Though it might be one of the more historically iconic L.A. tourist destinations—on par with Randy’s Donuts, Norm’s Coffee, and the Hollywood sign—the La Brea Tar Pits is also potentially one of the city’s most “ironic” locations. At least that’s what Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles, espouses when describing the site and the thrust behind its forthcoming reimagining.
New York architecture firms Weiss/Manfredi; Diller, Scofidio + Renfro; and Copenhagen’s Dorte Mandrup, were tapped to create conceptual schemes that rework the four-decade-old George C. Page Museum—designed by Los Angeles architects Frank Thornton and Willis Fagan—and create integrated user experiences with designs that include everything from slick stone möbius strip walkways to a glass-edge lake barrier around the asphalt pits. Those plans, unveiled on Monday, will be on display at the museum through September 15, as well as being viewable on the Tar Pits’ website.
While Bettison-Varga admits it was initially hard for the public to offer feedback under the “Reimagine La Brea Tar Pits” tab at TarPits.org, she encourages Hancock Park locals and all Angelenos to offer thoughts on whether or not the plans are a good fit for the community, and if they will make locals and tourists want to visit the park more often to learn just how, since research began in 1913, the Tar Pits have provided a near-complete record of the flora and fauna that have occupied the L.A. Basin for the past 50,000 years.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s Ice Age, it’s climate and ecological change, it’s mastodons and saber tooth cats. They kind of get that, but they also think it’s dinosaurs. It’s not dinosaurs,” says Bettison-Varga. “Because the museum doesn’t really speak to it in this way because the exhibits were done 40 years ago, how the work that’s going on there tells us about natural climate change, natural ecological change and how the rate today is different in a place where the very substance that is partly responsible for what’s happening with the climate today is being extracted from that site.”
The museum’s listening-tour approach to the redesign seems to have resulted, at least in part, from the blowback experienced by the top-down and somewhat secretive master plan for the new Peter Zumthor building replacing the eastern half of the LACMA campus. However, despite any efforts for transparency, the Tar Pits revamp will be the third major Miracle Mile project—in addition to LACMA and the Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures—to have passed over an L.A. architect for its design.
“We have been expanding our public programming footprint at the Natural History Museum and we want to see that at the Tar Pits,” says Bettison-Varga. “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. We want that to be more intentional but also less formal. It seems like a bit of a conflict, but we’re absolutely trying to meet the public where they are.”
Indeed, in this anti-science moment, a forward-facing, actively engaged science museum can serve as an important tool for explaining climate change. But why, in a city as rich in talent as Los Angeles, wasn’t there a single local architectural team—out of 16 engaged from an initial group of 80—that museum brass felt could address these concerns?
On the heels of the plans’ public unveiling, we spoke to Dr. Bettison-Varga about NHMLAC’s thought process.
Can you tell me about these three plans for the Tar Pits? Are they all still prospective?
We have selected the three finalists and will make the selection of those finalists by the end of the year.
What was the screening process for finalists?
We worked with Reed Kroloff who helped us initially consider over 80 architectural firms from around the world. We narrowed that down to 16 and we sent out a request for information from those 16. We got 13 back, we interviewed six, and we selected these three. We had a pretty clear request for information, we wanted to make sure people understood this was an indoor-outdoor plan, it really wasn’t about a museum but a museum that extends to the park. Then we had people who had put together teams that really integrated the landscape with the architecture and understood the scientific importance that the Tar Pits have for the world and repurposing important buildings.
You came on in 2015 when [former director] Jane Pisano was finishing the capital campaign. Was this project planned when you came aboard? Was it timed to coincide with the new LACMA building?
Yes, when I came on it was clear that the Tar Pits was going to be the focus of the museum’s attention going forward. Obviously having a more cohesive and integrated park experience is important and the LACMA project stimulates thinking around that as well as, of course, as the Academy [Museum]. That whole region as an urban space, it’s better to be thinking about these things collectively and it’s an opportunity. The Metro [Purple Line] stop is coming in, of course, so it was definitely on the list of things we knew was going to be a priority.
I went through a strategic planning process and through that process we had a focus group looking at the opportunities of the Tar Pits and produced an Opportunity Assessment that is online. Then we started our listening. Before coming down to the point of interviewing teams we were working with the community and getting input as to how they thought about that space, how they responded to the Tar Pits and what was memorable about it to them.
When was that?
We finished that last fall. It actually confirmed for us a lot of the things we knew internally just from what we hear.
What stood out to you?
First off, the community around that park were very clear they want civic space: places for them to walk their dogs, be with their kids, and convene in community activities. There is not a lot of green space around the region, as you know. We also heard that the fiberglass mammoths and mastodons are iconic, they’re part of the pop culture aspect of the location. It also confirmed for us that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the place is: it really is a place people recognize and know as L.A. and they may have visited, and they may have brought family and friends from out of town, but they don’t really know how significant it is and what it contains.
Each of the plans has a different perspective in terms of what the experience might be—what made these three proposals stand out to the committee?
The first thing is we didn’t see the proposals. The six teams that we interviewed, we were interviewing those teams to see how they would approach the space as a multi-disciplinary project, who they would bring to the table, and what projects they had done that they could offer as examples of that work. So we selected the three firms based on those interviews.
Wait, they didn’t make proposals before they were selected?
No, they did not make proposals before they were selected. They were selected and then we had incubator events. We had all three teams there because we wanted them to be part of the brainstorming experience, to see how people were thinking about the space across disciplines, from education, science and culture to technology and entertainment. All of those sectors were there at the incubator and people were engaging collectively about the experience, the place, what would be important to preserve, what we might do differently in how to present it. They were all there and we announced these were the three teams, but the benefit of having them all there and this background and listening and engagement of the place—they all got tours of it—is that then they went off and did their work and then presented their proposals to us on Monday. So we did not select them based on the proposals we selected them based on the quality of the team and the prior work that they had done.
That seems a bit inverted compared to how big public-private commissions such as this usually play out. Is there a reason you decided to do that? Was it community engagement that was leading that?
Yeah, it’s atypical. It’s a great responsibility having to meet these different needs and we really felt that the quality of the team and the way they resonated with what we were talking about internally and in terms of this incubator—how they actually listened and interpreted that was important—and the community and my staff, we wanted them engaged in the process. Of course when we selected the finalists and we start there’s a whole process that goes on. These are just conceptual approaches. So now we have this opportunity for the public to weigh in and tell us individually what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of these different proposals.
Weiss/Manfredi is known for doing these parks and university communal spaces on the East Coast, obviously Diller, Scofidio + Renfro did the High Line, and Dorte Mandrup has this commercial-civic scenario with Ikea buildings and whatnot, so what about their interviews stood out?
Well, I wouldn’t characterize Dorte on her commercial work but more her UNESCO World Heritage Site work. So I think the sensitivity to location, I think they just broke ground on the Icefjord Centre in Greenland and the form of that is just so beautiful and the way she integrated her work into the environment at the Wadden Sea Centre was just really attractive to the committee. Then she’s done some repurposing of historical buildings. We had the immense honor of interviewing amazing teams. We did look at L.A. architects. The final team selected will have an L.A. partner. These three rose to the top for us because of all the criteria we were looking for and how they presented their work to us back in the spring.
What does that mean exactly: an L.A. partner?
Well, we haven’t formally defined what that means for them and that will be a conversation for them in terms of who they select, but technically some of them already have L.A. partners. Dorte has Martha Schwartz Partners and Gruen Associates, Liz [Diller] and her team are working with almost everybody including Walter Hood, who did the Broad, and then Weiss/Manfredi are working with an L.A. firm called Imaginary Forces, who has worked with the museum a bunch, and they work more on experiential opportunities. We haven’t formally defined what it means to be an L.A. Partner, we want to see what that means for us with the final team selected.
I guess the logical question is why an L.A. firm wouldn’t even make the top three given the backlash over the LACMA situation.
Yeah, well, I know that’s certainly a question mark out there and I know that there are people who wish that we had an L.A. firm in the mix but here’s the thing, this museum has to be in this location because it is a unique location in the world. It is in Los Angeles, it is an L.A. icon, but we didn’t feel that we needed to be committed to L.A. architects because it is an international gem. So balancing that was interesting for us. Certainly we hoped that we would have had an L.A. architectural firm at the forefront of this but the way that we did this process and the criteria that the selection committee used was very specific to having that sense of true integration of that indoor-outdoor experience in a civic space so these are the ones that rose to the top. There are many wonderful firms in L.A. and I don’t want it to seem like we don’t appreciate that, we absolutely do, but these three brought the perspective to the table in the early phase of the selection that we felt resonated best with our project.
Yeah, I guess I’m thinking about this knowing you did this process without proposals so an L.A. team didn’t even get to the point of making a proposal, but then got excluded on the basis of an interview process. That might strike some people in L.A. as awkward.
Yeah, it might, it certainly might. I would hope that the folks in L.A., particularly the architectural community—there were several there at the presentation on Monday and I think they all enjoyed the presentation, at least the ones I had a chance to talk with—will see that we’re really trying be embracing of the community and we’re really transparent about our process and we want to be responsive to the concerns. At the end of the final selection having this feedback is going to be important to us and we will really think about what that L.A. partner should be for the Los Angeles community to really embrace this work. But I think that the public is actually more concerned about what is going to happen with the mammoth and the mastodon. It’s a balance clearly.
Are the architects concerned about coming into a situation and space that is politically fraught at this point?
You know I think they probably have different awarenesses of that and I wouldn’t want to speak for them about it but I do think you can see in their responses how big they are thinking about L.A. and how their interpretation may or may not reflect how tuned in they are. So I don’t want to speak for them but I do want to be clear that our approach for this project is not a starchitecture building, it’s not what we’re trying to find here and we’re really intent on having a final plan that people in L.A. are really proud of and excited about so that will definitely be a part of the conversation at the end of the final selection and the L.A. partner that is brought in to work with the team.
Given that there was quite a bit of uproar about the selection process at LACMA with Zumthor and the committees, is the idea that you’re taking this listening tour approach are these comments meant to be integrated into the final design?
Absolutely. I think what we will end up doing is pulling out the themes from the comments and whatever team is selected we’re going to use those comments as a beginning platform for the real work of the masterplan. So that will happen before we have that last step, but the design work is not really going to happen until we have that final team. We’ll have this information setup through the master planning process where we’ll have this community engagement, but we’ll have a lot of information already about what people are excited about with respect to the teams’ concepts and what they are not excited about and that will help us frame the next steps.
The issue with the LACMA process was that it appeared to just be a final plan [from Peter Zumthor] that was going forward regardless of community input, whereas these are all proposals subject to change given community input.
Absolutely, these are just conceptual approaches at this point. The elements, the approaches that are here are just a starting point for the design work that will happen once we embark on the planning process.
So if the community suggested Robert Irwin do the landscape design could that possibly happen?
It could very well be. We’re going to take the ideas folks bring to us and using that as we move forward. Look, there’s a lot of sense of ownership about this place and we really want this to be seen as an ideation process that people from the public can be engaged in. Also realizing that it’s a research museum, a collections facility, an archive, but we really do want the community to feel like we are hearing them and that we are embracing them and we will give this back in the final plan.
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