Our experiment with democracy has been fraught with both elation and sorrow. And during both, the only thing people had to cling to was this idea of “freedom”. Now, as we are faced with a post-9/11 society, it seems as though people are once again looking for something to cling to. In hopes of addressing that need, a new National Center for the Preservation of Democracy has been commissioned for L.A. To espouse the mission and form of the National Center, TPR was pleased to talk with Irene Hirano, President of the Japanese American National Museum, and Brenda Levin, Principal of Levin & Associates Architects.
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Irene, a little over a year ago it was announced that the U.S. government had appropriated $20 million to establish the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy headquartered here in Los Angeles. Give our readers a little background into the plan for that center.
Japanese American National Museum
The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy is a new institution that will be affiliated with the Japanese American National Museum. It will stand as a cultural and social crossroad where dialogue and discourse are encouraged on the subject of democracy and freedom of all Americans. It is dedicated to providing a forum for ongoing dialogue about the diverse experiences of our collective histories while examining those events-both past and contemporary-that continue to shape those experiences.
The National Center”s location in L.A. plays an integral part of the institution”s mandate. L.A. is an extremely diverse city that hosts a variety of forward-looking organizations. That frame of reference offers us the ability to represent the future of this Country and offer lessons to the rest of the nation accordingly. Because of those factors, this Center has a unique opportunity to attract and teach people from all over the world.
You mentioned that the National Center will be affiliated with the Japanese American National Museum, will the examination of our history be through the lens of the Japanese American experience?
The National Center will examine the American experience, of which the Japanese American experience is just one piece. However, because the Japanese American experience parallels many other ethnic groups” experiences, it will certainly be a primary focus.
Particularly now, as we watch the events of a post-9/11 society unfold, it is increasingly important to remember our history. The lessons of the past should serve as a lasting warning as we begin to see increased concern over the treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans. We must not allow a potential repeat of the discrimination the Japanese Americans faced during WWII.
As we look to the past, the Japanese American experience paints a picture of where democracy failed-the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II-and when it was at its best-the redress and reparation afforded to Japanese Americans under the Civil Liberties Act. Those events are an integral part of our country and offer insight into the very foundation of this vibrant democracy.
The National Center will serve as a venue to examine issues such as those, create a dialogue and design a place where different communities can come together. There simply aren”t enough opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to really have a dialogue, talk about shared values and enlighten others as to how one can overcome the challenges that society must face. The National Center will offer such an opportunity and serve as a resource as we look to the future.
You speak of “place”. What are you hoping to accomplish with the architecture of the Center? What kinds of spaces are you hoping to create?
“Place” will be a very significant component of our programming. And our location in Downtown-with proximity to the Civic Center and the heart of many government entities-is an incredible mechanism to aid in that pursuit.
As currently envisioned, the building will be housed in a historic building in Little Tokyo. The building, a former Buddhist temple, is one whose structure reflects many of the same principles that the National Center will encompass. It”s history ranges from a practicing Buddhist temple, to a site where Japanese Americans were forced to report during WWII and then to a building where people resided after WWII as they searched for permanent housing. This building has been an integral part of Little Tokyo and becomes an important historic marker for the Center. Those specific aspects of the building combined with the mission of the center and other nearby cultural institutions-the Japanese American Veterans Memorial, MOCA”s Geffen Contemporary, the Union Center for the Arts and the proposed Children”s Museum-will help us create a new synergy with our community, the greater Los Angeles community and the international community.
Brenda, architecture seems to be very much in vogue these days, especially in Los Angeles. The new Cathedral and Disney Concert Hall are but two examples of cultural institutions being enhanced by good design.. How do you hope to translate the vision of the National Center into a meaningful space and place?
Levin & Associates Architects
This 35,000 sq.ft. project offers us an opportunity to capture the historic integrity and community presence of the historic Buddhist temple and adaptively reuse it as a fundamental piece of the new Center. Our design plans mirror the National Center”s mission -the historic building provides a lens to the past and the unique perspective of the Japanese American experience while the new addition will be a bridge for current and future generations of Americans. This design framework is meant to support and reintroduce into the fabric our nation”s civic dialogue-the core principals of democracy.
Now your firm has done a lot of historic preservation work in the basin. Are the rules that regulate historic preservation better in the year 2002 than they were when you began this process in the 1970s and 80s? How has this process evolved?
The rules and regulations are better in the sense that there is a greater understanding of the importance of historic and cultural heritage preservation as well as a better grasp of which codes and regulations can be flexible for historic buildings. Because this is an adaptive reuse project, we will be looking at both reversible interventions in the building so as to preserve its historic fabric and sensitive additions that respect the scale and mass of the historic temple.
What programmatic challenges are key to supporting the National Center”s core mission?
The National Center will focus less on exhibits and more on opportunities for forums, dialogue, interaction, educational workshops and learning centers. That mission has made the building itself, and the unique spaces within it, the museum”s largest artifact.
Those spaces will be an integral piece in shaping the kind of conversations that will occur at the National Center.
One of the major goals of the National Center is to encourage people to think about how they can make a difference in this country through their own communities. And in our minds, the best way to do that is to design a visitor experience that creates opportunities for people to think, for people to experience new concepts and finally to discuss those new ideas with fellow museum patrons.
The events of Sept. 11 only codified that vision. Since that date, people have really searched for a link back to family, to community and to the ideals that this Center is based on. Many people are still looking for how they can become more involved and how they can make a difference. When finished, our hope is that this place will become a sanctuary where people can go to find solace and the answers that they seek.
And what about a timeline? What can we expect over the next year?
We are on a very ambitious timeline because the country and the world is going through a critical period right now. Perhaps there is no more appropriate time than now to create a National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. It is critical from our vantage that the major planning component is completed, that we begin construction later this year and that it becomes fully operational in 2004.
Final question. What in your opinion will Senator Inouye, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Japanese American National Museum, and George Takei, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Museum, accept as success in the year 2004 when the Center is completed?
Success will be determined by the National Center being acknowledged as a “must-see” in Los Angeles and an important entity which fosters dialogue and brings diverse groups of people together to discuss their hopes and their dreams. Through that conversation we hope to be an important resource for new immigrants, new citizens and lifelong Americans as they continually pursue insight into the core principles of democracy.