LACMA's Decision

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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.