Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Letter to LACMA

On March 24 Los Angeles Times architecture Christopher Hawthorne hosted the fourth event in his Third Los Angeles Project, a set of public panels and talks looking at that city as it moves toward a new, more public-oriented phase in its development. This one looked at Peter Zumthor’s plans for a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

LACMA director Michael Govan, Los Angeles Times art and architecture writer Carolina Miranda, architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee and architecture critics Greg Goldin and Alan Hess will join Christopher Hawthorne to discuss the latest version of the Zumthor design, which now bends south to span Wilshire Boulevard. We’ll hear from out-of-town critics and put the LACMA redesign in the context of other museum expansions around the country. We’ll also talk about the legacy of William Pereira, architect of the 1965 LACMA buildings now on the chopping block, as well as how the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax and the Miracle Mile are poised to change as the museum rebuilds, the subway arrives and other nearby cultural institutions, including the Petersen Automotive Museum and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, pursue their own building projects.

Chris was nice enough to ask me to be that “out-of-town critics,” and I sent him the following letter, which was read as part of the panel discussion. After watching Michael Govan’s presentation on the plan, I would continue to stress questions about why the museum galleries need to be lifted up, how that benefits LACMA’s stated goal of increased transparency, and what exactly is happening on the ground and above your head at ground level. Govan kept calling that non-building space a “park” (because everyone loves parks) but I’m not sure that’s what it actually is. Also, I really regret not making it to Bruce Goff and Bart Prince’s Pavilion for Japanese Art on my visit.

Letter to LACMA

I’ve only been to LACMA one time. But this is what I did when I was there.

1. Took a photo (not a selfie) of Chris Burden’s Urban Light.
2. Signed up to see the James Turrell on an iPad at an outdoor kiosk.
3. Listened to the jazz band on the plaza.
4. Rode the escalator up and the elevator down inside what will soon be the old Broad.
5. Walked up and down the stairs and through Tony Smith’s Smoke.
6. Rapped on the enamel panels of the Art of Americas Wing.
7. Saw some art.

That motley list of movements and buildings and sights is, it seems to me, the essence of what LACMA is right now, a museum in many parts, a sum of choices, without hierarchy. A place where you can go in and you can go out at will, not when the architecture tells you to.

That’s an experience rare in large urban museums today, where the impulse always seems to be to agglomerate more real estate, connected indoors, around a central atrium or a central staircase. To go out you have to retrace your steps through long sequences of galleries, or pass to and fro past the store, café, coatcheck. There are many layers of architecture between you and the outside, however many slot-like windows the architect has inserted to tell you where you are. There’s a relentlessness to the arrangement that says, You should see it all, rather than, at LACMA, Why don’t you just pop in for a minute?

In fact, the only large museum I’ve been to that has a similar feeling, and was designed all at the same time, is Pedro Ramirez Vasquez’s Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. There, you can also go in and out easily, as each gallery has doors to its own garden as well as a central courtyard. A gap between two galleries becomes an outdoor display space, a level change leads to a shady café. You can skip stops, criss-cross, go up and down, sit by the fountain, and you always know where you are. The courtyard of the Anthropology Museum is shaded by a giant parasol, akin to OMA’s 2001 LACMA plan, which used a transparent roof to unite the parts without tearing so many of them down. [Ed. note: I realized last night I’ve had the details of this plan wrong in my mind for years, having reframed it as a greenhouse of the past and future.)

When I first read Peter Zumthor’s remarks about his plan for LACMA, it seemed like he got this. Liking small museums rather than large museums, creating a series of separate themed entrances to the collection, and pulling back the building to make room for outdoor activities, were all interpretations of the same motley path I followed. I thought the museum could create a tear-off ticket that would let you pay once and experience the museum over days or weeks, one leg at a time. But then I saw the blob or, I later decided to call it, the blot. It was still a giant totalizing figure, even though it looked different from the more mannerly toplit boxes elsewhere – even on other parts of the LACMA site. The fragmentary nature that seems part of LACMA’s DNA – it is #4 on the most Instagrammed museums list, even without a recognizable front door – seemed to disappear into the blackness. Would the LACMA selfie now include the museum as a dark cloud overhead?

Any architectural design has to win fans through suspension of disbelief. The model, the rendering, something has to make you believe that the architect can deliver the experience he or she has in mind. Zumthor’s LACMA hasn’t cleared that bar for me yet. We haven’t been given enough detail about how the parts would work together to knit together a possible experience, or even a good answer to the question: Why is this the best way to accomplish the museum’s goals? When it was a blot I wanted him to take the liquid metaphor further: A liquid should insinuate itself between solids (like the existing buildings) or soak in to the base layer, creating a new landscape. This did neither.

Nothing in his Zumthor’s previous museum work was similar enough to create a mental collage of how the blot might be to visit. The new version, released this week, comes a little closer to reality. What Zumthor seems to have done is embed galleries closer to his previous, petite museums in the inky form, eliminating many of the legs (too bad), and breaking it down into trapezoids as if to find a scale closer to his comfort zone. I’m worried about the circulation (once you go up, how to you get down, or outside?) and the underneath (is it like the underside of a highway?).

The ease of movement between inside and outside is gone once you raise it up on stilts to get over Wilshire Boulevard. And for an architect whose Swiss projects are embedded in the landscape, it seems strange to impose these flat black pancake floors around the galleries. Peter Zumthor is a critics’ darling because his buildings feel like special places and trust me, we’ve been to too many generic art spaces. What kind of place will this be?

Instagram’s Endangered Ephemera

While most design objects need to shrink to fit onto the screen of your phone, postage stamps do not—nor do clothing labels, matchbooks, or machine badges. With car insignia, there is slight shrinkage; the same with vintage packaging. But a detail that you might have overlooked on an old object stands out when presented in the tight frame of Instagram. The offset, overlapping greens on a box of Greenbrier menthol mild pipe tobacco, for instance, or the forever-chic modernist trees on the Four Seasons’s long box of pink-tipped matches, created by Emil Anonucci.

These examples of tiny graphic-design ephemera are brought to our full attention in obsessive, single-serving Instagram accounts. This is not the Instagram of artistically arranged purse contents or filtered selfies but one that more closely resembles the olden days of Tumblr, when people, archives, and institutions realized that they could add their humble masterpieces into the digital image river that people look at every day.

Continues: New Yorker

Harvard Art Museums in 11 Tweets

New Wing at Corning Museum of Glass Invites the Light

Damon Winter / The New York Times

The first thing the architect Thomas Phifer did after being awarded the commission for the Corning Museum of Glass’s new 100,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design Wing here was to go back to his downtown Manhattan office and take an Alvar Aalto vase out on Varick Street. Aalto’s Savoy vase — the classic wedding gift for an architect — has thick glass walls that bend and curve, and a footprint that looks a little like a splotch. “It was a really sunny day, and as we looked at that vase in the light, it began to really glow,” Mr. Phifer said. “The more light you pushed into it, the more it glowed.”

Seeking Mr. Aalto’s timeless modernism, Mr. Phifer has been exploring the horizons of glass throughout his 18-year-old practice, exploiting its transparency, reflectivity and indeed the glow. He had been on the Corning museum’s radar since 2003 for his Taghkanic House, a visually delicate pavilion of light and white-painted steel fitting into an Arcadian landscape in the Hudson Valley, recalled Robert Cassetti, senior director for creative services and marketing at the museum. He also admired Mr. Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art, a series of aluminum-clad rectangles with 360 oval skylights cast in fiberglass. But could the architect conceive as stunning a plan for the world’s largest show house of contemporary glass art?

Continues: New York Times

“Games that have withstood the fads of fashion and television should look like it”

I went online recently to buy my favourite board game: Othello. Or should I say re-buy? My grandmother still has the set on which I learned to play, stacked on a high shelf with Candyland and Hungry Ant, bingo, a baby animal memory game, and the little-known word-game Probe.

My family’s smaller travel set, a hinged green plastic box that flipped open, has been lost. Sold, perhaps, with our minivan, along with action figures stuck beneath the floor mats. Othello, with its baize gridded board, black-and-white pieces, Helvetica logo, and roll-top storage slots would seem to have timeless design. Mass-market yet elegant, each element had a purpose and all of these came together in a tidy package nice enough to leave out on the coffee table.

Of course, they’d messed it up. New Othello has a blue plastic board with curved, muscular edges, as if Old Othello had started drinking protein shakes. New Othello has shrunken chips and a board that flexes as you play. New Othello abandons the old, ominous-yet-exciting tagline “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master” for “Simple, fast-flipping fun!” New Othello sees itself in competition with sports. Old Othello didn’t have to beg for your attention.

Continues: Dezeen

Armi Alive!

A film about the life of Marimekko founder Armi Ratia? Sold.

In addition, the English Wikipedia entry for Ratia is just a stub. She would be a perfect person to write up during this weekend’s Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at the Museum of Modern Art.