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The Ice Age tar pits of Los Angeles are getting a fresh new design

These bubbling pools of crude oil have existed for millions of years. Now, a new site plan aims to give them the attention they deserve.

The Ice Age tar pits of Los Angeles are getting a fresh new design
[Image: courtesy Weiss/Manfredi]

2.6 million years ago, the Ice Age occurred and saw our planet being mostly covered with frosty glaciers. Woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers grazed freely around central Los Angeles and were preserved at the corner of present-day Wilshire Boulevard and Curson Avenue at a site known as the La Brea Tar Pits. (Brea is the Spanish word for “tar.”) The area produced these naturally occurring seeps of bubbling black crude oil for tens of thousands of years, and the mammals that roamed down this now-urban corridor were caught, fatally, by the thick deposits of sticky asphalt, which swallowed them slowly like quicksand. Unable to escape, they were preserved as bones in the tar, like insects in amber.

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These onyx tar seeps are the only active, urban Ice Age excavation site in the world and have existed as a paleontological research facility since 1913. Over the years, several skeleton samples and bits of plant matter have been discovered in this living museum, and in the mid-1970s, the George C. Page Museum was built next to the site to display the findings and educate the public—making this site an effortless collapsing of history, science, and design.

[Image: courtesy Weiss/Manfredi]

In an effort to further develop the rich legacy of this urban ecological hub, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) announced that Weiss/Manfredi, a multidisciplinary architecture firm, will redesign the 13-acre campus holding 50,000 years of scientific history.

Currently, the La Brea Tar Pits exist as a cultural destination, albeit a somewhat forgotten one. They are so casually tucked on a major avenue—and are decidedly easy to miss thanks to their largely subterranean existence—that unless you’re in the mood to do some digging, you might just pass them by. This, of course, belies the magnitude of what they’ve contributed to scientific history, such as the discovery of dire wolf, bison, and giant ground-sloth fossil deposits as recently as 2006. Weiss/Manfredi’s redesign will play a crucial role in revitalizing the under-sung site and will attract visitors old and new to the tar seeps—a pitch-black abyss that can seem more foreboding than inviting.

‘A lot of people have been to the tar pits once,’ says Weiss.”

“Because it’s an active paleontological site, there may be opportunities for new discoveries. One of the things we wanted to do is create a simple, clear loop system . . . without creating a site that was so precious that it couldn’t be altered,” says Michael Manfredi, principal at Weiss/Manfredi. “Three interconnected loops are the backbone of the site in terms of how people will move [through it], but beyond that there’s lots of opportunity for discovery. It’s going to be a living museum . . . it won’t be frozen in time. We want to create a museum that’s actually alive.”

The design turns on the axis of a triple Möbius shape. It’s an intrinsically flexible plan for the multifaceted urban site, and it’s thematically at home in a cultural destination focused on human evolution and the passage of time. The loops of theMöbius connect different moments on the site, uniting the past with the present through architectural arches that bridge the ancient tar pits and the newer, updated elements of the museum to come. The proposed use of glass, and winding, wooden walkways, will help to create a comprehensive experience, allowing uninterrupted exploration of the site.

Another aim of the new design involves synthesizing the scientific history of the tar pits with the science and discoveries at the site today—work that is pertinent to the public on a rapidly warming planet. “Not only are the big mammoths being discovered, but the paleobotanical discoveries are giving us more [answers] to climate change—the more urgent scientific questions,” says Marion Weiss, principal at Weiss/Manfredi.

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[Photo: courtesy La Brea Tar Pits]

The George C. Page Museum, which sits on Hancock Park’s 27 acres and is part of the broader Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County network, displays the myriad specimens that have been excavated from the pits—it’s the hub of research at the pits. The park that surrounds the museum features life-size recreations of prehistoric animals. Meanwhile, LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sits just on the other side of the pits.

The site is a sun-soaked living history resource and cultural hub, and the architects’ aim is not to totally revamp these existing elements but to create better connections between them. “We don’t necessarily want to change things, but give them new strengths, such as the expansion of the Page Museum and looping out to our urban neighbors and expanding,” says Weiss. “Currently they are idiosyncratic [institutions] that are fairly independent of each other, and this is a moment to make them interdependent and magic.”

The looping, Möbius design creates walkable paths between the tar pits and the museum. Creating a closer architectural relationship between past and present work from the site will allow visitors to explore the similarities between the temperature shifts of the Ice Age (as seen through the tar deposits) and present-day research being done at the museum.

“The [tar pits] have been designed to be an independent entity very much about science and climate change,” says Manfredi. “[I like the idea] that someone visiting LACMA for art can be seduced into thinking about science at the Tar Pits.”

The goal of the linking loop design, ultimately, is to make the Page Museum and the park that holds the asphalt excavation site into a whole greater than the sum of its parts—a cohesive, multidisciplinary science, history, and art center for the contemporary community.

“We’ve always been committed to the idea of architecture sites and landscape design being stronger because of each other,” says Weiss. “This is a site of deep history. . . . Constructing these sites and giving them new lenses and new journeys to be connecting is part of our commitment to bringing architecture and landscape together.”

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There’s one other element of the existing site that the architects will preserve: Facing the street, just beyond the gates that currently separate the contemporary world of Hancock Park from the Pleistocene, will remain the famous family of sculptural Columbian mammoths. In a city known for its car culture, these models are impossible to miss and have become a visual cue associated with tar pits that sit, unassumingly, just beyond them. “There’s something very beautiful about that that we wanted to preserve—it’s part of the iconography of L.A.,” says Manfredi of the iconic mammoths. “We have an appreciation for an approach that has a lighter touch,” the architect adds.

[Photo: courtesy La Brea Tar Pits]

The La Brea Tar Pits have long been a popular field trip destination for elementary-aged kids across the city, and the team of architects, landscape designers, researchers, and educators hopes its design, which will be in the master planning stage for the next year, will extend the educational value of the site to a new generation.

“A lot of people have been to the tar pits once,” says Weiss. “We’re excited that there’s going to be so many reasons for everyone—from the scientist to a child to the paleontologist—to come again and again.”

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