A Q&A with the architect who provides new life to LA’s outdated buildings

Downtown Los Angeles architecture and interior design firm Omgivning is currently working on some of the most iconic adaptive reuse projects in the neighborhood, from transforming the Broadway Trade Center into a food hall / private / club / hotel / rooftop park to converting the Case Hotel -Building from 1926 into a posh boutique hotel.

Omgivning’s director Karin Liljegren tells Curbed that she founded the company in 2009 to focus on projects with existing and historic buildings. Omgivning is a Swedish word that roughly translates to what a room feels like around you, and Liljegren said at the time that she felt that architects create spaces that are mostly corporate, super clean and tidy to the touch cold.

Curbed sat down with Liljegren at Omgivinging’s offices to talk about adaptive reuse projects and remodeling existing buildings in a neighborhood where so much has already been done.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What made you focus so much on existing buildings in your company?

These buildings have so much character. They all have unique aspects. For me, design means a lot to put the puzzle together and work with the existing conditions of the building. With the new building, it’s more of an empty board. Unfortunately, too often the question arises of how the developer can maximize the number of units in the complex so that it ends up being those boxy things. However, if you have an existing building it automatically enters parameters so I feel like it solves puzzles.

The Broadway Trade Center and Sears in Boyle Heights … have hotels, retail stores and a market in one building. This intermingling within a structure is a kind of new wave.

Is there something you are looking for when you bid on a new project? Are you avoiding something?

I try to avoid customers who don’t understand how difficult it is to remodel these buildings. It’s hard when you don’t understand. These are tough … People love to have a sense of history in their buildings. It gives him a sense of character and a sense of place. Often new buildings could be anywhere. It could be here [in LA]It could be Houston.

How do you go about making these old rooms new? Are you trying to go back in time or do you hope they are very contemporary and trending?

Some of this is dictated by the developer or operator, but when we’re in control it’s a mixture. We try to create a cohesive design where you walk into a room and it feels like a room, but the room is made up of pieces of things from the past as well as new things that are more contemporary. I prefer this mix of both. And it should mix – you shouldn’t go into a room and say, “Oooh, that was the old and that was the new.”

For a while, it seemed like adaptive reuse projects became slower. Is The demand for these projects is slowing down, stable or accelerating?

I think there is still a lot to be done. The majority of the large, Grade II listed historic buildings are either ready or being finished, but there are still a ton of existing buildings. If you look at some of the simple ones we’ve worked on, they can turn into really cool buildings.

People love to have a sense of history in their buildings. It gives him a sense of character.

It’s really important to keep and update or revitalize them, not just take them down and rebuild them. We need both. Omgivning is a big believer in super dense, super tall structures in downtown, but there are so many beautiful, fun warehouses in downtown too. Especially when you peel off the nasty acoustic tile ceilings and have that incredible truss or something like that. There is still a lot of building to be done.

So you are confident that you will never go out?

Even if that happens, by then the historic buildings will be there in need of their next wave of renovations.

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A representation of the Broadway Trade Center. Courtesy of Omgivning

Your company is currently running many different adaptive reuse projects – mixed use, hotels, residential real estate. See an increased interest in someone special?

As far as I can see, they are all expanding at the same time. The offices are increasing significantly, the hotels are increasing. I saw apartment buildings a little slower.

But I think the new structure is that buildings are all rolled into one. The Broadway Trade Center and Sears in Boyle Heights, for example, will be neighborhoods one below the other. You will have hotel and retail and a market in one building.

Even some smaller buildings, we’re slowly starting to see that. Maybe there is a rooftop bar, then a residential bar, a floor of offices, and then a retail shop on the first floor. This intermingling within a structure is a kind of new wave.

Is there a building in the city center that you would like to work on?

I have a couple of these! Lincoln Heights Prison is one. The other is on the corner of Sixth and Grand, the AT&T Center. It’s really big, it’s empty, it’s got thin lines, and it’s a super high-rise. I really want to do this building. It has to be high-end living.

Lincoln Heights Prison I think this could go in a number of directions. We may be working with a developer who can do something really holistic, that includes spaces to train people in, and where people can grow things – besides themselves.

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