LACMA Redesign Plans on Display at the Architecture Biennale

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What is a model of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s proposed LACMA redesign doing at Architecture Biennale? Christopher Hawthorne explains.

The 2016 Architecture Biennale, a prestigious show of global architecture, debuted on May 28 in Venice, Italy. This year’s director, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, curated the exhibition, entitled “Reporting from the Front,” to focus on architecture in a time of rising economic inequality. Many of the exhibits on display emphasize social engagement and grassroots design, and reject top-down projects by architectural stars.

So what is a model of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s proposed replacement for four buildings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art doing in the show?

Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, attended this year’s Biennale. He said it was important for Zumthor and LACMA Director Michael Govan to show off the latest iteration of the redesign in an exhibition setting, just as they did with their initial draft in coordination with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time.

“LACMA was doing a show introducing this Zumthor proposal to the city and the world in a very canny way, a very opportunistic way. In the most cynical reading of it, [Govan] used some of the Getty’s money to help sell a vision of the future of LACMA,” Hawthorne said.

Zumthor's current design for LACMA.
Zumthor’s current design for LACMA. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“And here’s Michael Govan and Peter Zumthor again in Venice doing something of the same thing, but to a more global audience, and to a more professional audience, really. That’s how Peter Zumthor explained it to me. He said, ‘We’ve got to a point where we felt that it was ready to introduce to the profession.’ And that’s how a lot of architects think of the Biennale – as a place to have a conversation with one’s peers.”

In Zumthor’s latest design, the building’s blob shape has become a little more angular. While many of the exact details are still vague, there’s more clarity to the design of the galleries.

“At the center of the building, these chapel galleries are lit by tall skylights that face a variety of directions,” Hawthorne said. “Then, out at the edges of this blob, there’s a circulation space that also doubles as gallery space. Given the really remarkable quality of Zumthor’s museums in Europe, which treat light in really surprising and interesting and different ways from museum to museum, I think that’s one place where I continue to give this project the benefit of the doubt.”la-et-cm-peter-zumthors-los-angeles-county-mus-003

That said, Hawthorne is concerned that the redesign is weakened by stretching across Wilshire Boulevard.

“I think the strength of the project was, in plan, this kind of graphic, muscular, blobby form that really was derived from the [La Brea] Tar Pits – this singular black form,” Hawthorne said. “And then of course, the irony is that because they were too close to the Tar Pits, they had to pull back. There are ways in which this design in its strength also paints itself into a corner, because it’s so resolutely horizontal and lifted up from the ground. Once they made the decision to pull back from the Tar Pits, they couldn’t go up, because that would break the horizontality of it.”

As Hawthorne sees it, there were two solutions to the dilemma.

“One was to do a smaller building, which I actually think would have been preferable. But then, you would’ve had the PR battle of raising all this money to do a new building that actually had less exhibition space than what it’s replacing,” Hawthorne said.

Zumthor's current design for LACMA.

Zumthor and Govan went for the second option: crossing Wilshire Boulevard and building a second space across the street on Wilshire and Spaulding. They’ll be connected by an overpass for museum patrons to walk through; the otherwise horizontal design is raised up approximately 30 feet above Wilshire, giving cars ample room to drive underneath.

“I think if you do it in a certain way, that can be very powerful, because it’s so different from what other buildings do,” Hawthorne said. “But I do think it cuts off LACMA’s options. And it [could become] a viewing platform for people to look at traffic from up above.”

The design has its fair share of critics outside of Hawthorne, but he’s still puzzled by the special degree of vitriol its received from some architects.

“There’s so much bad architecture in LA – I don’t see that vitriol toward other buildings that are either mediocre or terrible,” he said.

That high level of criticism might stem from the sentimentality some Angelenos hold for the current LACMA buildings, which have held strong as a beloved cultural setting for more than half a century.

“[LACMA’s] Pereira campus has been there for 50 years,” Hawthorne said. “For all it’s flaws, people have developed a certain amount of attachment to it.”