Compared to other cities its size, Los Angeles has always been short on icons of public architecture; when one falls out of commission, as the Griffith Observatory did 4 1/2 years ago, we notice the absence all the more.
So it is that Angelenos — particularly students and their teachers, whose field trip roster has been missing one of its top attractions — have been impatiently waiting for the observatory, which has been undergoing a major restoration and addition, to reopen. It finally will in November.
The work on the 1935 building and its three domes, which cost $93 million, has been overseen by Norman Pfeiffer, formerly a partner in the prominent firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and now running his own Los Angeles practice, and L.A.'s Brenda Levin & Associates, a specialist in historical preservation.
Because the leaders of the observatory wanted to maintain the building's architectural presence as seen from the city below — what director Ed Krupp has called "the conscience of the original building" — the new construction, designed by Pfeiffer, will be essentially invisible from afar.
Even from right out front, actually, it will not be easy to spot: To make room for new exhibition space, a café, a gift shop, an auditorium (named for donor Leonard Nimoy) and other facilities, Pfeiffer's scheme carves out roughly 40,000 square feet of space underground, including directly below the observatory's sprawling front lawn, and along the northern edge of the old building. (In its willingness to bury its bulk in the hillside and its clubby, masculine palette of materials, the design has something in common with the new Getty Villa, recently expanded with a kind of luxe reserve by the Boston firm Machado & Silvetti Associates.)
Inside the original building, meanwhile, Levin has been responsible for a thorough restoration of well-loved (and well-trod) space. Among the higher-profile technical upgrades: a $3-million Zeiss projector in the spiffed-up planetarium. It replaces the old projector, also a Zeiss, which was installed in 1964.