Museum's Proposed Architectural Homage to Tar Pits May Have Backfired

Models display concerns that the remade museum may encroach too closely on the Tar Pits

By Patrick Healy
|  Friday, Aug 16, 2013  |  Updated 10:07 AM PDT
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A proposal for modernizing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art includes design features said to draw their cues from its neighboring natural wonder.  However, scientists worry a curving cantilevered roof would encroach too closely above one end of the Tar Pits.  Patrick Healy reports from Miracle Mile for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2013.

Patrick Healy

A proposal for modernizing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art includes design features said to draw their cues from its neighboring natural wonder. However, scientists worry a curving cantilevered roof would encroach too closely above one end of the Tar Pits. Patrick Healy reports from Miracle Mile for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2013.

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It's a recurring LA story: one neighbor's reservations about a remodel proposed next door. But the dispute rises to new levels when the remodel would be the long anticipated remake of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the worried neighbors are the overseers of the historically and scientifically significant La Brea Tar Pits.

Yet a detente may now be at hand after the looming spat between sister county entities splashed onto the front page of Thursday's Los Angeles Times.

With encouragement from County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, both sides have expressed willingness to work together to solve the concern that the remade museum would encroach too closely on the Tar Pits.

Models of the proposal now on display at the museum feature a sweeping, curving, cantilevered roof that would actually extend over the western end of the main Lake Pit, almost like an awning shielding sun and rain -- not necessarily a good thing from the perspective next door.

The Tar Pits are overseen by the County's Natural History Museum. Both its director, and the curator of its George C. Page Museum at the Tar Pits, have raised concerns that the encroachment could alter their natural state, and that construction so close could possibly affect future fossil recovery.

Ironically, renowned Swiss architect Peter Zumthor had intended the roof's curving shape to mimic a splatter of tar as an homage to the natural wonder, and to incorporate it as a design theme in modernizing the museum campus.

Museum Director Michael Govan emphasized to Times reporter Deborah Vankin that the models are far from final, and that the museum is open to working out the details over the next several years before any construction would begin.

"Even I know it cantilevers too far," the Times quoted Govan as saying. His staff on Thursday said he was out of the office and not reachable for further comment. Natural History Museum Director Jane Pisano was also said to be away Thursday.

But her staff released a written statement which reciprocates LACMA Director Govan's offer of cooperation.

"I am looking forward to working with Michael Govan to better understand, and then mitigate, the impact of the current project design upon the La Brea Tar Pits so that we can continue to explore the rich deposits of fossils while preserving this important paleontological site," reads the statement attributed to Pisano.

Something may still smell rotten at the Tar Pits -- but county officials hope it's nothing more than the usual seeping gases.

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