New visions bubble up at La Brea Tar Pits

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Diller Scofidio + Renfro's concept features a new arrival plaza at the corner of Wilshire & Curson. Image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Removing the fiberglass woolly mammoth from his lake of tar, restoring the landscape to that of the Pleistocene age, building over the existing parking lot, adding another story to the Page Museum or gutting it altogether… these are among some of the ideas offered by three heavy-hitting teams shortlisted for an overhaul of the La Brea Tar Pits, the Ice Age-era natural monument in the heart of Museum Row. 

Now you are invited to pick your favorite among proposals from Weiss/Manfredi, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Dorte Mandrup. But how real is this project? And why did no LA designers make the shortlist?

The park as it appears now. Image courtesy La Brea Tar Pits.

Even though the primal, goopy pits of black asphalt dating back 50,000 years are the star attraction at the Hancock Park site, they’ve receded from view as the cultural institutions that make up Museum Row and the city itself have expanded around them. Now it’s the tar pits' turn for an upgrade. 

At a public presentation Monday night, Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, head of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, said, in reference to the changes taking place on Museum Row, “we recognize and appreciate that the park includes a lot of activity and more than a few unknowns. For our process at the tar pits we're trying to limit those unknowns.”  

This rendering from Dorte Mandrup shows how research activities are integrated with new exhibition spaces. A new public roof top garden and the Tar Bar concludes the journey. Image courtesy Dorte Mandrup

She introduced three design teams that had been shortlisted from an initial 80+ firms who had thrown their hat in the ring: Weiss/Manfredi and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, both of New York; and the Danish firm Dorte Mandrup. 

Each introduced their multidisciplinary teams that comprised landscape designers, ecologists and other experts. Each offered up ideas for reworking the landscape, for adding space to the museum, for creating a more obvious entrance, for making the entire site easier to navigate and bringing into the spotlight its contents: bubbling oil, bones and fossils of Ice Age animals, plants, and insects ranging in size from huge, extinct mammoths and sloths to "microfossils," all offering clues to ancient ecosystems, and past -- and hence future -- climate changes.

"It's an improbable place for something so ancient to be,” declared Miriam Weiss, one half of the architecture duo Weiss/Manfredi. Weiss, who said she was reared in Northern California by a geologist mother, added eloquently, “L.A. is all about inventing synthetic magic lives that we can all believe in briefly, with a teardrop at the end, and yet this is where the true science is unfolding.”

The goal for the designers is a complex one, as they have to unite different stakeholders in the museum, not to mention bring the tar pits and the Page Museum forward while integrating them with the other big changes coming to its neighbor, LACMA.

Bettison-Varga urged designers and community members to “reconsider the tar pits, Hancock Park and The Page Museum, and to reimagine them as an unparalleled contemporary learning experience and an essential resource for all Angelenos, tourists and the scientific research community alike.”

The Weiss/Manfredi concept features a new 1-kilometer pedestrian path that connects the site, enhancing amenities for community engagement and research. Image courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism

The public, she added, can get involved by reviewing renderings and responding to a survey (reachable by texting @tarpits to 35134, or at this link through September 30th.) 

Read on for more about the tar pits and the concepts presented by the teams.  

Where are the tar pits and what do the tar pits look like now?

The tar pits are at the northern and eastern part of Hancock Park (the park, not the neighborhood) and are divided from LACMA by an invisible, curving property line.

The tar pits consist of field sites and grassy lawns meandering between the 42-year-old George C. Page museum (designed by architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton, opened in 1977) and LACMA. The museum is atop a grassy sloping berm that is a big attraction for children.

There are walking paths, sculptures of giant mastodons, woolly mammoths, bears, and periodically you can see scientists excavating fossils in pits scattered throughout the site. Right now there’s a temporary art installation on the site: the iridescent plastic Second Home Serpentine Pavilion.

Why do they want to redesign it?

The tar pits haven’t seen a change since 1977. The museum wants to improve the site’s aging infrastructure, expand its exhibition space and update displays (some are lovable but, writes Carolina Miranda “wildly outdated — such as the creaky animatronic saber-toothed tiger that is forever devouring a giant ground sloth, its tinny roar on permanent loop.”)

In addition, LACMA’s impending redesign provides an opportunity to rethink the circuitous, often confusing pathways that connect the tar pits to other sites within the land parcel (not the neighborhood) called Hancock Park. The revamp also offers the opportunity to rethink how the park, one of central L.A.'s most important green spaces, greets the street. Currently, there are limited entrances and a lot of fence.

What were the concepts presented by the teams?

To unfold the story hidden in the tar pits, Dorte Mandrup proposes interweaving, extending and opening up the park and museum, and letting people experience the living laboratory that the tar pits truly are. Image courtesy Dorte Mandrup / Martha Schwartz Partners

Dorte Mandrup wants to add a story to the existing building. The client had asked designers to preserve the Manuel Paz frieze of ice age landscapes that is on the Page’s roofline. Mandrup proposed making a photovoltaic print of it to create a diaphanous screen. They also suggest wooden pathways and curvy chainlink containers around the fossil and tar pits. 

Diller Scofidio + Renfro's masterplan merges geometries of museum and park, tracing a grid of pathways and landscapes that anticipates future dig sites and seeps while selectively deforming to connect key features of the site and beyond. Image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Diller Scofidio + Renfro proposed gutting the building and replacing it with a transparent cube contained within a pinwheel of four overlapping, sloping petals made of grassed-over concrete. They put a lot of emphasis on the ancient landscape, and proposed dividing up the site into eco-zones, and making a grid at the north east end that bleeds into more curving paths at the West, LACMA end of the site. They also proposed an “asphalt plaza”—at Wilshire and Curson that would serve as a new “front door” to the experience.

Weiss/Manfredi's concept, "La Brea Loops and Lenses," forms a triple mobius of intertwining loops that encourage discovery, with programming that appeals to diverse interests. Image courtesy Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism

Weiss/Manfredi proposed adding a new building that would be connected to the Page Museum via a berm under which would be a glazed entrance, through which visitors could peer into the museum. They also proposed a loop-de-loop concept that divides the site with pathways laid out in double helix plan, into three clear areas, one for excavation, one surrounding the large Lake Pit, emphasizing the fiberglass woolly mammoth (also beloved), another surrounding the museum site -- which adds an elliptical wing on what is now the parking lot at the northwest corner of the site. (Parking would go underground.)

Who launched this competition? 

The Natural History Museums of LA County, with the help of an architectural competitions consultant named Reed Kroloff who organized an outreach first to around 80 teams. They were narrowed to 13 and then to the three finalists. They plan to make a final selection of an architectural team by the end of this year and will continue to engage the community in the design development with the chosen team.  

Why did no LA-based designers make the final cut?

Lori Bettison Varga, head of the Natural History Museums told DnA they were looking for firms that had a particular expertise in design at the intersection of landscape and museums, which is the case for the three shortlisted teams.

She also said all the teams will have an LA representation on the multidisciplinary teams they’ve put together.

However, going outside LA for architectural talent is a trend we’ve seen on Museum Row. Every one of those museums -- Petersen Automotive Museum, Academy Museum, LACMA and now the tar pits -- is going through, or has undergone, an expansion and each brought in designers from outside LA, even though LA is famed for its design creativity. 

Sometimes this is because the museum head has brought in the designer they like, like Gene Kohn of the New York firm Kohn Pederson Fox for the metal wraparound at Petersen Automotive Museum; Peter Zumthor at LACMA was personally selected by Michael Govan.

Sometimes they pick the designer who has a proven track record in that building type -- like Renzo Piano, co-designer of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and designer of the Academy museum, BCAM and the Reznick. Or they pick someone with glowing credentials like the Pritzker Prize because that's attractive to donors.

But it is frustrating because LA has many terrific designers who are not getting a shot at these civic buildings. If you took the view that the unproven shouldn’t get a chance we wouldn’t have the Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry -- who was considered an outlier in the competition to find a designer in the late 80s.

While LA shouldn't be parochial, and the three shortlisted teams are very strong, you have to ask if the region is losing its regional architectural character by bringing in people whose work is popping up in cities everywhere.

Will the museum build the design by the winning team that was shown to the public Monday night? 

No. While the architects produced sophisticated renderings that gave the impression of a developed design, Bettison-Varga said they were intended to “illustrate how each of these teams is thinking about the opportunities and challenges of the site, its buildings and the surrounding context. Actual design will only begin after we have selected a single team and move through a comprehensive research and engagement process.”

What about the Peter Zumthor design for the LACMA expansion? Is there a connection?

The teams made little mention of LACMA, which shares the park and is expected to start construction soon. Diller Scofidio+Renfro said they looked beyond the site, mapping out a grid of paths that would integrate the neighboring schemes.  “We imagine Hancock Park as the catalyst for a more synthetic urban growth of Miracle Mile as an alternative to the current piecemeal approach to individual institutions, neighborhood assets, municipal transit, pedestrian circulation, and public spacemaking." (discussed on this DnA segment).

Who is paying for this?

The Natural History Museums are a public / private partnership with support from LA County and a private non-profit foundation. The LA County Supervisors have allocated preliminary funding for the master planning of the eastern portion of the park managed by NHMLAC. 

The museums say they are still in the conceptual phase of the project so there has been no discussion about budget or requests for additional funding from the County.

However, they are moving ahead and taking public feedback now. The designs are on view at the Page Museum through Sept. 15 and online here

A jury will give input as well, and the Natural History Museums of LA County will choose one firm by the end of 2019 and then move forward with fundraising and implementation.