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Los Angeles' Natural History Museum Reopens After Major Expansion

After a 12-year renovation, the museum reopens this weekend with a new garden and display spaces by Mia Lehrer + Associates and CO Architects.

By Carren Jao
June 7, 2013
Photo © Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Designed by CO Architects, the Natural History Museum's Otis Booth Pavilion is a six-story glass entrance space that re-orients the museum toward L.A.'s Exposition Boulevard, a new light rail line, and, more importantly, a flourishing greenscape in a former parking lot.

A re-invigorated Natural History Museum (NHM) of Los Angeles County will welcome the public this weekend in celebration of its centennial year and the two newest elements of its $135 million, 12-year overhaul. Taking a cue from the city’s modernist architecture, the museum blurs the line between indoors and out with the debut of the Otis Booth Pavilion and a 3.5-acre “Nature Garden.” The final two pieces of the museum’s transformation—a new 14,000-square-foot permanent exhibition space and renovated galleries for temporary exhibitions—will be complete later this year.

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Designed by CO Architects, the Otis Booth Pavilion is a six-story glass entrance space made of 144, 9-by-11-foot panes. Each pane was laminated together to withstand earthquakes. “It’s a new front door for the museum that really becomes something like a connective tissue to the outside and inside,” says Fabian Kremkus, associate principal at CO Architects. A 63-foot fin whale skeleton is suspended within this daylight-filled cube, as if in the middle of a dive. A sound system attached to the glass emits a low-frequency whale song. And when activated, 33,600 LED lights simulate water undulations or animals in action.

The pavilion re-orients the museum toward Exposition Boulevard, a new light rail line, and, more importantly, a flourishing greenscape in a former parking lot. The addition of the garden, designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates (MLA), increases the museum’s programming space by 50 percent and adds much-needed greenery to a park-poor county (only a portion of the greenspace is free to enter—the rest is accessible with entrance to the museum). The landscape, which is designed to attract wildlife, will be home to citizen science projects that study bees, insects, and lizards.

With the help of scientists from the museum, MLA identified plant palettes that would create the best habitat to attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. At the sidewalk, chain-link panels perpendicular to the fence teem with butterfly- and bird-friendly vines. A 600-foot rock wall hosts plants and spiders within its cracks and meanders throughout the 1.5-mile walking path. A 27,100-gallon pond attracts dipping birds and dragonflies and a nearby dry creek bed collects stormwater.

The greenspace also includes an edible garden, flowering plants, and a “get dirty” zone meant to educate children about the importance of soil. An ADA-compliant stepped ramp doubles as an amphitheater, where guests could picnic or enjoy a movie projected off NHM’s facade. Each feature of the garden is meant to serve multiple purposes, says Lehrer. Not only does it provide a relaxing setting, but it is also meant to attune urban residents to nature’s cycles. “Making the connections to nature more tangible will foster more stewardship,” says Lehrer, “We all need to know we’re part of and integral to this natural world.”

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