News Article | 1/8/2008

Exclusive: Thom Mayne to design Museum of Nature and Science

Iconoclastic Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne will design the new Museum of Nature & Science, joining the local Pritzker Prize parade that includes I.M .Pei, Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas.

These four winners of architecture’s highest award all have buildings in the downtown Arts District, and the museum is hoping that some of that cachet will rub off on its $155 million venture at Woodall Rodgers Freeway and Field Street, only two blocks away.

“We wanted a world-class architect equal to the other architects who are working in the Arts District,” said Frank Paul King, chairman of the selection committee. “At the same time our fundamental mission is education and Thom has been a teacher much of his life.”

He said the choice of Mr. Mayne over competitors James Polshek, Shigeru Ban and the Norwegian firm Snohetta was unanimous.

Speaking from Los Angeles on Sunday, Mr. Mayne said that he had “no preconceptions whatsoever” about the 150,000-square-foot building other than he wants it to be both didactic and participatory.

“Historians will look back on the 20th century as a second renaissance, especially in the sciences,” he said. “Every day our understanding of our world changes, so I want the museum to be part of that, to be explicit in its ideas, but also to a welcoming civic place.”

Yet if history is any guide, the new museum will also be formally complex and unarguably iconic. Mr. Mayne is not a tentative, hedge-your-bets architect. In his embrace of technology, aggressive use of materials and eye-popping structural inventiveness, he and his firm, Morphosis – a synonym for change and transformation – focus on what it means to be contemporary, “on that which is difficult, because it is difficult, and by its difficulty worthwhile.”

So the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Calif., is a rebuke to the anonymous conventional high school of endless corridors and minimal natural light. Sharply angular yet surprisingly fluid, the school’s spatial variety becomes a metaphor for the liberating possibilities of education.

The new San Francisco Federal Building is a narrow 18-story slab wrapped in a perforated steel skin that filters sun and glare – some of the time – while transforming the building into a piece of urban sculpture.

The Tour Phare skyscraper in Paris, still in design, will include a wind farm that generates power and an innovative double skin of stainless steel and glass to cool it during the summer months.

One thing Mr. Mayne should be familiar with here is the museum’s very LA location: a corner abutting an elevated freeway and surrounded by parking lots, office buildings, apartments and a scattering of gas stations and strip malls.

“It’s not a contextual site, “he said, “so the building will have to develop its own character. But it also presents an opportunity to pull things together, to act as a kind of urban glue.”

Something he probably hasn’t encountered in LA, or anywhere else, is a new cultural institution created from three older ones: the Science Place, the Dallas Museum of Natural History and the Dallas Children’s Museum. Nature & Science CEO Nicole Small sees this hybridization as a major plus.

“Because of the merger of the three institutions we have a variety of ways to communicate with the public,” she said. “We aren’t limited by the traditional ‘real collections’ or by a narrowly defined mission. We’ll be able to span the age groups.”

The Victory Park building will obviously be the flagship, containing the major galleries and space for large traveling exhibitions that can’t be accommodated now. There will also be offices, classrooms, a theater and the familiar triumvirate of gift shop, bookstore and café. The Science Place and Museum of Natural History buildings in Fair Park will remain open in some capacity.

So far the Museum of Nature & Science has raised $45 million toward its $155 million goal, including major gifts from Hunt Petroleum, the Rees-Jones Foundation and the Hoglund Foundation. That still leaves $110 million gap, which Ms. Small is “very confident” can be closed.

“Our subject matter is at the center of what’s going on in the world,” she says. “It touches everyone. Plus, we’ve already raised $45 million with no pictures.”

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2009, with an opening in 2013.

David Dillon is a freelance writer in Amherst, Mass.

Plan your life

A news conference and preview will be held at 2 p.m. today in the Victory Park Sales Center, 3090 Olive St., next to American Airlines Center. In addition to architect Thom Mayne and museum officials, Mayor Tom Leppert and Victory Park developer Ross Perot, Jr. will speak. A media tour of the site will follow.