftop terrace, furnished with Africa stools and chairs by Eugeni Quitllet and Chipman tables by Robert Chipman.
the top of the building with a man sitting on a chair
The top floor of the building is a three bedroom apartment which provides accommodation for recent university graduates working in the centre.
a look at the roof truss
Belzberg calls the roof truss “the fifth facade”.
Panels are backlit with color changing programmable LEDs.
Panels are backlit with color changing programmable LEDs.
the structure lit up at night
The three-story structure stands out on the Venice promenade.

GROUP PROJECT
belzberg architects: jennifer wu; Josh Hanley; jessica hong
rsm design: custom graphics
us engineering: structural engineer
novus design studio: mepe
kimley horn: civil engineer
pulp studios: glassware
of love: general contractor

front
lighten up: chairs (community room)
Steel case: the tables
concept: suspension
Wilsonart: office covering (reception)
vistosi: suspension
vibe: floor slab (terrace)
landscape forms: the tables
tk-studio: stools, chairs
blue dot: coffee table, deck chairs, sofa (apartment)
international origin: stools
pablo design: suspension

THROUGH
arktura: custom facade, custom windows
wow: facade slab
more ceilings: ceiling systems, entrance screen
son-tec: vinyl floor tile
architectural surfaces: porcelain tile
first-rate steel structures; jea bim structural steel details: custom roof truss
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