Right in the middle of urban Los Angeles, black tar bubbles up from the ground, often covered in fallen leaves. A registered National Natural Landmark, the La Brea Tar Pits are a rich source of paleontological treasures, having trapped thousands upon thousands of mammoths and other extinct creatures in its sticky liquid asphalt muck.
Today, they’re at the center of Hancock Park, alongside the George C. Page Museum, which itself is full of millions of fossils from the pits, including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, bison, ground sloths, and more. The Tar Pits are the only active paleontological research facility in the world located in a major urban area, and their centerpiece is currently a group of mammoth statues emerging from the fenced-in Lake Pit.
The 12-acre park and its surroundings are due for a makeover, and three major architecture firms are competing to overhaul them, with three very different approaches in mind.
New York-based Weiss/Manfredi proposes preserving most of the park’s existing architecture, adding an elliptical new wing that will facilitate a more cohesive journey throughout the grounds. This wing cuts into the landscape of the park so that anyone walking along the outside can peek into the museum. They would also plant hundreds of additional trees on site and build walkways right over the pits.
“The La Brea Loops and Lenses form a triple mobius that links all existing elements of the park to redefine Hancock Park as a continuously unfolding experience, connecting three distinguishing identities that are latent within the park today: Research and Revelation — the site of the excavation pits and Pleistocene Garden; Community and Culture — where the museum and central green are located; and Spectacle and Urban Fictions — where the lake pit and mastodons join the public imagination on Wilshire Boulevard. The different identities of the loops embody journeys, with programming that appeals to diverse interests — from paleontology to bird watching, from science to play.”
Danish architecture firm Dorte Mandrup would add a new floor and rooftop garden to the museum while keeping the mammoths intact. Their main goal is to expand the museum’s floor area without taking away from the green space outside.
“Our proposal interweaves the park and museum, so [from] the moment you step inside the park you become immersed into the story of the Tar Pits. We want a visit here to be a journey of curiosity, where senses and imagination are instantly awakened. Our hope is that this will bring visitors much closer to the world of natural science, and in turn heighten their understanding of the past, present, and future of our planet.”
By far the most radical of the three, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s proposal would raze the entire museum and rebuild it as a series of stacked, overlapping plates surrounding a glass box, which would house exhibition, collection, and laboratory spaces.
“As an urbanized culture, we are rarely conscious of the geological forces that shape the ground we walk (and drive) on. A new masterplan for the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum offers a unique opportunity to not only heighten awareness of the natural history held underfoot, but also to engender a sense of responsibility towards the role humans play in shaping the environment they inherit.”
The firm continues: “A revitalized Hancock Park is conceived to be the connective tissue between existing and new institutions, public spaces, and urban infrastructure. We have taken a ‘light touch’ approach for the next evolution of the Page Museum, infilling underutilized spaces and reconfiguring what is already there to create a more dynamic and efficient hybrid structure that is both building and landscape.”
Displays of each proposal will be on view at the museum at La Brea Tar Pits through September 15th, so the public can check out renderings, models, and drawings and provide feedback either on-site or online. The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County are expected to decide on one by the end of the year.