Big Plans at LACMA: Michael Govan Hopes to Build a “Sublime” Museum, designed by Peter Zumthor

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Vals spa in Switzerland (left courtesy of Arch Daily), a stark gray box made of layers of quartz quarried from its mountain site that gives way to a calming interior in which warm thermal pools lap against stone walls that glitter in the dancing rays of sunlight reflecting off the water.

This is the work of Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect who, despite winning the 2009 Pritzker prize, is barely known to people outside the architecture cognoscenti and has spent most of career building in his native country of Switzerland. But it is he that Michael Govan called before he took up the director post at LACMA in 2006 and with whom he has been quietly working for several years on the masterplanning of LACMA.

Even though rumors have been percolating for months that the “masterplan” involved some major changes to the East end of the campus, the scale of those proposed changes hit the newspapers this week: Michael Govan and Peter Zumthor propose tearing down the anchor buildings at LACMA: the Ahmanson and Hammer buildings and the Bing Center, built in the 1960s by architect William Pereira, and the Art of the Americas structure built in the 1980s by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. In their place will go a building that the LA Times says will “resemble an inkblot or a drop of water” and will be wrapped in glass on all sides, with main galleries lifted one floor into the air.”

About the project Govan told me recently that the design rethinks, “what the museum is. . . We live in a modern city, the original LACMA was a modern building and so it seems that it should not only be a modern statement, but should be innovative in how it functions.”

If the idea of rethinking the museum sounds familiar it is because it is. Almost twelve years ago Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was picked from a limited competition — organized by then LACMA president Andrea Rich, the Board and Trustee Eli Broad — to “link, unite and expand” LACMA. His proposal was radical: forget retrofitting the existing buildings; instead tear most of them down and create a monolithic building with all the collections under one tented roof.

Then LACMA president Andrea Rich declared on a radio debate about Rem’s plan (incidentally my first outing as a host on KCRW, on a show produced by Sarah Spitz), that “this isn’t just a piece of architecture. It’s a different way of looking at the museum of the 21st century, it’s nothing less than that.”

As it turned out politics, difficulty in raising the estimated $300 million and lack of full throttle public support stymied the project and it was shelved.

This time around though the stars may be aligned differently.

Back in 01, some critics charged that they and the public had been left out of the process. This time — even though the project is part way designed — Michael Govan, who is far more gifted at PR than his predecessors, is extending an embrace to the public by mounting a show next month that he describes as a “thinkpiece” at which visitors can study the scheme and models and respond, under the umbrella of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A, entitled “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA” (opening June 9).

While fans of bold architecture applauded the Koolhaas scheme, back in 01 there was nervousness from many at the prospect of tearing down buildings that, if not especially loved, were appreciated – for their place in LA history or for their familiarity or for the “little town feeling” (as it was described back then by Renzo Piano, the architect to be hired following Koolhaas) that the growing – and increasingly muddled — campus took on. Others argued that the money would be better spent on buying more art.

Courtesy of LACMA

Now, Govan presents his plan for ringing the changes after several years in proving himself not only as an able steward of the museum but also as a builder. He has incremently changed the campus, with its re-orientation West, via the new axis through the Ahmanson to the May Company building; with new buildings BCAM (commissioned and half-built before his arrival) and the Resnick; with large-scale public art (Urban Light by Chris Burden; Levitated Mass by Michael Heizer; Titled Smoke, by Tony Smith); and with landscaping (by Robert Irwin) that has clarified the campus, reduced the muddle and intensified the experience of the museum in the park.

Moreover – to those who fear that his architectural ambitions might trump his desire to enhance the art collection — Govan has proven himself a builder who acutely understands that art and architecture and landscape do not exist in silos or in competition but in mutual support (as exhibited in harmonious exhibits such as the recent Walter de Maria installation in the Resnick Pavilion.)

What is also evident is that Govan, who made his name with the creation of DIA Beacon, a quiet, reflective haven for conceptual and minimalist artists, is drawn to minimal, rather than the maximal, attention-grabbing architecture that LA is known for. Zumthor  has built two museums, one in Bregenz, in Austria, and a new museum for the Diocese of Cologne that Govan describes as the most “sublime and meditative” museum experience in the world (listen to audio, below), adding that Zumthor “talks less about design and more about atmosphere.”

It is this approach is what one can expect at LACMA. For more on Zumthor’s approach, read this article by Edward Lifson, also a guest on tonight’s Which Way, LA, which is covering developments at LACMA, along with this chat I had with Govan; he tells us more about Peter Zumthor, their goals for the museum and how things will be different from 12 years ago. Also, check out the exhibit in June and let us know what you think.