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Meet the 2013 Curbed Young Guns: Carina Bien-Willner

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It's quite clear that Carina Bien-Willner, 33, isn't one to stay put. When she was six, she emigrated from Buenos Aires to Arizona with her parents, licensed architects in Argentina who opened a design/build furniture and cabinetry shop once settled in the States. One summer, while studying for her bachelor of architecture at the University of Arizona, she ventured to L.A. to work for Marmol-Radziner, a firm famed for its pre-fab (read: built off-site and transported) modern homes.

After graduating, she landed a job working for the L.A.-based architect Jennifer Siegal, another prefab pioneer whose official firm name, quite literally, is "Office of Mobile Design." Even her undergraduate thesis was a variant of the topic. "My thesis was on nomadic architecture," Bien-Willner says. "My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so I traced their movements as nomads during the Holocaust and after the Holocaust for a number of years. I did a lot of diagramming of their journey, and through that journey I asked a lot of questions to determine what their homes—even if home was an 8'-by-8'-by-8'-deep hole in the middle of the forest that was camouflaged so that people couldn't find them—were like during those years."

After her stint with Siegal, Bien-Willner was hired by the Santa Monica firm Belzberg Architects, where she spent the better part of six years as project manager for the first ground-up, permanent location for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. "I was 25, and the newest employee at Belzberg," she recalls. "I couldn't believe it. Obviously I had a very personal relationship with the Holocaust, but I think that all architects, young and old, dream of working on a museum because you get to be a part of a much larger conversation." One of a small team, Bien-Willner had her hands in all aspects of the project, from working on the design and being on-site once construction started to meeting with the museum foundation and city officials to get things approved.

Three years ago, just as the museum was wrapping up, Bien-Willner's work caught the eye of "two very special people," she says, who asked her to build their dream home. "This was the opportunity that I think every young architect wishes for," she says. "I know that was something I always wanted and didn't know if that kind of opportunity would present itself again. I really loved working at Belzberg Architects, and I think my experience was really invaluable because I got to learn so much and work on so many different scales of projects—everything from furniture design to high-end residential to commercial, institutional—so leaving was a really hard decision. But I really jumped at the opportunity to do so because that is really what makes careers."

Today, the Beverly Hills-based Bien-Willner Architects is in the construction phase of that project (?), called Greenbridge, with about a year left until it's done. An ultra-modern 21,000-square-foot home "utilizing almost every available green technology on the market," Bien-Willner says, the design incorporates a graywater system, a rainwater catchment system, solar panels, a souped-up HVAC system, and an abundance of other green materials. "It's really like a commercial-scale project but with complex and intimate residential details," she says. "So I think that the marriage of those two has been really challenging." Also in the works is a 5,000-square-foot home for a couple that's unafraid to take design risks ("we're looking at courtyards instead of dining spaces," Bien-Willner says), and an urban infill project near Pasadena that consists of a series of nine spec residences (?).

I read Curbed LA coverage from 2010 when the Holocaust musum first opened and, it linked to an article in the Jewish Journal right around the time of the opening. There is a quote that I want to read to you that you can give me your thoughts on: "Architects at their best aim to shape visitors' experience of a place and Holocaust museums often take this goal to an extremely specific level, often choreographing visitors' every move."
What is so interesting about this particular museum is that it's sited in a public park, so in order to enter you actually have to walk through the park. You're walking past families barbecuing, and you're walking past guys playing basketball and kids running around. There's the smell of hot dogs and the sight of kids giggling, and then you come to this ramp—this long, slow ramp. And as you start to ascend the ramp you start to lose sight of the families picnicking. It all just disappears and you are left with concrete and sky.

That is really meant to set up to get you mentally prepared for what you will be experiencing down below, this very heavy topic of the Holocaust—this story of persecution and, of course, heroism. Once you are in the museum this ramps serves as the central spine and as you circulate around the ramp, the story of the Holocaust unfolds chronologically. We used the light and the absence of light and the ceiling height and the change of grade as you're circulating around the ramp to help tell the story. When you're talking about concentration camps, you're in the back of the ramp where the ceiling height and the floor compress you; as you come back around to the front of the ramp, where the ceilings are high and light is coming into the ramp, we're talking about the heroes of those who helped save people in the Holocaust. Then to exit the museum you exit via a different path and that actually takes you back out to the park and back to life.

What's the line between aesthetics and the larger meaning of what you're doing? As the architect, are you wanting the visitors to notice how beautiful a space is or are you hoping they overlook that and go for the core of what the museum is truly about?
I agree with you, I think that's a really tough and challenging line to tread. It's a little bit of both. As an architect, you want your visitors to get the most out of the experience, whether it's art or artifacts, and you want the architecture to heighten the experience of whatever that art or artifact can provide. I don't think any architect strives to create a white box that doesn't really heighten your experience, so I think that being more creative and just being really thoughtful about the architecture and about the materials and about how the details come together. And really thinking about your experience through the space and the relationship between the space and the object.

Do you think all museums paying tribute to suffering or loss should all have a safe space where certain exhibitions—perhaps the most upsetting ones—are out of plain view? And relatedly, should there be any universal features, museum to museum?
That's a really interesting question. I guess I hadn't thought about it as a universal thing only because I think every project is so different. Even if it's a Holocaust museum in L.A. or a Holocaust museum in Munich, I think that the time and the place and the community all around it, and the even the personalities around it, have such an impact on the design that I think it's hard to say that there is any one universal truth to anything, really.

How does this particular building differ architecturally from other notable Holocaust museums?
There are so many Holocaust museums in the world, but as far as I know I don't think there's another one in a public park and I think that that has its own challenges. Certainly there were site challenges; it's private/institutional/public land and it also happens to be one of the largest catch basins in the city of L.A., so it's in a flood plane and the entire building is underground. In addition, we had the community. The Holocaust is a very sensitive topic, and people felt strongly about how and where and when it should be communicated and how it should be expressed. Also, in the city of L.A. there's not a whole lot of public space, so we were very sensitive to the fact that the community was not, at one point, totally thrilled about anything taking up their public space. And I think that the way we dealt with that was we put the building underground. The roof of the building is a green roof, and we provided a place in the corner of the park that was totally underutilized—it was a dark area of the park that was pretty sketchy. Through the design and the development of the museum we were able to give back to the park basically the entire roof, which has walking paths. It's maintained green space with new lighting.

Do people picnic up there? I'm trying to imagine what that sort of scene is like on a Saturday afternoon.
When we were designing this, I think we kind of were expecting that people might do that. We had to think about as far as security goes and things like that, but we were expecting that people would utilize the park.

It's also like, Hey, let's meet on the roof of the Holocaust museum. Something just doesn't sound very right about that.
I know, that's funny, that's definitely something. That's definitely a conversation we had in the office during the design. I think that we could have either decided that's inappropriate, but there's something that somewhat references what certain scenes were like during the Holocaust. During the Holocaust there were people being persecuted while their neighbors were out having picnics without necessarily knowing what was going on, so this is kind of an interesting mirroring of that.

You just mentioned some of the things you were debating when you were in the initial stages of the design for this project. What were some other challenges or topics of debate in those early discussions?
Actually I think material is a really good one. I think for this size of a project we had a pretty limited budget, and so when our bids came back we had the intentions of having a completely—well, not completely, but mostly—submerged building. We had thought of it as a concrete shell and that the concrete would be exposed on the interior and the concrete would be exposed on the exterior in some locations, and it didn't look like that was in the budget so we had to get really creative about how we would deal with that. And we decided to use what's called Shotcrete.

Were your grandparents alive during the process? Did they get to see this whole thing come to fruition?
My grandmother was still alive and she lived in Argentina, so she had come for a visit when we first started construction. She got to see it when we were starting construction and then for the next several months I taped videos and took pictures and sent them to her. She actually passed away about three months before it was completed.

Switching gears to your firm now: were you terrified when you embarked on Greenbridge? It was the first thing you did on your own.
I had some ideas and I was totally enthusiastic about it, but had I known when you start your own practice that it's not just about design and it's not just about having great clients—it's about starting a business and understanding accounting and understanding taxes and finding office space and hiring people and HR and all of these things you don't have to deal with when working with other people. I think it was probably a good thing I started when I did and didn't have didn't have necessarily all the information I needed to at the beginning. I think every day is a learning experience. I think the biggest mistake architects can make is to think that they know it all and that they don't need to ask questions.

Would you say these modern, minimalist projects define your overall aesthetic? Or has it really been all over the map with other commissions since that first one?
In general I'm working on modern projects and I think that that's what interests me, but I think some architects kind of hate talking about style because it's not really just about style. For me, it's about finding the right solution for the problem or challenge. I think the word "problem" has negative connotations, but for the challenges. I think style is not really something that we talk we talk about, but obviously we want to provide the most beautiful project that we can.

How do you like working on these smaller-scale projects compared to what you did the the Holocaust museum and other large-scale projects?
They're both really rewarding in very different ways. Through the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust I learned so much about what the role of the architect can really provide for a community—that the architect can be a guiding force—but that it's really about working as a team. The other thing I learned from the museum was the power of collaboration. It's not just that an architect and a client have an idea and then magically it appears. It's a lot of hard work and dedication and patience and strategy and working with the city and the mayor and the community and donors and the foundation and the construction crew, and all these pieces are equally important to making this a reality and think that that is so fulfilling. On residential projects, it's similar in that the most rewarding part is getting to know a family and their needs and what they want their everyday life to look like, and being able to provide a physical manifestation of that so that they can live their lives that can make them the best family they can be. The relationships, I think, in both situations were really what I think what was so gratifying.

What's next? What's your dream project, or where do you hope to be in five or 10 years?
Oh gosh, it's so funny you say "dream project," because I feel like when I was working on the museum, as grateful as I was to be working on it, I was so worried that this would be the peak of my career, that nothing would ever top it. And then all of the sudden I got the chance to work on the Greenbridge residence which was this monster project. I mean it's a 21,000-square-foot home. Of course as I was working on that I thought, OK, this has got to be it. I can't imagine ever getting another dream project. And then we got the Roxbury project (?), which is a dream project on its own because we love the clients and we love the new things we're going to try on that project. For now we're having a lot of fun and we love what we do and we're just trying to make a difference in our community and make a difference for our clients. I'm not good at saying no to new challenges and opportunities, so I think that if I'm patient and if I work really hard, then things will just kind of evolve naturally. You can't really force it, so in the meantime we're just going to keep doing what we do.

· All Young Guns 2013 coverage [Curbed National]
· Bien-Willner Architects [official site]