CO Architects design aims to revitalize iconic Los Angeles museum
CO Architects is helping to breathe new life into the 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.
million project’s focus includes 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. Landscape
design firm Mia Lehrer + Associates collaborated with CO Architects on the design of the outdoor garden spaces.
Currently under construction, the North Campus is set to
open by 2012.
Led by CO Architects’ Jorge de la Cal, principal and project director, and Fabian Kremkus,
associate principal and senior project designer, the project aims to transform NHM into a state-of-the-art, 21st-century museum. The firm’s work at the museum began in 2006 with the renovation and seismic upgrade of the iconic 1913 building. That recently completed renovation was the first phase of an institution-wide metamorphosis — including the rollout of
major new exhibitions — leading up to the museum’s 2013 centennial.
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 seeks to 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.
A prominent feature of NHM’s new ‘front yard’ will be a pedestrian bridge — with an arc 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 place 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 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. Additional 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. 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 such as insects and leaves, 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,” Kremkus said.
Resulting from CO Architects’ re-thinking of the North Campus is 3.5 acres of outdoor
space for educational programming and “urban wilderness” nature experiences. The new
landscape design by Mia Lehrer + Associates seeks to 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’. Community-integrated
green spaces will extend the mission of the museum into the greater
Exposition Park area.