Interactive Ooze: Three Visions for a New La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits Mammoths / National History Museum of Los Angeles

Keep the kitschy but beloved fiberglass Columbian Mammoth family or not? That’s just one of many design decisions facing the three teams who are finalists in a competition to re-imagine a museum, active paleontology research center, and public park, which together make up La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

According to The Los Angeles Times, problems with the current complex include limited entrances and too many fences around Hancock Park, which is itself “circuitous” with “often confusing pathways,” and outdated display exhibitions in the George C. Page Museum, which is decades old and leaks. The complex is also not well connected to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) next door and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures just down the road.

The National History Museums of Los Angeles County, which runs the site, called for multi-disciplinary teams of architects, landscape architects, artists, and scientists to create bold concepts for an ecological and accessible educational landscape.

They also purposefully asked for dramatically different concepts stakeholders and the public can parse. One proposal calls for totally redesigning the original museum, which is from the late 70s, and two for remodeling and expanding the museum. One proposal calls for removing parking all together, while others call for burying and covering parking spaces in green space. (Previous excavations for a parking garage in the tar pits yielded skeletons of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, a nearly-intact mammoth, and the partial remains of a prehistoric woman).

All the design teams propose integrating building and landscape into a more cohesive whole and creating new circulation systems through the lakes, green spaces, oil pools, and laboratories that can result in a more immersive experience.

The proposal developed by a team led by Danish architecture firm Dorte Mandrop, which includes landscape architecture firm Martha Schwartz Partners, along with Gruen Associates, Arup, and Kontrapunkt, calls for a layered approach that builds off the Pleistocene landscape to create an ecological museum park that is filled with “wonder and sheer fun.”

The museum is currently submerged within landscape berms, with just its “halo” visible, making it difficult to find from some directions. The team proposes gutting the museum, but keeping its essential form, and then lifting it up so it becomes a center point and covering it with a green roof. Pathways from all corners of the triangular site will lead to this more visible educational hub.

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Dorte Mandrop, Martha Schwartz Partners, Gruen Associates, Arup, and Kontrapunkt

The landscape itself is completely redesigned. Some “cherished aspects,” like a berm kids love to roll down, will take new form. And the mammoth family will stay. New boardwalks will help visitors explore the new park featuring native-plant lawns and gardens and mega fauna-themed playgrounds. “Discovery scaffolds,” or sculptural fencing, will enable visitors to peer into the gurgling tar pits but also keep these research sites secure. And parking will be buried under expanded green space.

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Dorte Mandrop, Martha Schwartz Partners, Gruen Associates, Arup, and Kontrapunkt

Martha Schwartz Partners worked with Pamela Conrad, ASLA, at CMG Landscape Architecture, the founder of Climate Positive Design, to create a landscape design that sequesters an estimated 10,000 metric tons of CO2 through “tiny forests; super-sequestering plants; low-carbon materials like wood, sand, lightweight fill and gravel; and reducing and reusing materials on site.”

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Dorte Mandrop, Martha Schwartz Partners, Gruen Associates, Arup, and Kontrapunkt

According to Conrad, “the carbon footprint will be offset within five years of being constructed – meeting the goals of the Climate Positive Design Challenge.”

The second proposal developed by a team led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which includes landscape architecture firms Hood Design Studio and Rana Creek Design, along with Nabih Youssef Associates and Arup, embraces the messiness of the oily landscape that seeps asphalt.

The team proposes an entry way into a new museum that will take visitors through the layers of the geological past, sunken plazas where visitors can watch the landscape ooze, an oil creek, and a more seamless tar pit lake.

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hood Design Studio, Rana Creek Design, Nabih Youssef Associates, and Arup.

The team also proposes experimentation and exploration in Hancock Park, including different ecological zones and “test landscapes,” as well an interactive dig site where visitors can get closer to the scientific action.

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hood Design Studio, Rana Creek Design, Nabih Youssef Associates, and Arup.

But the mammoths are gone, as is parking, which they propose moving off the complex, perhaps to avoid digging an underground parking garage that would disturb the ecological and scientific integrity of the site.

The existing Page Museum would be replaced by a glass cube surrounded by four landscape plates that visitors would be able to walk up (and roll down). The plates are an evolution of the sloped roof lawns DS+R created at Lincoln Center in New York City.

La Brea Tar Pits design proposal / Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hood Design Studio, Rana Creek Design, Nabih Youssef Associates, and Arup.

Lastly, the concept created by a team led by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, which includes Mark Dion, Dr. Carole Gee, Michael Bierut, Karin Fong, and landscape architects Michael Steiner, ASLA, and Robert Perry, ASLA, proposes generally keeping the form of the existing museum, but expanding the overall exhibition space by adding a second elliptical wing and connecting them via a plaza covered in a berm. The overall effect is a sinuous, interconnected complex that is more open and inviting.

La Brea Tar Pits proposal / Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, Mark Dion, Dr. Carole Gee, Michael Bierut, Karin Fong, Michael Steiner, ASLA, and Robert Perry, ASLA

This team is the only one to propose an elevated pathway across the tar lake, creating the opportunity for looping pathways and spaces for vast lawns, “pit stops” for play, intimate “paleobotanical gardens,” and close-up encounters with the fiberglass mammoths. The team proposes planting some 400 trees at the edges of the central greens.

La Brea Tar Pits proposal / Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, Mark Dion, Dr. Carole Gee, Michael Bierut, Karin Fong, Michael Steiner, ASLA, and Robert Perry, ASLA
La Brea Tar Pits proposal / Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, Mark Dion, Dr. Carole Gee, Michael Bierut, Karin Fong, Michael Steiner, ASLA, and Robert Perry, ASLA

A pathway of discovery leads visitors through the tar pit section of Hancock Park, which would feature Pleistocene-themed native plant gardens and a new amphitheater for public events.

A jury will decide on the winning proposal later this fall.

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