A Q&A with the architect who gives new life to LA’s old buildings

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Downtown Los Angeles architecture and interior design firm Omgivning is working on some of the most high-profile adaptive reuse projects in the neighborhood right now, from the revamp of the Broadway Trade Center into a food hall/private/club/hotel/rooftop park to the conversion of the 1926 Case Hotel building into a posh boutique Proper hotel.

Omgivning’s principal, Karin Liljegren, tells Curbed that she founded the firm in 2009 to focus on projects involving existing and historic buildings. Omgivning is a Swedish word that roughly translates to “how a space feels around you,” and Liljegren says at the time, she felt architects were creating spaces that felt mostly corporate, super-clean, andcold.

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

The interview was edited for clarity and length.


What is it about existing buildings that made you want to focus on them so much with your firm?

These buildings have so much character. They all have unique aspects to them. To me, design is a lot about putting the puzzle together, working with the existing conditions of the building. With new construction, it’s more of a blank slate. Unfortunately, too much of the time, it becomes a question of how can the developer max out the number of units in the complex, so they end up being these boxy things. But having an existing building, you automatically come in with parameters, so I feel like it’s puzzle-solving.

Is there anything you look for when you bid on a new project? Anything you avoid?

I try to avoid clients who don’t understand how hard it is to convert these buildings. It’s hard when they don’t get it. These are tough … People love having a sense of history in their buildings. It gives it a sense of character, and a sense of place. A lot of times, new construction could be anywhere. It could be here [in LA], it could be Houston.

When you make these old spaces into something new, what’s your approach? Are you trying to turn back time or are you hoping to make them look very contemporary and on-trend?

Some of that is dictated by the developer or operator, but when we have control, it’s a mix. We try to create a cohesive design, where you walk into a space and it feels like one space, but the space is made up of pieces things that were there from the past as well as new things that are more contemporary. I prefer that mix of the two. And it should blend—you shouldn’t walk into a room and say, “Oooh, that was the old and that was the new.”

For a while, it seemed like adaptive reuse projects were slowing down. Is the demand for these projects slowing down, holding steady, or speeding up?

I think there are still a ton to do. The majority of the big, landmark historic buildings are either done or being done, but there are still a ton of existing buildings. When you look at some of the simple ones that we’ve been working on, they can become really cool buildings.

It’s really important to keep them and refresh or revitalize them, and not just take them down and build new. We need both. Omgivning is a huge proponent of super dense, super high construction in Downtown, but also in Downtown, there are so many gorgeous, fun warehouses. Especially when you peel off the nasty acoustic tile ceilings and you’ve got this incredible truss, or something like that. There are a ton of buildings left to do.

So you’re confident you’re never going to run out?

Even when that happens, by then, the historic buildings that need their next wave of refreshes will be there.

A rendering of the Broadway Trade Center.
Courtesy of Omgiving

Your firm has a lot of different adaptive reuse projects going on right now—mixed-use, hotels, residential. Are you seeing an increased interest in any one in particular?

They’re all expanding at the same time, across the board, as far as I’m seeing. Offices are increasing significantly, hotels are increasing. Multi-family, I’ve seen slow down a little bit.

But what I think the new structure is, is buildings that have it all in one. The Broadway Trade Center and Sears in Boyle Heights, for example, are going to be neighborhoods among themselves. They’ll have hotel and retail and a market, all in one building.

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

Is there any Downtown building that you dream of working on?

I have a couple of those! The Lincoln Heights Jail is one. The other is at the corner of Sixth and Grand, the AT&T Center. It’s really tall, it’s empty, it has thin lines, and it’s super high-rise. I really want to do that building. It’s got to be high-end residential.

The Lincoln Heights Jail I think that could go in a bunch of directions. We might be working with a developer that could be doing something really holistic that might including spaces to train people, and where people could grow things—besides themselves.

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