Construction is about 85% complete on the new $388-million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures at the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. When complete later this year, the museum will be “the world’s premier institution devoted to exploring the art and science of movies and moviemaking,” say project officials.  

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the 300,000 sq-ft project consists of a major renovation and expansion to the 1939 Streamline Moderne May Company Building, which is now the Saban Building. The project is targeting LEED Silver minimum certification.

The historic Saban Building is getting a 250,000-sq-ft renovation and being complimented by a soaring new spherical addition to its northside. The building’s design is intended to give visitors an intimate, behind-the-scene look at moviemaking.

When complete later this year, the museum will feature six stories of dynamic spaces, including more than 50,000 square feet of immersive permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, an education studio, two state-of-the-art theaters, 2 as well as dynamic public and special event spaces that include a spectacular roof top terrace with sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills.

An architectural highlight of the project will be the 45,000 sq-ft sphere building, which will house the new 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater.

The glass dome sphere consists of 1,500 pieces of flat, specially made, low-iron shingled glass panels. The panels are laminated, tempered and cut in 146 different shapes and sizes. They were fabricated in Steyr, Austria by Saint-Gobain.

Daniel Hammerman, architect with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, told me there are many ideas, both metaphorical and practical, behind the design of the dome-shaped building.   

“For one, we wanted to create the feeling that when you cross the bridge from the historic Saban Building, you are entering into another world: the world of cinema, of imagination and possibility,” says Hammerman. “Together with the programs inside (theater and exhibitions), the building is a bit like a spaceship that transports the visitor as a good film does for the viewer. The museum tells the story of film as art and science, the dream and the creative factory, and the architecture embodies both.”

To create the sphere the design team used multiple software programs as well as hand drawings and models. “During the design phase, the most useful software for us was Rhino with Grasshopper and Revit for modeling precise geometry, parametric variations, and documentation,” says Hammerman.

Of many challenges faced on the design of the Sphere Building, Hammerman says the “most mundane yet critical” is how to get all the components in the right place.

“A sphere is a perfect shape, but it is built of many intricate parts, and when you consider all the tolerances of fabrication, erection, building movement, thermal expansion, and variation, etc., it can be difficult to achieve the pure shape, especially when checking is not as simple as dropping a plumb line,” he says. “We started from a design geometry control model precisely defining each node point in 3D space, as well as structural models anticipating interim 3D positions during erection. The embedded base connections of the arches to the concrete structure were developed to allow for adjustment in all axes. Further adjustment is possible at extendable struts and upstands under the glass.

“The installation of the lightweight gridshell structure also “necessitates incremental tensioning of bracing cables in a careful sequence, alignment of components, and constant surveying. We tried to balance pre-fabrication of sub-frames with in-situ work off scaffolding to best maintain geometry, optimize detailing, and minimize onsite construction duration,” says Hammerman.

Crews on the project are currently working on the ribbons on the inside of the David Geffen Theater, the dome glass, mechanical and electrical supports on the dome steel, the site work, drywall in the Ted Mann Theater, and completing miscellaneous areas in the back of house.

The executive architect on the project is Gensler, MATT Construction is the general contractor, and Paratus Group of New York, NY is project manager. Other project team members include KPFF - Consulting Engineers; John Fidler Preservation Technology Inc - building conservation experts; Knippers Helbig - façade consultant; Shannon & Wilson, Inc - geotechnical engineer; LRM Landscape Architects - landscape architect; Buro Happold Consulting Engineers - structural engineer & mechanical, electrical, plumbing; ARUP - theater design; and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger – waterproofing.