The Administration Building at Sunnylands Center & Gardens has earned the highly coveted LEED Platinum certification.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CAITLIN ATKINSON AND MARCO CAROCARI
In the desert, many of the most desirable and valuable homes are those with west-facing views of the San Jacinto Mountains. But when he was designing the Administration Building at Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, architect Lance O’Donnell intentionally oriented the structure to turn its back on the mountains.
“Everyone wants a view of San Jacinto Peak,” O’Donnell says, as he tours us through the airy, glass and steel office structure, part of a $20 million suite of buildings his Palm Springs-based firm o2 Architecture designed on a 17-acre portion of the historic 220-acre estate of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. “But that would require shades to come down every afternoon due to the sun, and for us to crank up the cooling system. So, instead, we faced the building toward the north, minimized the glass on east and west exposures, and maximized it on the others to give the building even light. This allowed us to maximize day-lighting in the building, lessen the environmental impact, and still provide some oblique, surprising views of the mountains at the building’s far end.”
The result has been highly effective, even though the building was closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Working in the space is heaven,” says Sunnylands Center & Gardens director Janice Lyle, from a seating area beside her desk in her glass-walled office. “Natural light floods in. I have a view of the trees, and then, down and out toward the mountains. It’s intensely satisfying.”
The 15,000-square-foot Administration Building was constructed to consolidate a team of employees that had grown considerably as the center transitioned from a private home for the Annenbergs to a public institution and conference center following the widowed Leonore’s death in 2009. “We needed space to host the entire staff,” Lyle says. “The workforce was nomadic. Employees were scattered in various offices in and outside of town, as far off as Los Angeles. There was even a suite of trailers on the property where many people worked.”
The structures in the new LEED Platinum-certified campus are all made of durable materials like steel, glass, and split-face chiseled concrete block. “The desert wants to have something inorganic here,” O’Donnell says. “Organic materials decompose readily in this environment.”
Locally drawn plantings texture the landscape around the steel, glass, and split-face chiseled concrete block structures.
But while the buildings are meant, in part, to keep the local ecosystem at bay, the surrounding plantings, designed by CMG Landscape Architecture from San Francisco, are meant to bring in the natural environment. “Plantings around the building provide natural conference rooms for employees to gather and take private calls, then transition gently out to the natural desert,” O’Donnell says, pointing out the groves of local mesquite, acacia, palo verde, and succulents that have been planted in clusters and alles around the property. But they also help tame the elements. O’Donnell indicates a long row of deep-rooting tamarisk trees in the distance. “Those were planted as a windbreak,” he says.
One of the Administrative Building’s core systems also invites the desert in, to an extent: The ceiling of the building is a wooden grid that adds a natural geniality to the starkly modernist room. But, hidden beneath is a natural air-flushing system, powered by a low-velocity, high-volume fan. “When the temperature drops below 75 degrees, the fan turns on and pulls outside air slowly through the space,” O’Donnell explains. “But the night air is gritty with sand, so it’s pulled through a filtration system.” Concrete block holds the cool inside, minimizing the need to run the air conditioning system during the day, and moderating the building’s environmental impact.
“Working in the space is intensely satisfying.”
Also reducing this footprint is a water reclamation system, the first of its kind used in the desert. A series of tanks and filters, and an engineered wetland, clean restroom effluent from the 100,000 annual visitors and create gray water that can be used for irrigation. O’Donnell is excited about this circular savings, but only to a certain extent. “It helps to offset the one million gallons a day used for the golf course,” he says wryly.
Keeping the desert out is also one of the functional goals of the Archive Building. The structure houses many items from the Annenberg estate, and includes storage for photography and large and small objects, as well as a restoration space, all of which preserve the Annenbergs’ material legacy and create from-the-vault exhibitions for the public. (Past shows have featured Leonore’s ballgowns, china, and epistolary relationship with Jackie Kennedy.) Because the harsh light and heat of the surrounding environs can be damaging to this ephemera, the goal here is, according to O’Donnell, “about not day-lighting. It’s about keeping light out, except in the main office spaces.”
The final building on the site is more overtly dedicated to taming the desert. It’s an Operations Building for the ground crew. There are cheery break rooms and meeting rooms for the scores of maintenance staff, many of the areas dotted with beverage dispensers given the need for this team to monitor their hydration in the often-harsh desert weather. But the majority of the space is dedicated to a big garage for housing, maintaining, repairing, and storing mechanical equipment. It resembles the display floor at the Eero Saarinen-designed John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois, with every manner of earthmover, earth-tamer, and earth-trimmer arrayed under vaulted skylights.
The foyer (below) and office of David Lane, president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
We end our visit to Sunnylands Center & Gardens with a quick golf cart ride — a brief exterior tour of the 25,000-square-foot main house, designed by esteemed desert modern architect and former dean of the architectural school at the University of Southern California, A. Quincy Jones. On the way, O’Donnell points out some features of his design that are meant to call back to this landmark home, including pink gravel and pink walls that reflect the house’s signature rose-colored decorative fencing, and a circular drop-off that relates to the porte cochére.
It all feels unified, contemporary, and respectful, in a way that never risks descent into pastiche. This was intentional. “We wanted the campus to have a relationship to the A. Quincy Jones historic home,” Lyle says. “A conceptual connection without mimicry.”