Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Renovation By CO Architects
CO Architects continues its restoration, renovation, and modernization of the venerable Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) with an innovative expansion and re-imagination of the institution’s North Campus, which dates back to the 1920s. The $30-million project’s elements include a redesigned front façade with entry bridge, pedestrian-friendly terraces and communal areas, a new two-level car park, and a major landscape program encompassing 3.5-acres of recovered green spaces with programmed gardens and outdoor learning environments. The outdoor garden spaces are created in collaboration with landscape design firm Mia Lehrer + Associates. Currently under construction, the North Campus is set to open 2011/2012, and is overseen by project manager Cordell Corporation.
Led by CO Architects principal and project director Jorge de la Cal, AIA, LEED AP, and by associate principal and senior project designer Fabian Kremkus, AIA, the firm’s commission to transform NHM into a state-of-the-art, 21st-century museum began in 2006 with the award-winning renovation and seismic upgrade of the iconic 1913 Building. That recently completed endeavor was the first phase of an institution-wide metamorphosis—including the roll-out of major new exhibitions—leading up to the Museum’s 2013 centennial. CO Architects’ work on the 1913 Building has been honored with a Preservation Design Award by the California Preservation Foundation and a Los Angeles Architectural Award for Preservation from Los Angeles Business Council.
While changes on the 1913 Building were primarily invisible—the directive was to retrofit and restore the Beaux-Arts gem and its infrastructure without affecting its appearance—CO Architects’ reinvention of NHM’s North Campus will involve a highly visible transformation of the façades, ingress and egress points, public areas, and exhibition spaces. The redesigned North Campus will enrich the visitor experience, more fully engaging museum-goers with the exhibitions inside, the green spaces outside, and the neighborhood overall, as well as putting an interactive and contextually responsive public face on the museum.
The Museum’s North-facing front entrance looks toward busy Exposition Boulevard, and will be easily accessible by public transportation. According to Metro, the Expo Park/USC Station on the new Expo Line anticipates a 2011 opening. Redesigned in the 1970s, the façade was set back from the street. “It was almost Brutalist in nature, not very inviting,” says de la Cal. To remake the imposing frontage into a welcoming portal for visitors and an inviting urban landscape for passersby, CO Architects is demolishing the concrete terraces that formed the approach to the museum, and is excavating the entire North Campus entry area to provide improved access on two levels.
A prominent feature of NHM’s new “front yard” will be a pedestrian bridge—arced like the shape of a whalebone—leading from the sidewalk to the Museum’s first level. Kremkus had dual inspirations for the bridge design—the Museum’s notable fin whale skeleton and his native Frisian Islands in Germany, where retired sea captains would erect massive whale bones in front of their homes to indicated their eminence in the community.
CO Architects also graded the building’s front grounds to smoothly flow into what was formerly the basement level. Ultimately, programmed indoor and outdoor spaces will intersect all along the street level, including ticketing, information facilities, and a new restaurant extending out to an open-air patio. Further renovations on the Museum’s south façade include a glass elevator and large windows in the east exhibition halls—including the ones that will house the dinosaurs—introducing daylighting into those galleries for the first time.
Since the master plan involves green space reclaimed from a former parking lot, CO Architects designed a new two-story car park—a subterranean and on-grade mesh structure for 221 vehicles—maintaining the number of spaces there previously. The flowering vine-topped facility is sited to minimize impact on pedestrian flow throughout North Campus, and is designed for maximum natural light and ventilation. Thick, circular glass bricks embedded into its floor and walkways will allow daylight to flow between levels and from outside.
A 12-foot green screen will alert drivers to vehicular entrances at the north and south ends of the structure, and resin-cased nature specimens (insects, leaves, etc.) will delineate parking spaces. “This is one of the ways people will feel welcomed into the Museum experience from the minute they enter its grounds, either on foot or in their cars,” says Kremkus.
Resulting from CO Architects’ re-thinking of the North Campus is 3.5 acres of outdoor space ripe for educational programming and “urban wilderness” nature experiences. The new landscape design by Mia Lehrer + Associates intends to dynamically engage visitors with interactive representations of the ecologies of the Los Angeles area, spotlighting native flora and fauna in the spirit of urban biodiversity and “backyard science.” Vibrant community-integrated green spaces will extend the mission of the Museum, and its reverence for nature, into the greater Exposition Park area.
Home to centuries of Los Angeles history—as well as millions of artifacts spanning billions of years—the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is the centerpiece of Exposition Park. Modernized and restored for the future, NHM is ready to take on 21st-century urban life.
In addition to de la Cal and Kremkus, the CO Architects team includes Ed Martinez, Peter Junru Pan, LEED AP, Lisa Canoy, and Chao Chen, LEED AP. In addition to Cordell Corporation and Mia Lehrer + Associates, affiliated firms include electrical engineers IBE Consulting Engineers, structural engineers John A. Martin & Associates, and civil engineers Psomas.
Nationally recognized, Los Angeles-based CO Architects has a proven expertise in meeting the programmatic, contextual, and humanistic needs of high-performance, interdisciplinary buildings and master plans. The firm has designed major “benchmark” and award-winning facilities for clients that include the University of California, Claremont Colleges, Palomar Medical Center West, and Los Angeles Unified School District. The award-winning firm is internationally recognized for its specialization in designing civic, academic, healthcare, research, and medical education environments.