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?