May 15, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

Griffith Observatory to Re-Join L.A.'s Architectural Constellation This Fall

While Los Angeles has invented and re-invented itself many times under the gaze of Griffith Observatory, the time has finally come for one of L.A.'s educational and architectural treasures to enjoy a re-birth of its own. Since 1935, the observatory has introduced millions of visitors to the cosmos, but it has been dark for the past four years for a $93 million renovation and redesign by Levin & Assoc. and Pfeiffer Partners. This fall a new and expanded observatory will re-open, and TPR was pleased to speak with the observatory's director, Dr. Ed Krupp, for a preview of observatory's triumphant blend of old and new design.

Ed Krupp

The Griffith Observatory, a landmark in Los Angeles, has been closed for several years for renovation-some have probably lost track of how long it's been closed. When will it open and will the wait be worth it?

I can definitively say that the observatory will reopen in late fall 2006. The exact date has not been set because it depends on many other details, but it is going to occur this year. The second aspect of your question: will it be worthwhile? I think it will be more than worthwhile; I think it will be jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. The extraordinary work that has been done from the initial conception through the architectural design on through the construction and now with the finishing work, the installation of exhibits, and programming equipment, is just extraordinary. I believe the result will be unprecedented in the world.

The renovated observatory will feature not only new space, which is entirely underground, but also new programming. How will the space and the programming relate to each other, and why did you decide to expand underground and not above-ground?

The original concept for the observatory renewal recognized that the observatory is a landmark piece of architecture, and it's the cultural property of everyone who lives in L.A. or comes to visit. Its appearance in the landscape is significant and important-not only its presence but its meaning-and for that reason, all the way back to the 1990 master plan, we agreed as a team that the observatory should appear unchanged when viewed from the Los Angeles basin-which it overlooks from such a heroic position on Mount Hollywood.

When you make the pilgrimage and the effort to go up the hill you should be rewarded by the iconic architecture that has been in place since 1935, and that therefore the setting should for all practical purposes look the same. Also, one of the observatory's greatest resources is in fact the view, which is, I think, what people have missed most since the observatory closed in January of 2002.

Finally, we felt an obligation to insure that the view of the city and the earth and the sky and the horizon also should remain unobstructed. All three of those considerations that have to do with sight line and view and setting had to be preserved, and that meant doing it the hard way-by going underground.

The Planning Report recently interviewed Corbin Smith, who managed the restoration of the Getty Villa for the Getty; he talked about the many challenges, one of which was how to complement an existing structure with new features. How did you approach the challenge of this integration, and who was the team?

The challenge of integration was accomplished by the architectural team, which involved primarily two firms: Pfeiffer Partners and Levin and Associates. Levin and Associates had the primary responsibility for the historic fabric and maintaining the conscience of the original building, whereas Pfeiffer Partners had the lead on the construction of the new spaces.

Because we had an integrated pair of architectural firms representing two key needs of the building, those two partners obviously had to and did work together. That is how the integration of the two requirements actually came to happen. They reflected, of course, the observatory's own initiative and desire to add space and to retain the character of the building. It began with the original sensibility and vision of the observatory, and then was carried through by the design team.

The redesign involved the complete restoration of all historic fabric in the building-the famous rotunda, the murals, the travertine walls, the alcoves in the existing building that are so characteristic of the place, all of the high-end architecture from 1935.

We also wanted to make sure that the new features looked as if they belonged to the old building, but did not replicate it. So when you go down underneath into the new Gunther Depths of Space, walls appear to continue the cut-out form of the original building underground. You see exposed concrete architecture that is typical of the entire building. You see glass, bronze, and other high-end metals that match the metals of the original construction. Likewise, travertine is incorporated into the new structure as a facing material. Some of the new materials helped to forge that connection between the old and the new, but much more than that is a sensibility about it.

Unlike many planetariums and museums, the Griffith Observatory was and is a functioning observatory. How does it carry out its public role, and how does it contribute to promoting astronomy in the U.S.?

That's a very important point of distinction about Griffith Observatory, and you hear it in the name-it is an observatory. Some people get confused by the name and think that it is a partner with the great research observatories of the world and of California in particular, such as Palomar, Lick, or Mount Wilson. It's a partner in the sense of promoting astronomy, but not in the sense of conducting modern and cutting edge scientific research.


Griffith Observatory was always intended to be a public observatory and to complement the work that was done at more remote research observatories by conveying the results of their discoveries through direct experience as well as professional interpretation to the general public. That's what Colonel Griffith intended in his leaving of a gift for the construction of the observatory-to make it a place where in fact people could not only learn about what was going on in the heavens, but also to see it for themselves, with their eyeballs to the universe-and that's what Griffith Observatory in fact does.

The Zeiss telescope on roof is far from the largest telescope in the world. It has an aperture of 12 inches, and it is dwarfed by the giant telescopes on mountaintops in the Southern Hemisphere. But that telescope has been looked through by more people than any other telescope on the planet. So it has fulfilled its original destiny, which is connecting everybody to the sky and that of course is the dedication of that instrument for the future.

Looking at the role of the Observatory in connection with other observatories, it is fair to say that Griffith is one of the world's preeminent public observatories on the best piece of public observatory real estate in the world, and through this renovation it is going to continue its history of bringing people into connection with the sky.

Building on that gift of Colonel Griffith, whom do the two million-plus visitors a year to the observatory thank for helping to fund this renovation and expansion?

First and foremost all the visitors have to thank themselves, because this $93 million project is a public-private partnership of some renown for the city of Los Angeles, and the public part includes city and county bond measures that were passed specifically in support of Griffith Observatory. In addition to that there has come money that can be regarded certainly as public money from the state and federal governments.

Private money has also helped support the project, and this has come from a variety of sources, and the effort to secure those funds and direct them to this project has been the responsibility of Friends Of The Observatory, the private nonprofit advocacy and support group for Griffith Observatory.

Friends Of The Observatory has successfully obtained support money from a large number of private foundations and corporations and individuals as well. It is a long list of folks and foundations, many of whom will be acknowledged in some of the large components of the Observatory, through naming opportunities.

Two months ago, TPR interviewed Lauren Melendrez about her firm's work to draft a master plan for Griffith Park. The observatory is not technically in the scope of that plan, but what you do hope this Park Master Plan will include to complement your great facility?

I am hopeful that the plan that is now in development will create better visitor access. When the observatory reopens we expect an inundation of visitors-in an area that is not able to accommodate all the vehicles, much less the people, that are likely to visit-so we have developed a plan of access that involves shuttles and timed access to the observatory. We expect in the long run observatory attendance and use to mirror our previous use. We don't expect increased use except for a bump at the start that we need to manage, but we hope that this model of shuttling and of remote parking may in fact be useful in future thinking, particularly when high-density events take place in the park.

The American Institute of Architects is holding its national convention in early June, and some of the attendees will visit the observatory on a private tour. What does the observatory's restoration signify about both Los Angeles's past and future interest and support of architecture and historic buildings?

If what Los Angeles has done with Griffith Observatory isn't a clear signal of Los Angeles's commitment to its heritage and to the values that this building represents-science, science education, a look towards the future-and a real desire to integrate all of these aspirations into the landscape and fabric of life in Los Angeles, honestly I don't know what would. Griffith Observatory is about as visible a piece of architectural improvement and preservation as you could imagine.


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