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Shining Star

Project: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

Architects: Pfeiffer Partners Architects Inc., Los Angeles, CA; Stephen Johnson, AIA, principal in charge; Levin & Associates Architects, Los Angeles, CA; Brenda Levin, FAIA, principal in charge

Contractor: S. J. Amoroso Construction Co., Inc., Costa Mesa, CA

By Eve M. Kahn

When a wildfire struck Los Angeles' hilly Griffith Park this spring, newspapers, TV stations and websites all showed scenes of an apparently ancient citadel withstanding the blaze. The three-domed Griffith Observatory, which director Edwin C. Krupp has called "the city's hood ornament," was undamaged during the fire but eerily silhouetted. It seemed to sum up the essence of Los Angeles' architecture: its exotic borrowed styles, its tenacity in the face of natural perils.

The 1935 observatory was in fact intended to inspire lofty philosophical thoughts. The donor, a mining and real-estate tycoon named Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, hoped that public access to a Zeiss telescope "would change the world" by revealing the need for mutual kindness in the face of mankind's puniness in the universe. "Man's sense of values ought to be revised" after peeks through the eyepiece, Griffith declared.

The site's vintage 12-in.-wide Zeiss, Krupp reports, "has been looked through by more people than any other telescope on the planet." Some 70 million visitors have toured the domes, and there's more to see than ever. The building just underwent a $93-million, four-year overhaul and expansion. The Los Angeles architecture firms of Pfeiffer Partners and Levin & Associates restored the concrete-and-copper skin and more than doubled the gallery space without blocking any vistas or disrupting footings that have endured floods and earthquakes.

Griffith not only endowed observatory construction, but he also gave the city a 3,015-acre site (his own former ostrich farm). Guilt over past crimes partly motivated his generosity: he was a recovering alcoholic and ex-convict (in a drunken rage in 1903, he had shot his wife in the face, disfiguring and partially blinding her). Griffith died in 1919, long before the city started developing observatory plans. Chicago, meanwhile, beat Los Angeles in the race to build the country's first major planetarium.

In the 1930s, Griffith's estate trustees and the city government finally organized a team of observatory-design experts and held an architectural competition. The winners, John C. Austin and F.M. Ashley, often synthesized Beaux Arts and Art Deco with revival styles like Mission and Tudor. Into the Griffith Observatory mix they added Ledoux-esque austere domes, Islamic-flavored grid-pattern window grilles, Greek key and dentil moldings, quasi-Gothic buttresses, murals of Zodiac signs and scientists, and Public Works Administration concrete sculptures of astronomers. "It's one of those combinations of influences that are unique to southern California," says Stephen Johnson, AIA, principal in charge with Pfeiffer Partners.

Austin and Ashley originally envisioned terra-cotta cladding and tile roofs, but the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 persuaded them to switch to concrete and copper. "This was L.A.'s first public building put up after that quake," says Johnson. "The engineers made sure it was built like a vault, with footings on bedrock."

The annual onslaughts of visitors soon numbered in the millions – not to mention the swarms of movie crews, filming everything from Rebel Without a Cause to Terminator scenes. "The observatory has been in so many pictures," Krupp told Newsweek last year, "it should have its own star on Hollywood Boulevard." A decade ago, the city geared up for major renovations (funded by government agencies and corporate and private donors). The site, says Johnson, "to some degree was just being loved to death."

"It was one of the few iconic buildings left in Los Angeles that hadn't been either restored or torn down," adds Brenda Levin, FAIA, principal in charge with Levin & Associates.

The observatory's concrete skin was cracking and spalling, and the planetarium dome had sprung dozens of leaks. The planetarium's rickety wood-backed chairs had become notorious, described as "the most uncomfortable seats in the Milky Way." The celestial dome murals, by Hollywood producer/set designer Hugo Ballin, were grimy and shedding paint chips and the canvas was delaminating. Austin and Ashley's arched gallery alcoves were disguised by dropped ceilings. And there was a huge need for more display space: "There were a tremendous number of new stories to be told about new discoveries in astronomy," says Johnson.

While adding 39,600 sq.ft. to the original 27,300-sq.ft. interior, the architects let nothing but some new glass walls protrude above the observatory foundations. "The whole team agreed at the outset that the arriving visitor's experience shouldn't change, that this major architectural statement should still loom as you crest the top of the hill," explains Johnson. The subterranean additions were mostly tunneled below lawns and terraces. "We didn't want to risk any disturbance of the footings," says Johnson. The only new room directly beneath the 1935 observatory, he adds, is an entryway to a theater: "We removed some basement columns, lifted some sections of the building hydraulically, and put in new supports to create a corridor – we call it a wormhole" – astrophysicists' term for hypothetical perforations in the space-time continuum.

The observatory was closed for construction from 2002 to 2006. To repair the roof, Levin says, "we couldn't let any scaffolding touch the copper, which had to be removed. So we erected a scaffolding tower from the basement that pierced through the planetarium dome, and then suspended outrigger trusses all around – 360 degrees. The building looked like it was wearing a crown." The crews pried off the copper roof plates – Van Nuys Sheet Metal supplied replacements – as well as the terraces' concrete pavers, to lay down new waterproofing layers of Sarnafil, Johns Manville, Edison Coatings, and Cetco products. The concrete was parge-coated and then painted with a white elastomeric layer. Once the envelope was secured, the Pfeiffer and Levin teams collaborated with C&G Partners of New York, NY, on exhibit designs that do not intrude on the historic fabric.

Ballin's murals and Austin and Ashley's sawtooth-pattern marble floors gleam again (thanks to a conservator team that included Rainer and Zebala of Venice, CA, Tatyana Thompson of Santa Monica, CA, and Los Angeles' Martin Eli Weil and Williams Art Conservation). Fluted marble columns and pilasters and gilt dentil moldings frame restored arched alcoves stocked with state-of-the-art interactive screens and a few antiques, including a 1930s Tesla coil that spews 1.5-million-volt electromagnetic sparks. The planetarium's seating capacity has been halved to 300, but the new orbital-pattern upholstery is thickly padded so visitors can lean well back during shows. Projectors from Zeiss and Salt Lake City, UT-based Evans & Sutherland send constellations and color-saturated laser patterns dancing across a perforated-aluminum Spitz dome.

Below ground, curvy concrete beams have been left exposed, some walls are set at angles, and red and blue swirls course through the black rubber flooring. "We wanted to inspire a sense of motion, representing how the universe is in motion," says Johnson. A photomural burned on 114 sheets of porcelain enamel measures 152x20 ft., its 2.46-gigapixel image depicting part of the Virgo cluster: a million galaxies, a thousand asteroids and at least one comet.

Since the November 2006 reopening, the observatory has maintained "satellite" parking lots to accommodate the crowds, and is running shuttle buses to the hilltop. "You know a building has power if it persuades people in this city to ride a bus to go see it," quipped the Los Angeles Times. The visitors, Johnson reports, sometimes come just to stroll the terraces and grounds (which are now all ADA compliant). They can wander past a bronze bust of James Dean, follow bronze maps of planet orbits set into the grass, or admire views stretching to the Hollywood sign, the Getty Center and the Pacific Ocean. "The whole site is riddled with drama," says Johnson. "It's all laid out to encourage people to observe, to keep their eyes open." TB

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