LACMA Proposal Lacks Public Discussion

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Last week on "The Politics of Culture" a discussion took place about the controversial project to tear down most of LACMA's existing buildings and replace them with one gigantic pavilion under a semitransparent roof, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

In her letter to museum members, Andrea Rich said that remodeling is " a program of great consequence to the museum and its public." In today's LA Times article, she is quoted as saying "The museum is a public institution. I think it should be clear that this is a community project." However, when I asked her why no public discussion has been held about demolishing the four existing museum pavilions, her quick response was that it is too early for that, that Koolhaas' proposal is far from final and is expected to undergo many changes. When his proposal is finalized, a large exhibition will be mounted and public discussions will take place. That explanation depressed me quite a bit, indicating that all the previous noise about the museum being a public institution and its remodeling having a great consequence on the community - all that was just well rehearsed PR whitewash. To invite public debates after the decision has already been made is a rather disingenuous way of seeking public input. Sure, if I were responsible for a controversial project like that, I also would probably want to avoid going through the messy process of public consensus building.

Andrea Rich brought up the fact that the 200 or 300 million dollars needed for the new construction will be raised privately, and no public funds will be used for this purpose. It means, I guess, that we shouldn't worry our pretty heads with such small details as demolishing 60's era buildings, which, while not masterpieces, are considered by some architectural historians a part of our city worth saving. We are told that maintenance of these old buildings is prohibitively expensive because of their notorious inefficiency. But what about the Anderson pavilion, only a little over a decade old, which cost over 60 million dollars. Then, as now, with the best intention in mind and without public debates, the museum trustees wanted to raise their institutions profile and chose and ambitious but thoroughly mediocre architectural plan for expansion. Now, 15 years later, the new powers that be are yet again full of restless ambition to make the whole world pay attention. Alas, the time has gone when a museum's reputation was built on its art collections. Now, in a crowded market of hundreds of new museums which multiplied in the last decade of the 20th century, the way to stand out is to erect a headline stealing building by the latest celebrity architect.

Hopefully, one day real public discussion will take place, and the museum administration will be willing to engage in dialogue, probably even willing to talk about monumental failure of its ill conceived, exhaustive and exhausting exhibition, "Made in California", universally panned by all critics. Claiming to do everything in the best public interest, the Museum must have the courage to explore its past mistakes, to recognize the unevenness of its art collection, and not to use the word "public" as politicians do, to conveniently hide behind democratic rhetoric.


If we lived in a perfect world then, and only then, we could rearrange the sequence of events leading up to LACMA's decision to find the best architect to rebuild the whole museum. First, the museum would initiated a public discussion to gauge the expectations, needs, and reservations that people might have. Then, the museum and its trustees would let the public in on the very process of how they arrived at the decision to embark on the ambitious and costly campaign of raising hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild its campus.

LACMA, sees itself as a democratic public institution, not only because its activities are partially funded by LA County, but because it really believes in the importance of art and culture and in making it accessible to everyone. So the museum created a committee composed of senior curators, administrators, and, of course, members of the Board of Trustees. And then the process became rather mysterious, less than democratic, and in the absence of real information, the rumors and gossip filled the grapevine. Welcome to the corporate world of secrecy.

LACMA, in the short 35 years of its existence as an independent institution, has built and acquired 6 large buildings. Only recently, it finished the remodeling of the facades, entrances, and facilities of three of these buildings. But that was then and this is now. The latest plan is to demolish not only these three buildings, but even the Anderson pavilion, only 15 years old.

When LACMA announced five prominent architects, invited to compete for the project, I tried to subdue my skepticism, hoping that this time LACMA would avoid repeating its past mistakes and would go for brilliance, instead of corporate mediocrity. After Rem Koolhaas was chosen for the project, I kept my hopes high but some worries kept intruding onto the rosy picture. Will Eli Broad, the very powerful trustee who pledged a lot of money toward the new construction, allow Rem Koolhaas to do his best, or will he clash with him, as he did a decade ago with Frank Gehry?

A small exhibition, presenting models by all five competing architects just opened this weekend. It is both a fascinating and frustrating glimpse of five versions of what could be, might be, but ultimately will never be built. A short video presents tantalizing tidbits of each architects presentation in front of the committee. Only Rem Koolhaas is seen delivering an eloquent statement, while others nervously spout platitudes. Koolhaas proposal to replace most of the existing buildings with one super structure under a semitransparent roof avoids detailed answers, instead it promises intriguing possibilities. Other architects naively chose to preserve the existing buildings by slightly or dramatically altering them.

Why didn't the committee give clear guidance to architects about whether the committee wanted to preserve or to completely rebuild the campus? There is no way, now, to say what the other four architects would come up with if they had been instructed to propose a totally new building. The competition seems stacked in favor of Rem Koolhaas, who provided the committee with a new vision. But is his proposal, which so far looks like dreamy architectural pie-in-the-sky, the best? I am not sure.


Let me start by saying that, architecture wise, LA has never had it as good as it has been during the last few years. Public interest for the city's architectural past is on the rise. Exhibitions and tours devoted to the stars of architectural modernism such as Frank Lloyd Wright , Schindler, and Neutra draw record crowds. We witnessed the emergence of the Richard Meyer Getty Center as the city's newest architectural landmark and tourist attraction. Keeping in mind the MOCA building by Isozaki, who is Japanese, Pershing Square remodeled by Lagoretta, who is Mexican, and a new cathedral designed by a Spaniard, Raphael Moneo, we, in LA, are basking in a rare moment of architectural convergence of great talents. Besides, not only can we claim the one and only Frank Gehry as one of our own, we have just learned that celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was chosen to redesign LACMA. Being the latest recipient of the Pritzker Prize, which is for architects what the Nobel Prize is for scientists, Rem Koolhaas is quite a catch. His winning model will be put on display by the museum this coming Sunday. The models by four other architects who were in the running are also included in the exhibition.

The decision to award Rem Koolhaas with the estimated 200 million dollar commission is based, to a large extent, on his bold suggestion to erase most of the existing LACMA campus with its hodge podge of buildings, loved by no one. The only two to survive are the former May Co. building and the Japanese Pavilion, built by Bruce Golf, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As we know now, French architect Jean Nouvel was the most serious rival of Koolhaas for the commission and, truth be told, he was my favorite. There are two amazing buildings done by him in Paris, the Arab Institute and the Cartier Foundation. There is very little in common between these two, other than they demonstrate Jean Nouvel's genius to reinvent himself for each new project. The architecture of the Arab Institute, while embracing the language of Modernism, evokes rich ornamentalism of the Moslem mosque, while the Cartier Foundation looks, literally, like a huge diamond, thanks to a series of uniquely placed glass panels. I thought that the friendly vibes of these two buildings made Jean Nouvel an especially well suited candidate for LA. After all, our city is the embodiment of informality and mixture of cultural influences from all over the world. Surprisingly, in his proposed model, the French architect didn't succeed in expressing any of these qualities. Koolhaas' model, on the other hand, has intriguing aspects which brings to mind the famous words by Winston Churchill about an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Though I was quite disappointed by my first face to face encounter with Koolhaas' architecture this summer in Venice, Italy, where he designed a super chic and super tony environment for the Prada store, I significantly warmed to his brand of architecture this October, during the unveiling of his two museum buildings in Las Vegas. As I said in a previous program, the rigorously intellectual aesthetic of this architect makes it difficult to fall in love with his buildings, but it sure commands and deserves one's respect. Let's hope that it augurs well for LACMA's remodeling, which is the biggest and the most important project of Rem Koolhaas' career so far.