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Arts and Entertainment

Will LACMA Redesign Jeopardize The La Brea Tar Pits?

La Brea Tar Pits (Photo by via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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A redesign of LACMA's central building that was intended as an homage to the adjoining La Brea Tar pits might end up endangering them instead, scientists worry.

The L.A. Times reports that the new structure, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, will disrupt the ongoing paleontological research at the site.

Zumthor's $650 million redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art includes several overhanging areas and is intended to mimic the tar pits themselves; the Times writes, "Seen from above, the structure's flowing lines resemble a splatter of tar."

John Harris, chief curator of the Natural History Museum's Page Museum, says Zumthor's plan, which is on display at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion, doesn't address how to protect the tar pits.

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"If I understand correctly, this would all be under an overhang," Harris tells the Times. "It would block off the light, the rain, and that affects the vegetation. The example of how current vegetation and small animals get trapped [in tar] is how we demonstrate to people how this incredible wealth of fossils got here in the first place," he says. "It would go from something that's totally natural to something artificial."

LACMA Director Michael Govan promises that the models in the exhibition are not the final vision for the new building.

"Even I know it cantilevers too far," Govan says of the overhangs. "But all of that would get worked out over the next five years. There's no intention to impinge on the tar pits in a negative way. The building is emerging as a sort of celebration of the tar pits; it's meant to magnify the extraordinary natural feature of the site."

Officials of the Page Museum are also concerned that new construction, which is still years off, will damage any fossils on the site.

In 2006, when LACMA added an underground parking garage, 16 fossil deposits were found, including a baby mastodon and a mammoth skeleton, nicknamed Zed, the Times reports. The fossils, known as "Project 23," were packed into 23 crates and are now the main focus of the Page Museum's science. LACMA paid for the excavation, which was a boon for the Page, but a bulldozer also accidentally damaged the mammoth's skull.

After that mishap, another construction project, the expansion of the Purple Line subway, is proceeding with all due caution for any fossils they uncover, Scott McConnell, director of MTA construction management on the new subway tells the Times.

However, this new building won't involve any digging, Govan promises, since it'll be built on the foundations of the old one.

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge tells the Times,"There will be a lot of wrestling—instead of mud, in tar—to find out what's the best vision for this. But [the Zumthor building] is a tremendous concept. I think it's worth it."

Earlier this year, the Times described the project as "one of the most significant works of architecture to rise in Los Angeles since Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall opened 10 years ago."

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