Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Los Angeles, CA, USA

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures— located in the historic May Company Building in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles— will be the world’s premier institution devoted to exploring the art and science of movies and moviemaking.

Designed by Pritzker-Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will consist of a major renovation to the 1930s Streamline Moderne May Company Building (renamed the Saban Building) plus a soaring spherical addition that will house a 1,000-seat theater. Visitors to the museum will experience the magic of cinema and the creative, collaborative process of filmmaking.


On its own, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ theater addition is a complex building. Connecting this base-isolated structure with an existing building introduced significant challenges for Buro Happold – the project’s structural engineerMEP engineerlighting designer as well as environmental design, energy modeling, and IT consultant.

The two buildings required very different structural solutions. The Saban Building’s original steel and concrete structure required strengthening to be able to resist an earthquake’s forces to meet structural requirements for Class A museum space. For the 150-foot-diameter, orb-shaped theater addition in depth analysis argued for an unusual base-isolation system. During an earthquake, base-isolators allow the theater to move up to 30 inches in any direction.

Because the theater and the renovated structure are designed to move so differently during an earthquake, building components running between two structures—including mechanical systems as well as circulation bridges and stairs—required flexible connections.

Another challenge was the decision to build a 125-ft-high concrete sphere. Using traditional cast-in-place concrete, poured against formwork, would be difficult and expensive. It also might not result in the smooth, natural finish to the dome the architect envisioned.

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures dome interior


The sphere’s outer skin has 690 precast concrete panels. These curved panels are each typically 4 feet wide and up to 13 feet tall and weigh 1 to 2 tons apiece. The panels, with added rebar, are then sprayed with shotcrete which locks the frames against the panels to reinforce the shotcrete, a time saving strategy. Any exposed steel was burned off which then created a smooth shell.

The steel-and-glass dome planned for the building’s rooftop terrace will act as a lid with tension cables running along the inside of the dome’s steel ribs. The dome alone will weigh 350 tons and can open to the outside air.

The theater is supported by four mega-columns and seismically isolated from the ground. The unique design employs just eight base-isolators set 15 feet above grade and exposed as a design element. (Typical base-isolation systems use a grid of many isolators concealed below grade.) The supports are located near the center of the theater, which can lead to uplift on the isolators.

It’s unusual that the theatre is base-isolated above the ground, most buildings that are base-isolated have a kind of moat around the building.

Derrick Roorda, structural principal

Buro Happold worked closely with Earthquake Protection Systems and peer reviewers to develop the triple-friction-pendulum base-isolators and test the design. To address the seismic challenges, base-isolators will allow the sphere to move up to 30 inches in any direction during an earthquake while the Saban Building’s retrofitting is designed to limit movement. The bridges will be anchored on the Saban Building and designed to pivot, moving with the sphere in the event of an earthquake.

A building of this complexity relies on advanced technologies and an integrated design approach. Using BIM technologies and other advanced modeling tools the design and construction team worked collaboratively to optimize engineering solutions, design details and define building methodologies. BIM also was critical for coordinating MEP systems within the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ curved mechanical spaces. BIM’s 3D clash-detection capability allowed the team to examine the space from all possible views and angles to ensure the ductwork was placed correctly.


Buro Happold was engaged from the very beginning of this project in a collaborative design process that included several unique challenges. Currently in construction, our innovative engineering solutions have been instrumental in bringing this iconic institution to fruition.

I have been impressed by Buro Happold’s ability to communicate technical issues to the client and the rest of the design team to help facilitate the timely decision making on key issues.

Buro Happold’s approach to the mechanical and electrical systems allow for maximum adaptability that we require to meet the challenging mix of program space, based on multiple stakeholders and client departments.

Antonio Dominguez, Paratus Group (Collaborator)
Academy Museum of Motion Pictures theater

Design Concept Award, Los Angeles Architectural Awards, Los Angeles Business Council

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