A psychedelic-hued pavilion straight out of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” has landed at the La Brea Tar Pits. A wormy twist of organic shapes and iridescent colors, the 866-square-foot structure opening to the public Friday is the work of Selgascano, a Spanish firm bringing its knack for creating exuberant architecture to Los Angeles with a portfolio of high-profile projects.
In projects across Europe, founders José Selgas and Lucia Cano are known as designers who defy conventions and gleefully embrace a trippy, sci-fi aesthetic. Their translucent, tangerine-colored Palacio de Congresos de Plasencia in Spain is quite possibly a hallucination drawn from a Tom Wolfe acid trip.
Their tar pits installation, called the Second Home Serpentine Pavilion, was commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries and exhibited in London’s Hyde Park in 2015. (It’s named after the co-working-space company Second Home, which is opening a Selgascano-designed campus this summer.)
The rainbow-bright La Brea pavilion is a selfie magnet, but Selgas and Cano come from a predigital generation. Both are 54 and graduated from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in Madrid. Speaking over Skype, Selgas said that architecture is something that must be felt in person and that the duo’s designs offer more than the instant gratification of social media.
“Every corner has to be different,” Selgas said, explaining how phones fail to capture the kaleidoscope of light and color and the texture ribbons layered with an ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (more commonly known as ETFE) membrane stretched over a steel frame.
“We need to go back to nature — to see life with new eyes, again,” Selgas said from the duo’s Madrid office, where a floor-to-ceiling window behind him looked out onto dense greenery. “The pavilion is for people to walk inside, experience and work with their memories. The complexity of nature is bigger than what we have digitally. The pavilion is an artificial nature; the goal is to improve the natural with something artificial.”
Visitors can experience the tar pits pavilion for free through November, exploring the secret corridor between the inner and outer membranes or gathering in the main space for talks organized by Second Home and the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, the latter of which manages the tar pits in addition to the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. (The talks are in partnership with Netflix and Universal Music.) This summer filmmaker David Lynch will join curator and Serpentine Director Hans Ulrich Obrist for a conversation on meditation and creativity.
The pavilion marks just the first Selgascano outing in Los Angeles. The firm is in the earliest phases of designing a semi-permanent visitor overlook at Taylor Yard, the site along the L.A. River where the city of Los Angeles is converting a Southern Pacific rail yard into parkland. The designers are also working with Cano’s nephew, Diego Cano, who lives in L.A., on three homes including one in Mount Washington for celebrated architectural photographer Iwan Baan.
The duo’s architecture continues to blur juxtapositions between what is natural and what is artificial by using new and everyday materials in unusual ways. That includes clear acrylic, which was used in one their favorite L.A. buildings and soon-to-be neighbor: the Pavilion for Japanese Art (1978-88) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, next to the tar pits. Architect Bruce Goff used acrylic for transparent handrails that curl through the nautilus-like interior.
“Glass can be a very dead material; it is very flat,” Selgas said. “Acrylic is always different, even when made with the same mold. It is not as perfect. Imperfection is something related to humans, to the fact that people fabricated the piece. We love to work with materials made by hand. You can feel the past and the process.”
Selgascano also will see the opening of its 90,000-square-foot campus for Second Home — think WeWork meets SoHo House — in Hollywood. The first U.S. outpost for the British company is on the site of the former Anne Banning Community House, a 1963 design by architect Paul Williams. Selgas and Cano are restoring the existing building and adding 60 garden studios, meeting rooms and community spaces. Although the campus will have room for 1,500 people to work at any given time, they will be outnumbered by some 6,500 trees and plants.
“So much of our city and the built environment is becoming generic and homogenous,” said Rohan Silva, co-founder and co-chief executive of Second Home, which has turned to Selgascano to design several of the company’s workplaces in Europe. The firm, he said, is “a return to an older type of architecture that is colorful, organic and playful … hand-drawn rather than computer-generated. We love how that turns into architecture.”
Renderings of the new campus show mustard yellow wiggles of low rooftops punctuated by shaggy palms. Courtyards of the size and scale of L.A.’s 1930s bungalow courts are drawn lush and overgrown with grasses and agave. Workers on laptops are tucked among the foliage like garden gnomes.
With echoes of Midcentury Modernism, Googie kitsch and eco-friendly futurism, selgascano proposes a vision more fantastically L.A. than Angelenos might dream for themselves.
“In the end, L.A. is Spanish,” Selgas joked. “We are trying to reconquer L.A.”