Observatory's space merely 'serviceable'

ObservatoryChristopher Hawthorne's architectural review in the Times of the reinvented Griffith Observatory says "the new underground spaces are for the most part more serviceable than inspiring, never matching the expansive spirit and compact elegance of the original building." Must be, because he spends several paragraphs of the review describing not the building but the shuttle bus trip:

You know a building has power if it persuades people in this city to ride a bus to go see it. There is a similar process at Richard Meier's Getty Center in Brentwood: Drop off your car at the bottom of the hill and climb aboard. But in that case the tram, noiseless and as purely white as any classic Meier design, is very much of a piece with the whole Getty experience, which is to say very much detached from the life of the city.

The ride to the observatory begins right in the middle of that life, for better and worse. That is to say, your experience of the expanded building begins with the exhaust fumes and the rumbling engine and, perhaps most significant, the face-to-face contact with fellow residents of Los Angeles.

If you take the bus from the zoo, as I did one evening last month, you will find yourself first rolling down Los Feliz Boulevard and then up Hillhurst Avenue to Vermont. At this point the city begins to recede and the landscape of Griffith Park takes over. Before long, the observatory slips into sight.

One of the reasons that the observatory has become so well-loved in Los Angeles, aside from the views it offers and the field-trip memories it holds, is that it is a wonderfully two-faced piece of architecture. Seen from the city below particularly from the Eastside, where it always appears in tandem with the Hollywood sign the building is reassuringly imposing.

But up close it has a surprisingly domestic scale or, perhaps more accurately, it occupies the pleasingly hybrid category, somewhere between a house and a monument, that also includes many of the best small museums in the world. It's a size that feels impressive and manageable at the same time.

As for the new downstairs Depths of Space, "it is a public room in the best and worst senses: impressively large and dedicated to the idea that a visit to the observatory is not as much about delivering a personal, 'eyeball to universe' experience, in the words of the director, Edwin C. Krupp, as tossing you into an astronomy-themed warehouse and letting you fight for access to the coolest toys."

In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein admires the cleaned-up Hugo Ballin murals in the rotunda and writes "this reconstruction is most remarkable not for what has changed, but for what has stayed the same."

Also: Huell Howser explores the new Observatory tonight at 8 on KCET.

Photo: Los Angeles Times


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