In 2013, a new proposal for LACMA by Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker-winning Swiss architect who has no public projects in the U.S., showed a jet-black blob on the north side of Wilshire that seemed to ooze between the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits and the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum.
But environmental and spatial concerns forced Zumthor to revisit that design—which had been dubbed “the Inkblot.” Black became beige, due to heat-island concerns, and the blob moved away from the tar pits and across the boulevard, where it now touches down in a museum-owned parking lot. Between 2017 and 2019, the design changed yet again.
LACMA director Michael Govan defended Zumthor’s new design in both a weekend interview and an op-ed at the Los Angeles Times. But Curbed’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker and architecture critic Alexandra Lange took a stroll Friday around LACMA’s campus, and they are not convinced.
What follows is their conversation about the role of museums in urban life, the controversy surrounding Zumthor’s design, and how the new LACMA must meet the street.
Walter Gropius published the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. Both the Lyonel Feininger woodcut of a cathedral on the cover and the first line of the four-page leaflet exalted architecture: “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” he wrote. “Architects, painters, and sculptors must recognize anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and as separate parts.” Gropius’s new school would reunite craftsmen and artists in the modern era, allowing them to work in tandem toward a common goal as they had building medieval cathedrals.
But collaboration, and craft, didn’t mean an end to old hierarchies. If the ultimate goal was the building, then the architect (all of the directors of the Bauhaus were, in fact, architects) would sit on top of the design hierarchy. When we think of the Bauhaus today, the image is often still a building: the one Gropius designed for the second incarnation of the school, in Dessau. It is only as we look to the interiors of that building—to its lamps, to its curtains, and to the credits on the photographs of all of the above— that we can see the work of women.
As Sigrid Wortmann Weltge writes in the introduction to her book Women’s Work: Textile Art from the Bauhaus, female students “arrived at the school with an astonishing diversity of talents, convinced that this avant-garde institution would accept them as equals.” Alas. Many of these students had already studied art elsewhere—and they were eager to learn from masters like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy—but “they were segregated and given their own workshop, the Weaving Workshop, regardless of talent or inclination,” Weltge writes.
There is a spot, walking north on the High Line toward West 30th Street, where Hudson Yards looks almost all right. The Shed, wearing a pillowy parka made from weatherproof ETFE panels, slides in from the left. The transparent lobby of 10 Hudson Yards overlaps it from the right, and the copper bowl of Vessel sparkles in the winter sunlight. The towers rise beyond: black-and-blue 15 Hudson Yards farther west, tan-striped 35 Hudson Yards to the north. There’s a hint of variety even though every material is hard and neutral, every edge geometric. There are even a couple of curves. It looks like a real city.
You’re coming off a curve yourself, as the High Line’s former rail trestle arcs, for the first time, out toward the river. Now there’s a new path open to the north, connecting you to the shops and the restaurants and the Equinox and the offices and the condos and the Instagrammable ball pits that live inside those muted grids.
But as you keep walking, those pieces disengage from each other—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven objects standing on a super-engineered platform. No one thought to bring any crayons, much less softness, or texture, or water. Help will eventually arrive, in the form of 200 mature trees and 28,000 plants, as well as a 200-foot-long handmade wooden bench, specified by landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz. Opening at the tail end of New York winter is not kind to the landscape, but it is hard to believe the plants will be enough to mitigate the unrelenting angles of the new city-within-a-city.
The problem of the design of Hudson Yards, the 28-acre, $25 billion development built on a platform over Penn Station’s working railroad tracks, is that there is no contrast. No weirdness, no wildness, nothing off book. The megaproject was built by an all-star team of designers, but in the end, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the corporate and the artistic.
In 2000, Virginia Bayer went to an exhibition of 20th-century American women designers at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. She knew her grandmother Marguerita Mergentime (1894-1941) had designed curtains and carpets for Radio City Music Hall, had items exhibited at the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums, and sold her graphic table linens at stores like Lord & Taylor, B. Altman and Macy’s. But her work was nowhere to be found.
In 2017 Ms. Bayer and two collaborators published “Marguerita Mergentime: American Textiles, Modern Ideas” (West Madison Press), ensuring her grandmother wouldn’t be forgotten again.
Through fire and shock, the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed more than 80 percent of the city’s buildings. The grand Fairmont Hotel, only days from opening, was gutted by flames, leaving only a shell.
The hotel’s owners, determined to rebuild, turned to a young architect, Julia Morgan. Only three years earlier she had built a bell tower on the campus of Mills College, and it had withstood the earthquake unscathed — proof that Morgan was as experienced in reinforced concrete as she was in European design.
But word that a woman had been hired to renovate the luxurious hotel was met with astonishment. Was the building really in the charge of a woman?, Jane Armstrong, a reporter for The San Francisco Call, asked the project’s foreman in 1907 on a visit to the hotel’s ballroom after Morgan had restored it to its original splendor.
Yes, the foreman answered, it was in the charge of “a real architect, and her name happens to be Julia Morgan, but it might as well be John Morgan.’ ”
Here’s what I told Curbed:
Selecting Arata Isozaki for the 2019 Pritzker Prize is a bit of a head-scratcher. While Japanese architecture has been ascendant worldwide, and Isozaki began his career working for 1987 Pritzker laureate Kenzo Tange, he and his work have not been part of the conversation in recent decades. That’s largely because his heyday, and the peak of his international reputation, was in the 1980s. In other words, peak postmodernism.
Barrel vaults, rooflines like pointy hats, walls that look like gridded paper, all of these are part of his repertoire. If Americans know one of his buildings it is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (1986), a collection of all of those design elements. I would love to see his award as a sign that the Pritzker jury has read the cultural tea leaves, and sees that postmodernism has re-entered the wider cultural conversation, both as a style that needs preservation, and as a style whose playfulness feels generative. But “postmodern flair” is only mentioned once, in the context of his Disney Team Building (1991) in Orlando, where flair kind of goes without saying.
His first U.S. project was the Palladium nightclub (1985), about which Paul Goldberger wrote approvingly, in the New York Times, that owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were beating MOCA to the architectural punch: “It could almost be dismissed as a cynical exploitation of architecture’s current trendiness—if the results were not so truly excellent.”
The Pritzker citation underlines Isozaki’s movement between East and West, both in terms of inspiration and clientele, as well as his support for younger Japanese architects—some of them now better known—who have come since.
That’s a nice story too, but it seems imposed rather than organic. The Pritzker has been swinging wildly in tone with its choices in recent years, picking legends (Balkrishna Doshi, Frei Otto) and social innovators (Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban), and causing a fair amount of confusion (RCR Arquitectes). I would put Isozaki in the archival category, but is he legendary? It will take an honest reassessment of his work—and the Postmodernism project overall—to tell.