Entertainment & Arts

LACMA changes building plan to accommodate La Brea tar pits

LACMA’s change in plans
The dotted line shows the original shape of a planned LACMA building, jutting out over a tar pit. The solid line, which stretches over Wilshire Boulevard, is the revised design.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

The tar pits have stared down Peter Zumthor and won.

In a significant concession to concerns raised by its neighbor, the Page Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and architect Zumthor have altered the design of a proposed new building, pulling it back from the La Brea tar pits. In the process, they say, they have also gained preliminary support from city and county officials to extend the new building south so that it spans Wilshire Boulevard.

Leaders at the Page saw an earlier version of Zumthor’s building as encroaching and potentially damaging the tar pits and their surroundings. The square footage in the new LACMA wing lost by giving the tar pits more breathing room will be regained by extending south across Wilshire. LACMA owns a property at the southeast corner of Wilshire and Spaulding Avenue that is now occupied by a surface parking lot.

Approximately one-quarter of the 400,000 square feet of space in the Zumthor wing would be located in the section on the southern side of the boulevard. Car traffic would flow beneath the section spanning Wilshire.


John Harris, chief curator of the Page Museum, had voiced a particular objection to having part of the Zumthor building extend over four of the tar pits.

An overhang “would block off the light, the rain, and that affects the vegetation,” he said last year. “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…. It would go from something that’s totally natural to something artificial.”

LACMA Director Michael Govan had spoken of the initial design as a work in progress.

“Even I know it cantilevers too far,” he said last year. “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 tar pits are an active paleontological research site with a rich deposit of Pleistocene-era fossils — and the deposits don’t stop at the boundaries of the visible pits.

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

In 2006, when LACMA built an underground parking garage, 16 fossil deposits were found. They included bones of bison, horses, camels, saber-toothed cats and a baby mastodon, plus the nearly intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth.

That discovery was fortuitous for the Page. The fossils, embedded in giant chunks of earth, were excavated and became the main focus of science being done at the museum.

Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne contributed to this report.

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