Wed, Jul

Tar Pits Makeover Update

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS--We want to create a place for dialogue, so people can feel like it’s accessible to them, not just as a space for leisure but as an educational space.  — Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles 

Last week, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County unveiled three conceptual master plans to reshape the La Brea Tar pits and give the aging George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries a makeover. The Page, designed by Los Angeles architects Frank Thornton and Willis Fagan, opened in 1977, will be expanded and given a whole new look; the 12 acres of Hancock Park will be re-landscaped to mold it into as much an outdoor Ice Age museum as the Page will become an immersive indoor reprise of the unique Paleozoic site. The Page is slated to grow by fifty percent in size while somehow adding to, not subtracting from the greenspace – a tricky bit of stagecraft since already the green constitutes just forty-four percent of the site.
The designs included a newly levitated Page Museum rising five stories above its present berm-mound platform, a double figure-eight walkway bridging the lake quarry at Wilshire, and a pinwheel of uplifted grassy plates enclosing a new concrete and glass museum. The plans are on view at the Page Museum through September 15 [see below for details].
The concepts, presented by two New York architecture firms, Weiss/Manfredi and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, and by Dorte Mandrup, of Copenhagen, all propose to take the world’s only active urban paleontological dig, the museum which houses the 3.5 million fossils that have been excavated there, and the surrounding parkland, and unify them into what might be described as a single ecosystem – one, they say, that will be as easily grasped as the saga of the terror-stricken baby mammoth braying for its mother mired in the gooey tar. The three designs envision an entirely new park in which the Ice Age and the fate of Pleistocene flora and fauna are enlisted as a platform to examine, and perhaps address, the imminent perils of Global Warming. 
Lori Bettison-Varga, who heads the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, says the ideas are preliminary and will morph. By December, one of the three firms will be awarded the competition, but will be two years before a final design emerges. The NHM has not released any estimates for the costs of implementing a new master plan.
The Natural History Museum understandably wants to assert the presence and importance of its unique archeology site and collection. The Tar Pits seems like the resident introvert side by side to the extroverts on the block:  LACMA has its design for a $650 million flat-top, white apostrophe bridging Wilshire, the Academy is opening its new galactic glass globe, and the Petersen illuminates the night with its ribbon-wrapped polychromatic spectacle. The proposed master plan would restore a bit of luster.
The three proposals do, however, differ on how deftly they will touch the park and the existing Page Museum. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s was by far the most sweeping. The firm is perhaps best known for designing the remarkably popular High Line, in New York, and the Broad Museum on Grand Avenue.  DSR would demolish the Page and replace it with another sunken concrete box out which would emerge a floating glass volume putting on view the research labs and the vast collection of bones. The new structure would be partially buried beneath a quartet of inclined landscaped concrete plates – like huge strata of rock tilted and lifted by a tectonic collision.  A new entry would descend through tar sands and clay deposits, boring into the submerged ground of the late Pleistocene, 12 feet below the level of the park. (The ground floor of the Page today is 4 feet below the level of the park.) The ramp would be linked to Wilshire Boulevard via an “asphalt plaza,” a black and bituminous walkway beneath a canopy of shade trees, with an “environmental art” installation that, Liz Diller explained, would give the Tar Pits a new identity much the way Urban Lights has done for LACMA. The chief landscape element of the DSR scheme envisions a grid of pathways – laid out like the sectioned gridiron of the park’s archeological digs – creating rectangular landscapes the firm dubs “ecotones.” This grid of mini parks would be planted like a botanical garden, with climate zones ranging from wet to desert-dry, converting the “entire site…[into] a perpetual research project.”
Like DSR, Dorte Mandrup sees the future of the park as a ecological schoolroom which, they hope, would provide “a journey of curiosity that utilizes all senses” and would amplify “the wonder and sheer fun of natural science, as well as addressing local and global challenges.” Chiefly, the firm would loft a five-story museum, with a rooftop garden, above the existing Page. This new exhibition space rests on an undulating floorplate that rises and falls, like a sheet flapping in wind, creating different floor-to-ceiling heights with a variety of spatial experiences. Cutting through this shroud would be three wide pathways, converging in the middle, giving visitors a free peek-a-boo at the museum’s displays. A “research core,” semi-transparent tower, would slice up through the entire building. The new paths, entering and exiting the park, would guide one through defined areas of research and play – which would include a much-wanted dog run, children’s playgrounds, forest trails, a hammock grove of swinging sleeping berths suspended among the trees – and leading from the boulevard and the lake all the way to the western boundary of the park, near the observation pit.
Weiss/Manfredi had perhaps the most subtle yet radical proposal of the three.  The firm titles their project “Loops and Lenses.” The loops are actually one double Mobius strip path, slicing through the park on a diagonal, encircling three distinct areas of science, culture, and fun. The lens is a revised and expanded Page Museum, which would include a new glass and concrete oval exhibit space with a helical ramp leading to its rooftop deck and connected to the old berm-encircled Page by an eyebrow-shaped, elongated lobby surmounted by a terrace linking old to new. The first figure eight of the Mobius path forms a bridge over the quarry lake (reviving an idea proposed in the 1930s), swooping along Wilshire Boulevard beneath a boomerang-shaped diaphanous canopy that acts as the marquee and gateway for the Tar Pits. The swoop and diagonal provide the motifs for everything new in the park, from the museum interiors and exteriors, as well as movement through the park. Weiss/Manfredi also propose to add 400 trees to the park and to replace the existing black steel pike fence with an intermittent white wall that bends in and out of the park perimeter.
Viewed side by side, a number of questions arise about each of the three design proposals. Perhaps the most troubling idea is Diller Scofidio + Renfo’s grid, which imposes on the park about as unpark-like a regimen of paths and greens as to make the Tar Pits little more than a didactic exercise – a sort of cognitive botanic map rather than a neighborhood park. Their “ecotones,” while no doubt geographically and geologically correct, are profoundly arid and devoid of feeling. And, their “ramped forecourt,” sloping into the museum lobby from the “asphalt plaza,” also seems to impose a heavily academic interpretation on a park whose purpose is as much about the Ice Age as it is about a leisurely stroll, a picnic, or tossing a ball with your dog or kid.
The idea of having all the parks’ paths converge in a museum overlook is a good one but it is hard to imagine Dorte Mandrup’s five story structure atop the existing Page Museum not dominating the surrounding landscape. Two new buildings – Wilshire-Curson, the 23-story tower rising on Curson, and LACMA’s museum on stilts – no doubt will loom over the park in unexpected ways. The Tar Pits needs to remain a refuge as much as an attraction, and therein lies the difficulty of expanding the museum. Going up doesn’t seem like an ideal approach.
Weiss/Manfredi’s plans has its virtues. The Mobius, as well as the new museum terrace, which they’ve aligned at 45-degrees to Wilshire, is a smart way of pulling people into the park and unifying the experience. The lobby facing the great lawn, too, seems to answer the problem of creating a museum that’s intimately tied to the park without consuming it, figuratively or literally. The trouble with their design, it seems, is how little space for an actual park would remain after they’d built the terrace and the new oval glasshouse.  In their design, the remaining park space feels planned to the point of over-planned, with no wiggle room for the neighborhood to occupy the park as it does now:  a pleasant refuge with no big plan imposed upon it.  
The trouble with all three of these plans is that they all see the park as a lesson waiting to be shaped into a syllabus. As one member of the DSR team put it, “the park is not about the plants adapting to us, but us adapting to them.”  But that’s not how the Tar Pits – or any good park – works.  The Tar Pits, with all of its faults and lack of a clear “identity,” is an easy détente between its different functions because none dominates another. That's a happy accident of years of benign neglect, occasional tree trimming, tidying of pathways, and the occasional concert or dog-adoption event. The park has been left alone, and that's what makes it an ideal neighborhood park. You can picnic there, take a nap under a tree, walk your dog, play a bit of soccer, dip into the Page Museum or not, or stand and idly watch gaseous asphalt bubbles rise to the surface, gurgle loudly, and pop!  It’s a place where the city – Global Warming hot spot, fossil fuel energy hog, unwieldy metropolis whizzing by on Wilshire – momentarily disappears.
NHM invited the three teams to present conceptual ideas but instead received relatively fully-formed designs. All three need to be thought through much more deeply, and all three need to gain a much more intimate experience of the lives of park-goers than are reflected in their designs. It seems a bit rushed to set a deadline for December, but of the three, Weiss/Manfredi stands out as the best. The dialogue they’ve envisioned between the park and the museum and within the park and its various regions, is the most clearheaded and least imposing. What’s needed now, and in the coming two years, is a design that can become accidental, provisional, fluid, and find a way to merge into the park as it is, and not as someone thinks it ought to be. 



Greg Goldin is the co-author of Never Built New York. A long time resident of the Miracle Mile, Greg was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine for 12 years. He also co-authored Never Built Los Angeles and curated the exhibition of the same name, which premiered at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum. He was the recipient of a coveted Getty Research Institute grant for Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. in 2011. 

Greg has been delegated to assist the MMRA with evaluating proposals for the re-do the Page Museum and Hancock Park – and to ensure that the desires and interests of our community are well represented in the decision-making process.

To which end, please share your opinions and thoughts with us. What is your vision for Hancock Park or the Page Museum? What changes and improvements would you like to see and what would you like to stay the same? You can contact us (or Mr. Goldin) at: [email protected].


Images courtesy of the Natural History Museum. Click on images to enlarge


The Page Museum has free admission for Los Angeles County residents Monday-Friday from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. 


Natural History Museum: Reimagining the La Brea Tar Pits
Take the Reimaging the La Brea Tar Pits Survey 

 Los Angeles Times – Letters to the Editor: Do the La Brea Tar Pits really need any re-imagining?


Greg Goldin is the co-author of “Never Built Los Angeles,” and “Never Built New York,” and is currently working on an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on the history of Central Park. From 2000 to 2012 he was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine.)



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