Designing the Ice Age

Award-winning Amsterdam-based Kossmanndejong (KDJ) has been tapped to lead the design of exhibition spaces at La Brea Tar Pits

La Brea Tar Pits Exhibition Building

La Brea Tar Pits is a place unique on Earth. It represents the only consistently active and urban Ice Age excavation site in the world and is an unparalleled resource for understanding environmental change in Los Angeles, and around the globe, during the last 50,000 years of our planet’s history.  Outside, visitors watch as excavators unearth fossils of Ice Age plants and animals that got stuck in that gooey death trap. Inside the museum, scientists and volunteers clean, repair, and identify those fossils, and the standout specimens—extinct megafauna such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats—that are mounted for display.

Conjuring new indoor habitats for these long-gone creatures requires considerable imagination and skill—and gumption! NHMLAC’s leadership found that winning combination in Kossmanndejong (KDJ), which last month was selected to design exhibition spaces and develop visitor experiences for the reimagining of La Brea Tar Pits. KDJ, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is well known for creating three-dimensional narratives for institutions around the world.

Formed in 1998, KDJ operates globally with clients including museums, companies, events, and public spaces, and has received numerous domestic and international awards. Selected through an international search and competitive process, KDJ will provide creative and interpretive strategies for the site-wide redesign in Hancock Park, working in tandem with the architectural and landscape design team led by WEISS/MANFREDI, along with Los Angeles-based Gruen Associates, who NHMLAC recently named Executive Architect for the project.

The Beginnings of Reimagining

The planned transformation of the La Brea Tar Pits’ 13-acre campus kicked off in 2019, when NHMLAC selected WEISS/MANFREDI through a competition with public input to create a master plan for the site. The plan would improve research facilities and collections space, expand exhibits, and unify the various elements of the site: the Lake Pit, the tar pits, the lawn and park areas, and the museum at La Brea Tar Pits (established in 1977 as the George C. Page Museum). Titled “Loops and Lenses,” WEISS/MANFREDI’s design concept would unite the site’s elements with a new 1-kilometer pedestrian path in the shape of a double helix, create more cohesive outdoor recreational and learning spaces, renovate the current Page Museum building to better house and display the collection and expand the museum with a second structure with additional exhibitions and programming spaces.

An Honor and Challenge

KDJ’s leaders are excited at the prospect of transforming an iconic destination where more than 1 million visitors a year marvel at the tar-coated bones of charismatic megafauna and learn from Museum Educators about the microfossils of small animals and plants that are unlocking clues to life on our changing planet.

“It’s a great honor that KDJ has been chosen to design La Brea Tar Pits' new exhibition galleries,” said Niels de Jong, creative director and partner at Kossmanndejong. “We are thrilled to be part of a project where architecture, landscape, design, and programming are woven together into an integrated visitor experience.”

Plans for a new, shaded outdoor classroom at Pit 91 and improved visibility of excavations throughout Hancock Park will enable visitors to share in real-time scientific discoveries happening all around them. The redesign will also create the necessary facilities for modern-day scientific research, such as accessible collections storage and chemistry labs to facilitate vital ongoing research at the site.

The selection of KDJ represents a new phase in this bold enterprise to elevate the profile of a place beloved by Angelenos—and a bucket list destination for people worldwide—and which last year was selected as one of the first 100 Geological Heritage Sites named by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

“We are excited to translate the very tactile magic of the Tar Pits, through architecture and landscape, into a place that captures the global imagination,” said Weiss and Manfredi, co-founders of WEISS/MANFREDI. “We are thrilled to be at this pivotal moment in the master planning process, and with the addition of LA-based Gruen as Executive Architect and the exhibition designers at KDJ we are excited to give measure to this dream and deliver a world class destination.”