The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is an excellent primer in the ongoing study of how to fix the sometimes brutal mistakes of midcentury LA. In this case, a beautiful 1913 Beaux Arts Museum had been slowly deadened and broken up through several soulless additions between 1925 and 1976. During the same period, acres of surface parking crept over a once grassy expanse, and the museum slowly lost its stature and popularity.
Just in time for the museum’s 100th anniversary, a team led by CO Architects, Cordell Corporation, Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Matt Construction have returned both the grandeur and the grass, adding a 21st century touch through a combination of hi-tech architectural and organic landscape interventions.
Sam Lubell / AN; Courtesy NHM
The museum’s 3.5 acre Nature Gardens, which were made possible by a new two-story parking lot at the corner of the site, were designed to finally bring the institution’s exhibits outside of their built home. Dozens of themed zones are designed as a microcosm of LA’s ecosystems, filled with more than 100 plant species and several landscapes that draw all types of animals and insects. Yet true to its location in South LA, it is all connected to the urban environment by harder materials like chain link, tile, and rebar. “Never be redundant in the way you use your materials,” noted Mia Lehrer.
The Urban Edge along Exposition Boulevard, in which butterfly hedges are interspersed with chain link fence, allows pedestrians outside to peek into the garden, but doesn’t leave visitors too exposed. The Living Wall is made up of jagged dry-stacked rock formations overgrown with plants. And the Water Story recreates the city’s water system, starting with a 27,000-gallon pond inset with boulders and trees, progressing into a waterless arroyo and, eventually, into a contained portion reminiscent of the Los Angeles River. Closer to the museum, Nature Lab, filled with more than 200 specimens of animals and insects, allows scientists from the museum to carry out their studies in the open air, rather than being stuck in a lab. Nearer to the 1913 building, roses grow on telescoping rebar sculptures. Broken tiles from the building’s renovation fill up some of the planted spaces around the edges. Elsewhere, sloping ramps double as amphitheaters.
On the architectural side, CO and Cordell have been working on the project for some time. Much of their renovation and reorganization of the complex—including the renovation of 108,000 square feet of space, with twelve new galleries—was completed a couple of years ago. Now the entire scope of work is complete, including a seismic retrofit of the 1913 building’s grand dome that removed two inches of the concrete slab load and replaced it with lightweight carbon fiber.
The Otis Booth Pavilion is the museum’s centerpiece, a 67-foot-tall glass cube that now welcomes visitors from Exposition Boulevard. The pavilion is entered via a steel pedestrian bridge, whose taut frame was inspired by the huge fin whale skeleton that hangs inside. While not a wholly original form for a science museum, the cube carries out the institution’s goal of attracting people and connecting inside with outside. A translucent scrim LED wall at the rear of the cube pulsates with colored light and images that reflect off the bones of the 63-foot-long whale.
To maintain the feeling of uninterrupted glass, the entire curtain wall, all 144 panels of glass, hangs from steel trusses of similar design to the entrance bridge. Smaller horizontal girders handle wind loads. The glass is clear on the north side and is fritted on the east and west sides. The curtain wall can also be activated by a sound system that makes it vibrate like a speaker.
Finally, after decades of managing in relative obscurity, the museum has a grand new entry and inventive, approachable surroundings.