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Museum Considers 5 Design Firms

Architecture: Leaders of the natural history institution in Exposition Park plan a renovation of up to $300 million.


The board of trustees of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has selected five candidates to design a $200-million to $300-million renovation of the museum's Exposition Park complex.

The firms are David Chipperfield Architects, and Foster and Partners, both of London; the Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron; New York's Steven Holl Architects; and Boston's Machada and Silvetti Associates.

Jane Pisano, president and director of the Natural History Museum, told The Times that museum officials will meet with the architects in May, with a final selection due this summer. A capital campaign to pay for the renovation will begin in June 2003, and construction is scheduled for 2006.

The 89-year-old museum, devoted to cultural and natural history, had been considering relocating from its 14-acre site overlooking the Rose Garden in Exposition Park, one of the oldest civic centers in the city. Instead, the trustees decided in 2001 to remain in the park and to preserve the museum's original 1913 structure, as well as a neoclassical foyer, dating from the 1920s, with flanking diorama halls.

The rest of the 410,000-square-foot complex will be demolished or significantly redesigned, including the 1960 Delacour Auditorium; a three-story, 46,000-square-foot addition built in the 1970s; and the entire south facade, which was part of a 1924-1930 addition that was never completed.

"We want a more iconic architecture--something that will be a magnet to the Exposition Park area," Pisano said. "All of these architects are capable of that. The existing additions weren't done in a way that was sensitive to the original structure, and we have an opportunity to have an architecture that relates better to its context, to make a more inside-outside experience with the parks."

Another part of the redesign's aim, Pisano said, will be to open up more of the museum's curatorial and research functions to public view. It will also allow for updating of exhibitions and the creation of an on-site storage area for the museum's collection.

The museum project is part of a broader redevelopment effort in Exposition Park, which is located just south of downtown in a mostly low-income neighborhood adjacent to USC. Across the Rose Garden, plans are underway to transform the 1926 Armory Building into a Science Education Resources Center with an adjoining elementary school designed by the Santa Monica-based architectural firm Morphosis.

The California Science Center, designed by Zimmer Gunsel Frasca, opened in 1998; Frank Gehry's 1984 aerospace museum, which has just undergone an extensive renovation, reopened last month. And the California African American Museum is scheduled to reopen this fall after a $3-million refurbishing.

As recently as last year, museum officials considered a move to a county-owned site on Grand Avenue opposite the Walt Disney Concert Hall, now under construction. But the museum decided not to abandon its historic roots, said Pisano. "Exposition Park is common ground," she said. "We felt strongly that the institution has an important role to play in bridging economic and cultural divides in the city. "

The architects now under consideration were selected from a field of 70. Each has an international reputation and has played a role in the boom in museum design in recent years. Steven Holl was one of five architects who participated in last year's competition to redesign the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He is the architect of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in Helsinki, Finland, in 1999. Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern in London opened in 2000. Norman Foster, the lead architect of Foster and Partners, renovated the British Museum's Great Court, which also opened in 2000. He is designing a major addition for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. David Chipperfield is working on the design for the renovation of Berlin's Neues Museum and an arts center in Verona, Italy. Machado and Silvetti's design for the renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa in Malibu was completed in 1998, although its construction has been stalled by lawsuits brought by the surrounding community.

As part of the final selection process for the Natural History Museum, the architects will present relevant past projects and discuss general strategies for a redesign. They are not being asked to present specific designs for the project, as they would in an architectural competition. Nor do museum officials have plans to visit any of the architects' existing buildings--such tours have also become a common feature of the selection process at major cultural institutions.

"We want to pick an architect, someone who'll be our partner," Pisano said of the interview process. "Not a design."

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