LACMA’s tar pit problem


After consulting for several years with Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan over what might replace four older structures on the museum’s campus, the acclaimed Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has fashioned a model of a distinctive new building of undulating walls that, seen from above, looks like a splatter of tar — an homage to the La Brea Tar Pits next door on Wilshire Boulevard.

Using the tar pits as inspiration is a great idea. But encroaching on them is a problem. It turns out that the roof on the east side of the new museum building, as Zumthor has conceived it, would cantilever over the pits of fossiliferous tar that continue to be active archaeological sites. Officials of the Page Museum — a division of the county’s Natural History Museum that displays the artifacts of the sites — have said publicly that an overhanging roof would block light and rain and interfere with the vegetation and other natural processes in the tar pits.

As a result, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has ordered LACMA officials to report to it within a month on any new building’s effect on the tar pits.


To be sure, the project is still in its early stages. The building exists only as a model, has been neither approved nor funded, and is being designed by an architect so notoriously slow and methodical that Wim Wenders made a short film of him doing not much more than making coffee.

But there’s every reason to be vigilant about scrutinizing the environmental impact of the new museum as it progresses from conceptual model (where it is now) to blueprint. And LACMA officials know that. Govan has already said he realizes that the model of the building hangs too far over the tar pits. A LACMA spokesperson said that museum officials will work with the Natural History Museum on the design process and the environmental impact study.

It pays to be prudent. Who can forget that after Disney Hall was built, officials discovered that a glossy steel side of the building reflected sunlight so intensely that it overheated neighboring condos? Or how, in creating the courtyard of the county’s La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, workers unearthed hundreds of fragments of human remains of a 19th century cemetery? Better to know now if part of Zumthor’s creation must be scaled back.

In any city, but particularly one that has not preserved its own history well, a gurgling miasma of fossils that date to the Pleistocene era certainly qualifies as a historic treasure. Smelly as they are, the tar pits need to be protected.