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Peter Zumthor's LACMA plan worries Page Museum at La Brea tar pits

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The design for the central building in a reimagined Los Angeles County Museum of Art was inspired by the adjacent La Brea tar pits. Seen from above, the structure's flowing lines resemble a splatter of tar.

But scientists doing the work of recovering fossils from the oozing asphalt aren't sure they like Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's homage. They fear the massive construction required to replace four of LACMA's existing buildings with Zumthor's structure could upset the science at the tar pits, an active paleontological research site with a rich deposit of Pleistocene-era fossils that draws visitors from around the world.

John Harris, chief curator of the Natural History Museum's Page Museum, adjacent to LACMA, says Zumthor's plan so far doesn't address how to protect the tar pits.

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Although groundbreaking would be years off, plans and models for the overhaul are already on display at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion.

"If I understand correctly, this would all be under an overhang," Harris says, gesturing toward the four tar pits closest to the museum's 1960s-era Hammer building. "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 adds. "It would go from something that's totally natural to something artificial."

Jane Pisano, director of the Natural History Museum, has questions about the Zumthor building's effect on a different area of the tar pits.

The models show that the larger, so-called lake pit to the east of the museum would be shadowed by the cantilevered roof — "subsuming it under LACMA," says Pisano, who has been unable to get a map that would show a true overlay of the building on the current site. "It would completely change your perspective on the lake pit — and that's an iconic symbol of the tar pits."

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LACMA Director Michael Govan says the models in the exhibition are not unlike sketches, far from final designs.

"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."

The La Brea tar pits and the Page Museum, which displays more than 1 million Ice Age fossils, have a vaunted reputation among natural historians. "I don't think there's a parallel to it anywhere in the world in terms of [fossil] abundance," says Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

In 1986, construction of LACMA's Japanese Pavilion inadvertently unearthed invertebrate fossils.

In 2006, when the museum built an underground parking garage, 16 fossil deposits were found — bones of bison, horses, camels, saber-toothed cats and a baby mastodon, among others, as well as the museum's famed mammoth skeleton, nicknamed Zed.

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That discovery was fortuitous for the Page. The fossils, embedded in giant chunks of earth, were collected into 23 huge crates — what's now called "Project 23" — and are the main focus of science being done at the Page. The excavation was paid for by LACMA, which hired the archaeological and paleontological mitigation firm ArchaeoPaleo Resource Management to oversee the salvaging of the fossils and coordinate with the Page.

During construction, however, Zed the mammoth's skull was accidentally damaged by a bulldozer. Harris wants to make sure similar damage doesn't happen to fossils that might be unearthed during future construction.

The Page, he points out, is working closely with L.A. County's Metropolitan Transit Authority on the Purple Line subway extension. With the help of an outside cultural resources management company hired by the MTA, and consultation with the Page, the transit agency plans to start test drilling as early as next month on the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Drive to explore the underground landscape — not only gas conditions and earth pressure, but the potential for fossil discovery — says Scott McConnell, director of MTA construction management on the new subway.

"The MTA has plans, several years in the making, about mitigating the fossils they're almost bound to encounter," says Harris, the Page curator. "We don't have enough detailed information right now about the Zumthor project, and that's concerning."

Govan doesn't expect the Zumthor building to require an excavation like the 2006 parking lot project.

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"The working assumption is that we would build on the foundations of the existing buildings," he says. "We're not planning an underground floor. There's tar, there's a high water table, it's very complicated to dig down on the site. With the current plan, it is unlikely that we would find any fossils."

"That's not clear from the models," says Harris, who is not persuaded by Govan's assertion that the new museum would rise from the foundations of the old.

Govan must still raise $650 million for the building and its environs, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors must approve the plan. Architectural preservationists may also weigh in about demolishing the current LACMA buildings.

"There are literally thousands of technical issues to be worked out with the Page and on LACMA's side as well," Govan says. "But I can't imagine it would be anything other than a good conversation and that we'd work collaboratively."

Frank Gehry, who encountered multiple hurdles before his Walt Disney Concert Hall was built, knows how fraught things can get when trying to construct ambitious architecture.

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"They'll go through a bath of fire before it's done; it's the reality of building things today," Gehry says. "But if the architecture is as good as we hope and expect it to be, and if it fits perfectly, as it can, into the culture of the museum and its collections, then it's going to be fantastic."

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes LACMA and the Page, also expects charged dialogue in the days ahead.

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

Harris is confident the Page Museum and LACMA will be able to work it out, as they have in the past.

"I just want to make sure," he says, "that the fossils [and] this unique scientific resource are preserved for posterity."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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