A USC landscape architecture program pop-up exhibit at Bergamot Station explores potential new uses for the city’s most controversial real estate

By Michael Aushenker

Court battles, competing city ballot measures — there’s no telling exactly what will happen with the Santa Monica Airport.

But what could happen in the space if the airport did close as early as next year?

That’s the question explored by organizers of “Reimagining Santa Monica Airport – Part 1,” a one-night pop-up exhibit happening tonight at the Bergamot Station Arts Center.

Sponsored by airport2park.org (a group lobbying for the airport to be converted into public park land), the exhibit features imaginative renderings of what SMO’s 227 acres would look like as open space, as envisioned by USC landscape architecture graduate students.

“Each of these four projects is really different and draws on different understandings of the site,” said exhibit curator Michael Brodsky, a professor at Loyola Marymount University’s Department of Art and Art History, where he heads up the multimedia art program, and a founding member of airport2park.org.

Last year, USC landscape architecture professor Aroussiak Gabrielian attended a community design workshop organized by airport2park.org that featured a presentation by landscape architect Marc Rios, who designed downtown L.A.’s Grand Park on a former industrial site.

Gabrielian was inspired to offer a similar challenge to her class of eight students — four showing work tonight, four exhibiting at a second pop-up show in January — assigning “eight different starting points that have resulted in eight unique perspectives on the site,” she said.

Of those students showing their renderings tonight, Christopher Sison approached the question from a historical perspective.

“He created a kind of playful space that is really sensitive to the east and the west views,” Brodsky said. “He’s taken all the existing buildings and re-adapted them, including creating a new Museum of Flying, giving homage to the history of the site.”

Once known as Clover Field, Santa Monica Airport was the original headquarters of the Douglas Aircraft Company. In 1924, two Douglas World Cruiser airplanes landed at Clover Field after the first successful aerial circumnavigation of the world. At its peak, Douglas employed some 44,000 people, launching a building boom in the surrounding area.

Chen Liu’s interpretation focuses on habitat and wildlife, exploring the site’s biodiversity.

“Her vision is to recover the ecological cycle in the region; a place for migratory birds to be observed from the site, small museums that would display the insects,” Gabrielian said.

With an urban planning background, Zeek Magallanes “paid a lot of attention to water reclamation,” Brodsky said. “Right now, the airport has 60 million gallons of runoff during a normal year. He completely adapted the buildings there, and did a good analysis of the access and transportation into it.”

Yongdan Chunyu, meanwhile, is “hyper-focused on IT culture and the younger employees that are all about healthy living,” Gabrielian said. “She has a forested ring between the park and the rest of the city. She expanded on the recreational and sports fields, created places to harvest fruits and vegetables.”

“It’s probably the most playful of all of them,” Brodsky added, crediting the students with a complex understanding of the area through deep research.

Many Santa Monica residents have long complained of air and noise pollution related to airport operations, but the current controversy stems from opposing interpretations of a 1984 airport operating agreement between the city and the Federal Aviation Administration. City Council members believe the document gives the city control over airport operations as early as next year; the FAA argues that past city actions have extended the contract through 2023.

With gallery space hard to secure and not big enough to accommodate all eight students’ work, Brodsky decided to display four projects at a time. And while Brodsky could have found gallery space in Westchester, he chose Santa Monica in hopes that more residents would see it.

“Most Santa Monicans have never been to Santa Monica Airport. It’s fenced off, so most people don’t have access to it. Most people don’t realize what views it has,” Brodsky said.

While it might be far-fetched to think that one of her students’ plans could someday be adopted should the airport close, Gabrielian said the exhibit may still serve a big-picture purpose.

“At the very least,” she said, “it’ll get the public to see the potential there.”

“Reimagining Santa Monica Airport – Part 1” runs 6 to 9 p.m. tonight at the Writers Boot Camp Gallery in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. 1, Santa Monica. Santa Monica Spoke is providing bicycle valet service. For more information, visit airport2park.org