Restoring the Balance

Restoring the Balance

To understand the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project it helps to keep in mind some images that embody the complexity of a proposal in one of California’s most delicate and contested environments. These include bulldozers idling on white sand, white-throated swifts gliding overhead, reeds, protestors, news vans, celebrity activists, biologists in hats walking through mud, surfers running across Pacific Coast Highway in wetsuits, steelhead trout, silt, stagnant water, and lastly, eggs. The importance of the egg cannot be underestimated here. In fact, the egg is perhaps the perfect symbol for the lagoon.


Someone who understands all of these elements is Clark Stevens, the lead architect on what just might be one of the most ecologically-sensitive and politically-contentious projects in the state, if not the country. Stevens has been involved with the restoration project since its inception more than 10 years ago and has seen all of these things and more leading up to the commencement of the work that began with those idling bulldozers moving tentatively forward on June 1.

The goal of the project is to restore the natural balance of the lagoon by returning it to its original shape and to enhance the way visitors experience it. To hear Stevens talk about it one might think he is an environmental scientist, biologist, ornithologist, and hydrologist. As the architect he has had to wear all of these hats at one time or another. He is the one who, through design, has harnessed all of these disciplines to create a vision of what Malibu Lagoon can become. Architecture is playing a leading role in determining its future.

For the last 20 years many scientists and environmental groups, such as Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, have regarded the lagoon as a threatened ecosystem. Though it looked healthy, it has quietly morphed into a degraded condition. Excess fill from the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway, a local baseball diamond, and other construction projects has been dumped into the lagoon over the past decades.

All this extra earth eventually changed the shape of the channel, disrupting the natural flows between creek and ocean. Over time this silting action severely altered the lagoon’s delicate chemistry. The stagnation of water and increased acidity in turn threatened the diversity of life at all levels of the ecosystem, from the mud-flats to the sky above. It is thought that more than 295 species of birds call the lagoon home.

The lagoon is one of the last remaining in California—most have been irreversibly altered by development. Richard Ambrose, professor of Environmental Health Science at UCLA, in a recent interview on LA radio station KPCC, described how it is actually considered an “impaired waterway” by many in the scientific community.

Despite this, the effort to restore the lagoon has been challenged by a vociferous, celebrity-backed opposition that until recently kept the project in litigation. Though there is no scientific evidence to support this theory, those who have opposed the project assert that it will kill the lagoon—and perhaps more important to local surfers, the great waves at Surfrider Beach, which the estuary flows into. For the first part of this summer small groups of protestors could be seen along Pacific Coast Highway (ironically the same road that was the source of much of the debris that went into the lagoon) holding cardboard signs.


Stevens, who spent his boyhood exploring the woods of Northern Michigan, cares a lot about the lagoon. He credits his outdoor adventures and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America as the original motivations for working with nature in such an engaged way. His ideas were clarified further through working with Michael Rotondi. “When I was principal/partner at RoTo Architecture in the mid-90s I first saw the potential to link design with the conservation of ecologically and culturally critical landscapes,” Stevens recalled.

The lagoon is where Malibu Creek, the sea, and the coastal landscape all interact to support a rich array of wildlife and flora. Their habitat will be restored through recontouring the channel and returning it to its original shape. This is the civil engineering part of the project, or phase one, and the foundation upon which the architecture, phase two, will be built.

The architecture on the site consists of an interpretive pathway that runs along and even down into part of the lagoon. When it is complete there will be tidal viewing platforms, outdoor classrooms, and site-specific installations, all designed to communicate the story of the lagoon. The pathway and its stations all seem to emerge from the deepest parts of the natural habitat and engage the seasonal water cycle of the estuary.


This architectural intervention restores how humans relate to the land, water, and sky along this part of the coast. As Stevens explained, “This pathway is unique because it draws people down into the different levels of the environment to experience it up-close rather than hovering above.” Part of the restoration involved removing the old wooden bridge that kept visitors elevated above the lagoon.

As the design team learned about the complex science of the lagoon they found inspiration to do different things with the pathway. The architects, in collaboration with biologists and environmental scientists working with California State Parks, were able to achieve a balance between use and preservation. From Stevens’ perspective, access is critical. “When people have access they can learn about the lagoon and it will become more important to them. They will pass that on to others,” he adds. But they learned that the design does not need to penetrate very far into the habitat in order for it to be effective as a teaching tool.

When forming the design team, Stevens called in long-time collaborators Bo Sundius and Hisako Ichiki, the husband-and-wife team behind multidisciplinary firm Bunch Design, who both worked with Stevens at RoTo. “What immediately drew me into the project was its narrative potential,” said Sundius. “I’m interested in the story the architecture can tell and how people progress through that as a sequence of experiences.” This narrative, instructive quality is something he helped develop into an overall story of the lagoon. This is the result of a close reading of the environment, of listening. The architecture then materializes as an extension, delicately inserted into the wild as gestures that wave people in, whereupon they are positioned to make discoveries along the path.

Rather than just employing signage with explanatory text and way-finding devices, the architecture reacts to and engages natural processes. One section of the interpretive path employs a ramp that connects two viewing areas, the Winter Platform and the Summer Amphitheater. In winter, when the estuary is open to the tides, this ramp provides access to the Winter Platform. In summer, when the creek flow diminishes and a natural sand berm forms at the mouth of the estuary, the water level gradually rises up the winter platform access ramp—symbolically called the Summer Clock—while the Winter Platform becomes submerged.


Because its incline is so gradual, users of the lagoon will be able to mark the daily progression. Water will advance up the ramp nearly four feet, making a normally invisible process measurable.

Another element, the Bird Blind, is designed to become a topiary, coaxing willows from the wetland edge to fill in its woven-steel structure, and thus sheltering an outdoor teaching and viewing area.  Visitors will be able to see through openings in the willows without being seen by the birds of the lagoon.

And this is where the eggs re-enter the picture. “During the design process, at some point, there was this sense of a scale shift,” said Ichiki. She goes on to describe how she envisioned people by this canopy being like birds in a nest. Then she imagined people sitting on eggs, not just random eggs, but the eggs specific to the species found in the lagoon. This is how the egg seating came to be. They will be made out of pigmented concrete and matched to real eggs found in the habitat.

“I tend to view architecture as part of the environment, like a total work of art,” said Ichiki.

Now handling the construction administration of the project, Ichiki is on site once a week and responding to requests for information daily. “As you might imagine, the meetings get very interesting when you have contractors, scientists, naturalists, and architects in the same room,” she said, emphasizing the amount of care going into each specific move as the restoration advances. “Of course there is a schedule, but sometimes eggs and other wildlife need to be moved to another part of their habitat.”

This winter, when the project is completed, the pathways will open, the tides will advance and recede over the ramp, and Malibu Lagoon will start to once again tell its own story.