With the Griffith Observatory finally set to reopen Friday after a restoration and expansion project that stretched nearly five years and cost $93 million, it’s time for a quick round of Pick Your Astronomical Metaphor.
There is, for starters, the expanding-universe theory of Los Angeles architecture, which holds that when the observatory was finished in 1935, its outward-looking design and hillside perch perfectly suited a city whose growth seemed limitless. Now that there’s nowhere left to sprawl, the architects who led the project, Stephen Johnson of Pfeiffer Partners and Brenda Levin, have responded with what might be called an infill renovation, burying 39,000 square feet of space beneath the existing building.
Or maybe you prefer a timely comparison to Pluto, exiled in August from the ranks of the planets. You could make a tidy rhetorical case that the original observatory, at 27,000 square feet the smallest of L.A.'s major public landmarks, was itself in danger of being downgraded while it was closed — and that the expansion, in more than doubling its size, has given the building enough heft to avoid Pluto’s fate.
Personally, though, I like the dark-matter hypothesis, which goes like this: Because the observatory’s new galleries are inward-looking and invisible from afar, visitors may find the expansion disappointingly slight. But just as astrophysicists insist that dark matter, though impossible to measure directly, is reflected in the gravitational pull it exerts on other bodies, maybe the most useful way to judge the new observatory is by watching how Angelenos are drawn to it.
No building in the city will be able to match its powerful pull in the coming months. That may take some sting out of the fact that the new underground spaces are for the most part more serviceable than inspiring, never matching the expansive spirit and compact elegance of the original building.
Not that it would have been easy: The observatory, after all, belongs on any list of L.A. icons that deserve full deference. Los Angeles has now managed, despite odds that once looked impossibly long, to refurbish its four major public landmarks from the first half of the 20th century, with the observatory joining City Hall, the Central Library and Union Station.
With significant contributions from Russell Porter, the amateur astronomer and highly skilled draftsman whose shadow falls on every corner of the observatory, John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley produced a building emblematic — in its easy, stripped-down blend of Egyptian, Art Deco and Moderne elements — of that golden age of public architecture. The exquisite restoration has made that remarkably clear.
One of the best places to feel the observatory’s revived pulse is out near the edge of its sphere of influence, at the satellite parking lots — one at the Hollywood & Highland complex, a second at the Los Angeles Zoo — that serve the restored building. City officials guess that shuttle buses will operate from those lots for about a year, helping the observatory absorb a crush of visitors that would overwhelm its modest parking lot.
You know a building has power if it persuades people in this city to ride a bus to go see it. There is a similar process at Richard Meier’s Getty Center in Brentwood: Drop off your car at the bottom of the hill and climb aboard. But in that case the tram, noiseless and as purely white as any classic Meier design, is very much of a piece with the whole Getty experience, which is to say very much detached from the life of the city.
The ride to the observatory begins right in the middle of that life, for better and worse. That is to say, your experience of the expanded building begins with the exhaust fumes and the rumbling engine and, perhaps most significant, the face-to-face contact with fellow residents of Los Angeles.
If you take the bus from the zoo, as I did one evening last month, you will find yourself first rolling down Los Feliz Boulevard and then up Hillhurst Avenue to Vermont. At this point the city begins to recede and the landscape of Griffith Park takes over. Before long, the observatory slips into sight.
One of the reasons that the observatory has become so well-loved in Los Angeles, aside from the views it offers and the field-trip memories it holds, is that it is a wonderfully two-faced piece of architecture. Seen from the city below — particularly from the Eastside, where it always appears in tandem with the Hollywood sign — the building is reassuringly imposing.
But up close it has a surprisingly domestic scale — or, perhaps more accurately, it occupies the pleasingly hybrid category, somewhere between a house and a monument, that also includes many of the best small museums in the world. It’s a size that feels impressive and manageable at the same time.
At the heart of the collaboration between Johnson and Levin is the notion that that scale is worth protecting as much as the building itself. When you walk through the steel doors and into the entry hall, with the newly bright Hugo Ballin murals above and Foucault pendulum swinging determinedly away below, you are completely enveloped in the old building.
The classical symmetry of the 1930s architecture and its superb posture has become clearer than ever. Two exhibition wings, with floor tiles that are meant to look like marble but are actually more durable rubber, stretch out to the east and west, their alcove niches opened up for displays on the sun and moon and the seasons. Straight ahead is the planetarium, renamed for the late benefactor Samuel Oschin and now holding 300 cushy seats instead of 630 legendarily inflexible ones.
Tucked away near the planetarium is the first architectural sign of the rooms that open up so dramatically below: a new staircase wrapped in walls of Venetian plaster. It leads to the addition’s best-designed space, a U-shaped hallway with glass display cases on one side.
That hallway, in turn, delivers visitors to the heart of the expanded building, a hangar-sized room called the Gunther Depths of Space. Overlooked by a mezzanine that is itself crammed with displays, the room is a cacophonous space filled with exhibits (by the graphic design firm C&G Partners) and lined on one wall with a huge photomural of the universe.
It is a public room in the best and worst senses: impressively large and dedicated to the idea that a visit to the observatory is not as much about delivering a personal, “eyeball to universe” experience, in the words of the director, Edwin C. Krupp, as tossing you into an astronomy-themed warehouse and letting you fight for access to the coolest toys.
It’s here that the charges whispered against Krupp — that he has “gone Hollywood,” offering a down-market view of astronomy to a public suffering from collective ADD — begin to make a shred, if only a shred, of sense. At the very least, headlong collisions between 6-year-olds seem inevitable.
Nestled into one corner of the Depths of Space is a second, smaller auditorium, the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater. From its doors, a quick stroll takes you to the new observatory’s obligatory retail spaces, with a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, gift shop and terrace defining the western edge of the enlarged building.
Coming on the heels of last year’s addition to the Getty Villa in Malibu, which also is sunken into a hillside, the design of the new observatory is another reminder that although we once built monuments in this city, some handsome and others kitschy, it’s not unusual now for us to spend rather freely on extensive back-of-house improvements.
It’s difficult, as a result, not to feel ambivalent about the way our approach to public architecture has changed since the observatory opened seven decades ago. In those days, we constructed smallish icons designed to look grand: stage sets for an imagined future. Now, bursting at the seams, we build the space we desperately need but do our best to make it invisible.
Something to think about on the bus ride up the hill.