Located next to the LA Coliseum and the USC campus, in a concrete-dominated part of the city, LA County’s Natural History Museum has long been trying to carve out a niche for itself in the urban jungle. But the museum hopes to emerge from the weeds today with plans for a grand new north campus that will combine aspects of landscape and exhibition design to create a dramatic new space at the entrance to the 97-year-old institution.
The $30 million, 3.5-acre project will include lush gardens and plazas, various outdoor exhibits, and architectural elements that integrate closely with these surroundings. The project is the most ambitious merger of architecture and landscape in California since San Francisco saw the completion of Renzo Piano’s undulating green roof at the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences in 2008.
The project is being carried out by local firm CO Architects, which is just completing a historic renovation and seismic retrofit of museum's original 1913 Building; by Mia Lehrer+ Associates landscape architects, and by Cordell Corporation project management. The designers will not only be working closely with each other but also with the museum’s staff of scientists and curators to help devise the new park.
“Exhibits, architecture and landscape will all be integrated. You can’t tell where one begins and one ends,” said Fabian Kremkus, an associate principal at CO, which has been working on the new campus project for about two years.
Museum staff dreamed up the North Campus plan hoping to take advantage of the local climate and to continue to re-energize the museum after its recent renovation, which added seven new galleries and five new permanent exhibitions inside. “Our exhibits and programs had been frankly somewhat old-fashioned,” Karen Wise, vice president for education and exhibits at the museum, said of the museum's approach prior to this new work.
The new landscape was made possible when the county agreed to fund a new $10 million multi-level car park for the museum, freeing up land once used for surface parking. The additional $20 million for the campus will be raised by the museum.
The parking garage, to be located on the northwest edge of the project, is located on the site of a proposed addition by New York architect Steven Holl. Holl’s plan, first floated in 2002, has not been able to attract enough funding to go forward, Cynthia Wornham, a museum spokesperson, said. “There are no plans at this point, but we continue to reserve space for a building if funding becomes available in the future,” she said, with the potential for adding the new building to the car park.
When completed in July 2011, the entry to the museum from Exposition Boulevard will be dramatically altered. Visitors will make their way through eleven thematic zones, including the Urban Edge, made of a series of butterfly and bird hedges formed by angled steel panels and fences; the Entrance Plaza, a decomposed granite gathering place filled with plant life that will serve as a meet-up point; and the Living Wall, a stone barrier made from rubble of the museum’s former north entrance set with plants, insects, and other wildlife.
On the east portion of the new campus, museum curators and scientists plan to create a variety of habitats, including a Pollinator Garden for insects like butterflies and bees; an Urban Wilderness full of native trees and plants set with habitats for birds and insects; and a Home Garden, a terraced grounds of fruit trees and other plants meant largely for educational instruction. Many of these habitats will be intended for visitors, but others, Wise points out, will be meant for museum scientists to carry out experiments. Most will be fitted with their own architectural elements. The Pollinator Garden, for instance, will include plexiglass skylights and stepped wooden platforms to allow visitors to get as close as possible to the wildlife.
Meanwhile the major architectural elements of the campus will all be inspired by, and merged with, these landscape features. Even the car park will fuse with the land, as it will be fitted with a wire mesh canopy of flowering vines to create hummingbird and butterfly habitats. A new bridge to the main entrance will be made of curved white steel trusses, abstractly emulating gigantic whale bones, and its concrete walkway will be set with shells.
Kremkus thinks that the new project is a step beyond what was built at Piano's Academy of Sciences, since its natural elements will be easier to visit, and more tied to the earth. Meanwhile Mia Lehrer is excited about how the project will inevitably evolve over time. She noted, there is no way to know which plants will attract which animals, and vice versa, until the project is in place. “It’s scientific exploration," she said. "We know certain things are going to work, but as we go things are going to adjust and add and subtract."