Supersized and Sustainable

Supersized and Sustainable

To help bolster the region’s fragile water supply, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California completed three new dams in 2000 in Hemet, California, creating what is now called Diamond Valley Lake.To call the project gargantuan is an understatement: It is, in fact, the largest earthworks project in the history of the United States, requiring 40 million cubic yards of foundation excavation and 110 million cubic yards of embankment construction. The lake now holds 260 billion gallons of water.

The project’s monumentality wasn’t lost on Silver Lake architect Michael Lehrer, who, with Burbank architect Mark Gangi, was charged with creating two new museums near the foot of the new lake, the Center for Water Education and the Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology. “We tried to honor the infrastructure,” said Lehrer, describing the results as “primal, rudimentary, abstract, and simple.”

The architects designed a complex that resembles the area’s massive water structures, calling to mind a pumping station, a filtration center, or even the dam itself. At more than 60,000 square feet, the complex carries the architectural sophistication one might expect from new art museums.

The $36 million project was funded by a combination of state, federal, and private money, and the Water District donated 23 acres of land. The Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology, which opened in November 2006, houses a significant number of fossils and prehistoric artifacts discovered while digging the dam’s foundations. Because of fundraising difficulties, construction was suspended on the Center for Water Education, though it is mostly complete. Lehrer hopes the museum, which is devoted to raising awareness of water-related issues, will be finished in another three to six months.

Arranged in a rectangular grid plan, the structures comprise a series of multi-story patterned steel boxes separated by slightly shorter glass curtain walls. They are divided by a large courtyard, which frames views of the nearby mountains. The courtyard’s steel loggia are enclosed with a series of long, horizontally perforated metal screens. The screens filter the area’s bright desert light, producing an effect that resembles shimmering water, while also generating dramatic linear shadows that move throughout the day.

The steel beems and metal screens of the loggia create dramatic shadows at night.

The buildings’ roofs are completely covered with dark photovoltaic tiles, placed over clear glass panels. The energy they provide canpotentially reduce energy costs up to 50 percent over conventional construction. Lehrer said that despite initial hesitation, the museums eventually embraced sustainable building techniques, a natural choice given their ecological missions. Aside from the photovoltaic panels, green elements—which Lehrer said may garner the buildings a LEED Platinum certification— include radiant heating and cooling, digitally controlled electric systems, waterless urinals, insulated glass, insulated slab, native landscaping, and environmentally friendly paints and wallcoverings, to name a few.

Inside, the Western Center entry is a double-height public space with exhibitions introducing visitors to the region, its history, and its geology. A windowless black-box space features a theater (with boulders for seats), displays of prehistoric remains, and re-creations of wooly mammoth skeletons. Michigan-based Design Craftsmen created the exhibition design.

Other facilities, located behind the museum areas, include 10,000 square feet of storage, learning labs, a café, and administrative offices. Landscaping, which circles behind the buildings, was undertaken by Lehrer’s wife, well-known designer Mia Lehrer. The grounds nestle around the museum with braided streams, native trees, and an undulating landscape of colored crushed granite and desert fauna.

While the complex is huge, it doesn’t feel imposing. Capturing its surroundings’ drama and scale, it is something completely new that still feels like it is in the right place.