This Billionaire Is Building a “21st Century Monastery” for His Own Think Tank

Nicolas Berggruen is building a Getty-like campus for ideas—but why?

NICOLAS BERGGRUEN IS bent on carving his mark into the world. A lean 56-year-old in a T-shirt and espadrilles, he’s sitting in his sprawling condo high above Sunset, describing how he wants to “develop ideas that are really groundbreaking,” a German accent clinging to his words. “What has shaped our society?” he asks. “In essence, influential thinkers.” Outside the day is fading, but the billionaire’s sunglasses remain affixed to his face as he mulls the heavy toll exacted on those who wielded such influence: “Think of Socrates, who had to poison himself. Jesus Christ, who was crucified. Karl Marx, who was in exile.”

Seeking a similar impact, if not a similar fate, Berggruen is willing to pay the price in his own way. He’s sunk hundreds of millions of dollars, with several hundred million more to come, into his pursuit of bold new ideas. In 2010, he founded the Berggruen Institute, which in a few years will move out of its Westwood office suite into what he’s called a “21st century monastery” being built on a 450-acre Brentwood hilltop near the Getty Center. Designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, it’ll wrap around a spherical lecture hall. He’s also purchased a building in MacArthur Park to serve as a satellite intended for more public engagement. Craig Calhoun, the institute’s president, envisions it as a “bohemian Greenwich Village back in the day—people clustered together, talking late in cafés.”

Unlike Tom Steyer or the Koch brothers, Berggruen is not so interested in spending money to set a dogmatic partisan agenda. Rather, he wants to change how that political agenda is put into action. The stated aim of the institute is to “shape political, economic and social institutions for the 21st century.” As lofty as it is abstract, his belief is that fundamental improvements come not from changing the decisions societies make, but changing the way societies make decisions. To his way of thinking, governance—the messy processes by which laws get passed, treaties are hammered out, and industries are regulated—is woefully inadequate for the challenges we face.

Of course, there is no single blueprint for what makes a think tank. The RAND Corporation in Santa Monica contracts out its high-level research on policy issues (everything from marijuana use to terrorism) to governments and corporations and prides itself on its ideological independence. The Heritage Foundation regards itself as the intellectual soul of conservative politics and produces the first drafts of proposals that wind up as Republican legislation. The Berggruen Institute’s approach can seem frustratingly vague by comparison, wrestling as it does with the thorniest of questions, such as how governments regulate emerging innovations, like biotechnology, that challenge the definition of “what it means to be human.”

Berggruen’s prescriptions for fixing society can raise eyebrows. In his view the West has become a slave to populism and other excesses of democracy. A man who surrounds himself with former heads of state, policymakers, and academics (my interview was delayed as he brokered a dinner meeting between L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the mayor of Berlin), Berggruen tends to put more trust in elites than voters. At one point in our conversation he suggests that perhaps the Senate should be appointed rather than elected. Western governments, he says at another, have something to learn from more autocratic regimes like China’s, and vice versa—a notion reflected in a book he coauthored, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.

BERGGRUEN WAS BORN in Paris and raised speaking German at home. His father, Heinz, came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin, fled the Nazi regime in 1936, and ended up in the Bay Area. After the war Heinz moved to Paris, befriended Pablo Picasso, and became an art dealer and collector of masters like Klee and Matisse. His second wife is Nicolas’s mother. Berggruen read voraciously as a child and, at 12, drafted a constitution of what he considered to be an ideal government. Headstrong and rebellious, he was expelled from a Swiss boarding school but sailed through the French high school exam at 16. He graduated from New York University at 19 with a degree in business. For the next two decades Berggruen traded stocks, launched hedge funds, and bought and sold hotel chains, amassing a vast fortune (most estimates place it around $2 billion). He had a home in New York, an estate in Florida, a sizable art collection. Then, about a decade ago, Berggruen grew tired of the pursuit of wealth, unloaded his homes, and spent several years hopping from hotel to hotel around the world on his private jet. He earned the nickname the “homeless billionaire.”

“Honestly, it was very liberating,” Berggruen says of that period, somewhat wistfully. Those days are over. About two years ago, he chose to become a single parent. His two toddlers, a boy and a girl were born at about the same time from two surrogates but a single egg donor. Though he’s still frequently in his jet, heading off to Europe for weeks at a time or to Burning Man, L.A. is his main home now. The Sunset condo is his current address, but in April he spent $41 million on a Holmby Hills estate that once belonged to movie mogul Louis B. Mayer’s daughter.

Berggruen was drawn to Los Angeles, he tells me, because “I wanted a place that was as far and as west from Paris as possible.”  Like many Europeans before him, he came here seeking a city where both physical and intellectual spaces weren’t already claimed. At first he played the role of Hollywood parvenu, throwing an annual celebrity-filled Oscar bash at the Chateau Marmont (the last soiree was in 2012). But he also began to host gatherings at the Peninsula, inviting professors from UCLA and USC to his suite for long, occasionally rambling discussions about politics. At times Berggruen would become so engrossed that he would forget to order food for his guests. Thomas Schwartz, a political scientist at UCLA, was a frequent invitee. “He always was attracted to a mixture of academics and politicians and famous people,” he recalls. “Nicolas is a creative guy who comes up with a lot of ideas but doesn’t always go to the trouble of working them out.” Schwartz may have turned skeptical, but Berggruen emerged enthusiastic. He wanted to convert his ideas into policy. He just wasn’t quite sure how.

In 2010 Bob Hertzberg got a call from Berggruen. He had never heard of the European billionaire. The former California assembly speaker had left politics and was chairing a group called California Forward, which dealt with fiscal policy. But when Berggruen called and said he wanted to meet, the former pol, sensing a potential deep-pocketed patron, was game. “I’m in Ecuador today, Panama tomorrow. Here’s the tail number of my plane. Can you come to the airport?” Berggruen asked. Hertzberg got a one-way ticket to Panama City and headed to a steamy waiting room at the edge of the tarmac. A disheveled Berggruen emerged and invited Hertzberg to join him on his jet.

For the next four hours, Hertzberg says, Berggruen “asked me the most piercing questions about California government. I’m trying to stay focused, to not mess this up. Then I ask him, ‘Why are you so interested?’ And he says, ‘I think governance is crucial.’ ” Hertzberg nearly fell out of his seat. “I think to myself, ‘I’ve found my soul mate!’ ” It was only then that Hertzberg realized he didn’t know where the plane was headed. “Oh, I’m dropping you back in L.A.,” Berggruen told him.

The two started the Think Long Committee for California and recruited the likes of former assembly speaker Willie Brown, economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. They held meetings at Google headquarters, took testimony from experts, and drafted two pieces of legislation: one to establish a steady rainy day fund for the state and another to make it easier for the state legislature to respond to ballot initiatives. Both were introduced in the assembly and became law. Hertzberg was so thrilled that he decided to reenter politics and is now a state senator. “Nicolas is a big reason why I got back in,” he says.

BERGGRUEN WAS SIMILARLY struck. All the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit together. Governance, he felt, was like a spotlight to shine on societal problems. A budget impasse in California? Governance. A flailing European Union? Governance. A global financial crisis? Governance.

In 2011 he decided he wanted to talk about structural changes with leaders at the G20 summit, the annual gathering of representatives from the world’s 20 largest economies. Hosting the meeting was an old friend, then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Ahead of the summit, Berggruen convened a gathering on the top floor of his family’s museum in Berlin with the likes of former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Spanish prime minister Felipe González Márquez, and tech illuminati such as Google’s Schmidt and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. The effort fizzled. “That was a strikeout,” says Calhoun. The notion of getting his hands dirty with the trade-offs of policymaking did not appeal to Berggruen.

So the institute became organized around producing world-changing ideas. Says Berggruen, “Ideas are the most valuable and the most difficult because they have to be different and fresh, and they are rare.” To that end, the institute began bestowing the $1 million Berggruen Prize in 2016 on a contemporary philosopher who has made an impact on society (the Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve was this year’s recipient).

As much as anything, Berggruen and company are trying to foster conversation. “Part of our task is to give dinner parties,” says Calhoun, who was the director of the London School of Economics before joining the institute as president in 2016. “When Nicolas Berggruen holds a dinner party, people come and they are on their best behavior.” That was the case during a recent evening when Berggruen held a talk with Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most illustrious political dynasty, at Calhoun’s house in the hills above West Hollywood. With close to 50 members of L.A.’s intelligentsia crowded into the living room, Gandhi held forth on the sins of India’s current leadership as Berggruen sat beside him and tried to guide the conversation.

In some ways the evening harked back to the European salon culture that Berggruen was so eager to leave behind when he came to L.A., but the big question remains how to channel all of the institute’s resources and aspirations into something that actually leads to better governance. “We’re trying to figure out how to be productive,” says Calhoun. “We’re not Bell Labs; we’re more Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Or a Silicon Valley garage. I’m not quite sure how you balance it out.”

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