LACMA's bridge to the future

Hosted by

A rendering of the new LACMA campus, showing it crossing Wilshire Boulevard
Photo courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / The Boundary

For years now we've been hearing about a proposed building by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to take the place of four existing ones at LACMA.

Well, this project, estimated to cost upwards of $600 million, is creeping towards reality.

Right now the scheme is in the midst of an environmental impact report and public comments for the draft EIR are invited through Friday.

The final EIR is due to be completed by middle of next year. Then the County and City will sign off on the project, and in 2019 demolition of the Bing Theater, the Ahmanson, Hammer and the Art of the Americas buildings is expected to begin.

The point of the draft EIR however is not to address the design of the new building, which consists of an S-shaped main gallery level lifted over parkland on seven thick legs, or cores, containing naturally-lit galleries.

Critics of the scheme have a number of concerns about the design, among them the anti-urban nature of the building, the sheer expanse of building that will loom over visitors' heads, and whether the design fits Los Angeles.

DnA went to a draft EIR meeting and met with LACMA director Michael Govan, architecture historian Alan Hess as well as EIR consultants and a local resident named John Freedland.

While Freedland expresses his enthusiasm for the project, welcoming "the cafe space, more green space, the nice serpentine flow of the building, the glass outdoor/indoor aspect of the display," Hess was less convinced.

"I'm always looking for a building which is really really rooted in the character, the climate, the people of the place," he tells DnA, adding that he's not sure the Zumthor design achieves that.

But the most dramatic and controversial aspect of the design is that the sandy-colored concrete and glass structure will extend across Wilshire Boulevard to a site at Spaulding on Wilshire's south side. This will house a theater, and the bridge will itself serve as a gallery space for viewing art and passing traffic underneath.

This move was introduced when it became evident that the original black amoeba-like scheme of Peter Zumthor's could not fit on the north side of Wilshire, because of Govan's insistence the museum be one story tall.

So will the resulting bridge feel like a freeway overpass?

"All I can think of," says Hess, "is the experience of driving up to it, having this big ribbon blocking your view of the sunset as you're driving west."

Au contraire, says Govan, telling DnA that it will instead be a sculptural work of art that pulls the boulevard "into the vision of the museum" in a way that makes it "literally part of architecture and part of the environment."

Another concern is the expanse of unadorned concrete, both inside and out, in the 30 feet high, bare chapel-like display spaces in the cores, on the undersides of the raised gallery spaces, and on the walls of the supporting structures.

Govan says that what you find in Zumthor buildings is "the weightiness of the real materials punctuated by the ephemerality of light and shadow, which he so beautifully choreographed. So he's got the heavy materials but they're always being modulated by light and shadow."

These heavy materials won't be grim, he said, "because it's going to be actually beautifully textured. And then the light changes so much that actually you will think there are different colors."