Monday, June 30, 2014

Update on The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Proposed LACMA building
Peter Zumthor
Hello Everyone:

It's time to revisit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's proposed expansion plans.  When we last left off, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne was quite excited about Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's plans to replace the William Perreria and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer buildings currently on the LACMA campus with a building that appears to reference the Tar Pits from above.  In a related article for Planetizen Jonathan Nettler asked "How does it look to a family walking along Wilshire Boulevard?"  More important, "Will this be an improvement over the current campus?"  One of the overriding concerns was that the proposed design would encroach on the tar pits, located in the neighboring George C. Page Museum.   One year later and in response to said concerns, Peter Zumthor is back with a modified proposal for the LACMA.

Updated design for LACMA
Peter Zumthor
Peter Zumthor's new proposal significantly shrinks the footprint of the museum on the north side of Wilshire, allowing for ample space around the tar pits.  Rather dismissively, Mr. Zumthor said "...the early models were always subject to revision."  The new plan for the $650 million project, released on June 24 by the museum, made it clear that the Swiss architect took the concerns of conservationists and community activists seriously. To make up for the lost space, the museum has proposed extending the new wing across the boulevard, where it will land on property owned by the institution, on the southwest corner of Wilshire and Spaulding Avenue, currently in use as a parking lot.  Approximately one-quarter of the 410,000 square of the Zumthor-designed building would be housed on the new site, according to LACMA Director Michael Govan.

Peter Zumthor

Christopher Hawthorne considers the decision to span Wilshire Boulevard, making drivers pass under the building in both east and west directions, a bold decision.  Mr. Hawthrone further observes, "the new location will change the character of the building in ways that Zumthor has only begun to grapple with."  Mr. Govan already has the support of city and county officials for this scaled-down plan.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is also supporting the idea to span the boulevard.  Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the Miracle Mile where the museum resides, said "the new design offers a 'tremendous vision' for the Museum Row section of Wilshire Boulevard.  'It retains the historic beauty of the La Brea Tar Pits and at the same time crosses the boulevard in a way that will make it the center of the universe of art.'"  A pretty grand pronouncement, typical of a politician.  Councilman LaBonge announced that the Wilshire corridor will witness other dramatic changes in the coming years with visitors being able to access the museum via a subway station at Fairfax Avenue.  "There is going to be an opportunity people across the region [to LACMA] through transit."

LACMA Wilshire entrance

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the museum, also praised the new design. Supervisor Yaroslavsky said, "It solves the tar pit problem, and it creates a unique structure in Los Angeles...It will be a magnet not only to people in Los Angeles, but to people from around the world."  Also on board with the changes is Jane Pisano, the director of the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, who is said to be pleased with the updated proposal.

Good feelings aside, Christopher Hawthorne points out, " trying to produce a more neighborly building, Zumthor and Govan have created some architectural
The Resnick Pavilion
Renzo Piano
challenges for themselves.  And it's unclear at this stage quite how they plan to surmount them."  When the museum was housed on the main LACMA campus, north of Wilshire and east of the Resnick Pavilion, Mr. Zumthor's "black flower" had a unique architectural power.  At once, it suggests the work of twentieth century French-German painter, poet, sculptor Jean Arp and Brazilian architect Oscar Niemayer.  The amoebic looking building, contained to the one site, is a "muscular graphic form."  It appeared to float above the site's expanse like a invertebrate-like creature.

Moving the proposed building above and across Wilshire fundamentally shifts the relationship between building and site.  It results in making the proposed building a more urban object, part of the boulevard and more situated in the public sphere.  Further, the new building will, essentially face itself, creating what Mr. Hawthorne calls "...a kind of hall-of-mirrors context."  The upside is museum patrons won't have to look onto passing traffic.  This proposed condition-a building spanning one of the world's most recognizable boulevards instead of a museum wing on an open site next to the tar pits-would appear to require a new architectural approach or a significantly modified one.

Rendering of proposed Grand Avenue development
Frank Gehry
Christopher Hawthorne asks us to consider a similar project-an architectural project staking a claim on both sides of the street.  The one that comes to mind is the proposed plan for Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles by architect Frank Gehry and developer Related Cos.  These designs offer a new retail and residential complex across the street from the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.  In this case, the Santa Monica-based architect has proffered a pedestrian bridge above Grand Avenue, connecting the two sites, however, it would have more of a modest affect than the LACMA modifications.  This is similar to the 2012 proposal for an addition to the Los Angeles Convention Center, never built, that would have spanned the less glamourous Pico Boulevard.

Screen shot of LACMA
 There is still plenty of time for Peter Zumthor to reconsider and resolve details such as cladding, scale, and the building's relationship to the roadway.  This is by no means the one and only modification.  Far from it.  Yet, like many civic projects, the engine driving this proposal is political and urban planning concerns more than architectural.  However, I still go back to Christopher Hawthorne's colleague at the Los Angeles Times, art critic Christopher Knight's suggestion of repurposing one of the abandoned factories or warehouses at the at edge of Downtown Los Angeles.  On the surface it sounds like a good idea because it would save tax payers money in new construction costs but my inner planner says "let's consider things like access to transportation and neighborhood amenities." My preservationist side says, "let's reuse older buildings."  Regardless, the proposed redesign Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus is far from a done deal and it remains to be seen what the final plan will be.  Stay tuned.

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