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Architecture Review

The new California Science Center is a commanding presence and unifying element at a neglected site.

February 02, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The California Science Center--which opens Saturday--is a strange fusion of past and future. The massive geometric forms of its new entry plaza gleam like a mock lunar city. Turnthe corner and an elegant Beaux-Arts facade--the only detail restored from the original building--evokes a world of wire-rim glasses and bowler hats.

The 245,000-square-foot, $130-million museum is only the first phase in an ambitious plan that will extend 900 feet along Coliseum Drive. Two new wings will be added later to the science center to create a 600,000-square-foot complex that will include an aquarium and an extension of the existing aerospace halls. For those who regret the loss of the original Museum of Science and Industry, only the brick-and-terra-cotta facade of the original Ahmanson Building remains from the structure that was damaged during the Northridge earthquake.

Despite the building's clumsy amalgam, this is a powerful work of architecture. Few buildings are able to truly engage their context. This one reshapes it. Designed by Portland, Ore.-based Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, the Science Center is also the centerpiece of a master plan for a $300-million rehabilitation of Exposition Park. And clearly the architects' mission was to use the building to give form to that larger urban vision. They succeed on many levels: The Science Center is a generous public work. And the thoughtful organization of its various components gives sudden unity to a park that over time has been severely damaged by ill-conceived additions and general neglect. The building will do much to reassert Exposition Park's civic presence.

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The Ahmanson Building--opened in 1913 as an exhibition hall--was one of three buildings that frame the 1920s-era sunken rose garden quadrangle that is still Exposition Park's historic center. Yet the three have rarely functioned as a cohesive whole. The Museum of Natural History, for example, which opened that same year and whose domed facade is the most beautiful of the trio--boarded up its garden entrance during the 1930s, reorienting itself toward the Coliseum. During the 1970s, a second--more brutal--addition was added to the Natural History Museum's north side, making that museum's garden entrance virtually obsolete. In fact, although the original entry rotunda has since been restored, it still cannot be entered from the rose garden.

In 1988, when the decision was made to tear down the Museum of Science and Industry, it was the Los Angeles Conservancy that stepped in and convinced museum officials that to do so would destroy the historical character of the park. In the final compromise, only the garden-facing facade has been saved. The rest was demolished to make room for the new science center. (The third building--the former National Guard Armory--has been vacant since 1990. It is now being converted into a school.)

Until the addition of the new science center, Exposition Park had been vaguely divided into two competing parts: sports and culture. The construction of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1923 was the first step in the creation of a sprawling sports complex that seemingly had little connection to the more highbrow tone of the old quadrangle. Nearby, a swim stadium was added in 1932; the Los Angeles Sports Arena was added in 1959. By then, any cohesion in the park had been destroyed. Part of the function of the California Science Center building will be to reunite these two zones.

The museum's new entry faces south, toward the Coliseum. On one side, the cube-like form of a new Imax theater--clad in patterned orange tile--faces the entry to the exhibition galleries. Together these two elements frame the Robert H. Lorsh Family Pavilion, a large, circular plaza partially enclosed under a massive elevated rotunda, 100 feet in diameter and clad in perforated steel. The entire apparatus is perched on concrete columns and supports a long ramp that spirals up the rotunda's interior and connects the theater to the rest of the museum. The rotunda's center glitters with thousands of suspended gold and palladium leaf orbs--a playful rendition of the cosmos by artist Larry Kirkland.

The arrangement of these various architectural elements is powerful. The cylinder-shaped rotunda gives the plaza a monumental presence while allowing visitors to slip into it from both ends of Coliseum Drive. But the pavilion also has a functional role: It allows crowds to circulate up to the museum's second story without crossing back down to the plaza. Visitors will enter the Imax theater from the plaza below and then exit along the rotunda's internal ramp, enabling them to travel up to the museum's second floor. From there, they can work their way back down in the opposite direction, though the exhibits. It is a playful urban promenade in miniature. What's more, it serves to draw the experience of the museum out into the public realm.

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