November 10, 2005 - From the November, 2005 issue

Brenda Levin Commemorates the Opening of The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy

Established to inspire and educate all people to live by democratic principles, The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy opened October 28 in Little Tokyo. Designed by renowned L.A. architect Brenda Levin and her firm, Levin & Associates, the NCPD combines an adapted Buddhist temple with new construction that will house the center's educational displays and cultural events. TPR is pleased to present Ms. Levin's remarks at the center's opening, in which she explains the crucial connection between architecture, education, and democracy.

Brenda Levin

Every architectural commission begins with: an idea, a defined program and a mission. It is the architect's challenge to translate these intangible goals of the client into a building that transforms the ordinary by giving order, scale and beauty to built space.

Not many projects, however, orig-inate with an eloquently articulated mission statement placed in the Congressional Record, as did Senator Daniel Inouye's, which reads, "The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy will be created as a dedicated space where visitors can learn about the enduring fragility and ultimate success of individual and constitutional rights."

Giving form to his vision and the complex – and sometimes contradictory – concepts of democratic values was our touchstone. Our charge: to create spaces that foster dialogue and debate, and inspire youth to be active, informed participants in American democracy.

To provide context for the architectural evolution of the National Center, it is important to understand the significant patrimony of the existing historic building. The Nishi Hompa Hongwangi Temple, designed by architect Edgar Cline, constructed in 1925, housed a sanctuary, offices, commercial spaces and residential quarters for Buddhist priests. The building functioned as a religious, cultural and social center for the Little Tokyo community.

In 1942, when Executive Order 9066 was enacted, the building ironically served as a staging area for the relocation of Japanese Americans to various internment camps. After the war, the building once again provided temporary shelter and safe haven.

In 1969, the building was vacated, and in 1987 it became the first home of the Japanese American National Museum.

This rich history of architectural, cultural, and community significance provides the framework and context for the historic building's transformation, and expansion into the National Center. The significant historic spaces were adapted and the building was contrasted by a modern addition, the Democracy Forum, creating a design that both highlights and reveals the history of the building while reflecting the National Center's forward reaching aspirations.

As you enter the building today you will cross a metaphorical bridge, a transition in paving, into the Boeing Company lobby, which houses visitor services and a small bookstore, and serves as the central point for accessing the exhibit and education areas, and the Forum. Passing through a portal formed in the north masonry wall of the original building, a link between the historic and the new, you have entered the former three-story priest's quarters that has been reconfigured to form a two-story naturally lit space, integrating a stair, enlivened by a train sign with changing, thought-provoking quotes on Democracy.

At the top of the stairs, the second floor lobby extends over the entry door forming a canopy while providing a view to the plaza below. Entered from this lobby the Democracy Forum, a new state-of-the-art, 200-seat space, serves as the centerpiece for the National Center's commitment to discourse, dialogue and community engagement.


The connection back to the historic building is via a bridge, past the east facade of the historic building. Filtering through the former back wall of the Temple alter you emerge into Hirasaki Democracy Hall, featuring the experiential exhibition "Fighting for Democracy."

Continuing down the historic stair, stimulated by the diverse stories explored in Hirasaki Democracy Hall, you will enter the Democracy Lab, a non-traditional interactive classroom focused on hands-on experience. A new raised walkway allows for a seamless connection through the building and provides a speaker's rostrum, where students can practice and hone their skills of public persuasion.

Much like the historic building where the interior spaces are reflected in the exterior facades, perhaps the most compelling architectural feature of the National Center is this Forum addition. The exterior envelope is a composition of metal and glass of various tints and textures. The glazing, which wraps the corner, enables visibility out to the plaza and from the plaza into the forum; creating transparency and accessibility, that serves to remind us that Democracy is shaped by all people.

Although glazed, the Forum is acoustically isolated from the outside and designed so that the audience can easily hear and engage back and forth with whomever is on stage. Both the Forum's acoustics and its unique wedge-shaped seating plan enable the audience to see and interact with each other, not simply to passively listen.

The flexible audiovisual system will support a full range of events, from simple lectures to high-end multimedia presentations to surround sound screenings in the future. Both ‘wired' and ‘wireless', the Forum will allow activities that integrate the newest forms of communication with the face-to-face engagement.

Illuminated at night from inside, the Forum will serve as a beacon, ensuring that the space within reflects the center's aspiration of engaging students' active participation in the American democratic process.

Throughout history, the ideals embodied in freedom, liberty, and constitutional rights have occasionally contrasted with the realities of intolerance, discrimination and broken promises. These contradictions and tensions in our social fabric, and the conviction to clarify, correct and eliminate them, are both the story of America and the inspiration for the architectural design of the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.