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Natural History Museum Picks Architect for a Radical Renovation

Building: The New Yorker plans to demolish all post-1920s additions to the Exposition Park complex.

July 01, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles County has selected New York-based architect Steven Holl to design a $200-million to $300-million renovation and expansion that would radically alter the existing complex in Exposition Park.

The scope of the renovation would rival the recent plan to tear down and rebuild the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Museum officials, who are to announce Holl's selection today, stress that this is a preliminary plan. Nonetheless, Holl's strategy calls for the demolition of all of the post-1920s additions, retaining the original 1913 Beaux Arts structure and the four 1920s-era diorama halls.

Holl, 54, who has emerged as one of the most celebrated American architects of his generation, was selected over four other entrants: the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron; the Boston-based Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti; Norman Foster & Partners of London; and David Chipperfield, also of London.

The museum's officials have yet to raise any money for the project. But at a time when the county is suffering from severe budget constraints, they insist that the bulk of the funds will be raised from private donations. As much as a third, however, could come from government sources, including a possible county bond issue.

A master plan will be publicly unveiled in fall 2003 and a schematic design in 2004, in time for the start of a major capital campaign. Construction is to begin in 2006, with completion in 2009.

The existing museum, a public and private partnership, is a jumble of mismatched additions that the board considers inadequate for the institution's exhibition goals and storage needs.

The original structure is part of a formal Beaux Arts scheme that extends across the Rose Garden to the east. In 1927, the museum completed its first major addition, a 250,000-square-foot wing. But because of the Great Depression, museum officials were never able to raise the money needed to complete the building's facade. In 1958, the Jean Delacour Auditorium was added, and the North Wing addition, whose Brutalist concrete facade overlooks USC, was completed in 1974.

Holl's plan would restore the original 1913 domed Beaux Arts structure, as well as the existing diorama halls. The unfinished exterior of the 1920s addition would be stripped away, and the new building would slip over the halls like a sleeve, extending to the west and forming an L-shape that would flank two sides of the existing south lawn. Parking would be relocated underground, tucked underneath this new wing.

This configuration would allow Holl to anchor the museum in a series of landscaped parks, each with its own identity. The Rose Garden would retain its formal relationship with the original museum. The south lawn would become a bus drop-off for school groups, as well as the museum's main entry, and would overlook a broad reflecting pool. To the north, the removal of the 1970s addition and a nearby parking lot would make room for a large "science garden" overlooking the USC campus. Holl envisions this park as an extension of the museum's exhibition space that could be used for shows on sustainable housing, garden exhibitions and the like.

The proposed addition, which would house the majority of the museum's collections, rests within these three garden areas, its form pierced by a series of big, amoeba-shaped courtyards. A three-story lobby would cut through the center of the structure, linking the south lawn to the science garden. A narrow, sliver-like tower, which would house museum offices, would rise out of the structure's roof to the east.

These forms have an environmental function. The courtyards, for example, are conceived as gigantic valves that would serve to pump air in and out of the building. A chimney stack set inside the tower would suck hot air out of the underground parking structure.

But the design also is part of a larger idea about how best to reorganize the museum's collections. The museum is now organized as a series of independent collections, which Holl likens to the structure of a tree with a number of independent branches. In its place, Holl suggests a "rhizomatic" plan, in which the various departments are connected via nonlinear paths, so the collection could be experienced in a variety of ways. In this diagram, the courtyards would act as social gathering places, with enormous ramps spiraling up to the museum's upper floors.

A benefit of the scheme, which has not been released to the public due to its preliminary nature, is that it can be phased in over time without shutting down the museum. The addition could be completed first and then opened for exhibits as demolition and renovation proceed on the existing buildings.

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