Last Chance to Consider Zumthor’s “Extraordinary” LACMA Design, MOCA’s “Sculpturalism”

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Tempera_40, elena manferdini

This is your last weekend to check out two shows that focus the mind on LA’s present and future avant-garde architecture: MOCA’s A New Sculpturalism and LACMA’s The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, which offers the public a chance to look at the building that may become the museum’s new home. They are both worth a visit and here’s why.

MOCA’s “New Sculpturalism” show has been subject to scathing criticism but is still worth a look if you want a sampler of Los Angeles talent working now and in recent years. It offers a display of models of buildings and three walk-in pavilions that have been realized by mostly boutique architecture firms and individuals who happen mostly to be alumni of, or teachers at, two schools, SCI-Arc and UCLA; schools, especially SCI-Arc, that emphasize formal experimentalism.

Lorcan O'herlihy MOCA showSome critics of the show have taken issue with the very premise of “sculpturalism” in an era that is purportedly less concerned with form-making and more concerned with urban, political and ecological issues than when Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss and others were exploding the box. Others have accepted, even embraced, the “sculpturalism” premise but have criticized the show for losing its nerve — with the change of curators — and failing to fully deliver on the idea (listen to Sam Lubell on this DnA).

Even if both assertions have validity, and even if the design of the show leaves context and connections unclear to the non-cognoscenti, the fact remains that if you are new to architecture and go to MOCA you will see the walk-in pavilions (by Elena Manferdini, above, Tom Wiscombe and P-a-t-t-e-r-n-s) and models that intrigue and excite with their material and technological experimentation (notably, the Phare tower by Morphosis). Add to that, you will find, on closer inspection, that many projects also contend with today’s broader sociological and planning issues; for example the multifamily residential projects by Michael Maltzan and Lorcan O’Herlihy (above right). You will also see, in an adjacent room, Frank Gehry’s proposal for the National Art Museum of China, known as NAMOC. More on that later.

Just the other day I met a movie director who makes successful futuristic films. He has been completely disconnected from the drama surrounding MOCA’s show and, on visiting it recently, said he was simply awed by the imaginative flights on display. However, Guy Horton has pondered why the work shown there – much of it built, if not all in LA – has failed to ignite audiences, who seem more excited by what never got built, as displayed in Neverbuilt: Los Angeles at the indie A+D Museum.

Which brings us to LACMA.


LACMA is displaying a project that may be built, if trustees can marshal $650 million: the “black flower” or “inkblot,” designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, that would take the place of the museum’s three original buildings by William Pereira and the Art of the Americas building by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer.

The six-ton concrete model is the pièce de résistance of an exhibition that also displays earlier plans for LACMA, dating back to primordial time, and including the unbuilt concept by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who proposed in 2001 to demolish the very same buildings now targeted by LACMA director Michael Govan and Peter Zumthor, and replace them with a monolithic, universal museum.

This new iteration of that idea comes bathed in the aura of widely held admiration for both LACMA director Michael Govan and his chosen architect, creator of the exquisite Vals spa near his home in Switzerland, and the art museums Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria and Kolomba Art Museum in Cologne.

Peter ZumthorFor Los Angeles, Zumthor proposes a design vast in scale compared to his previous projects and more fluid, curving and organic in form. Yet, in its proposed play of shadow and light, its tactile richness and its poetic aspirations, it promises the exquisite phenomenological quality his buildings are admired for. “It is like a tree,” says Zumthor. . . it will be very low, it’s about horizon, it’s about being transparent” (Listen to him talk about the project in the interview with DnA, below.)

The concept has won praise from some critics – the LA Times’ Christopher Hawthorne described the design, initially, as “bracingly forward-looking. . . it would give the city a much-needed jolt of architectural energy” and Michael Webb deemed the “originality of its form”. . . “extraordinary.” Despite these accolades, however, the project has curiously failed to gain traction.  Artists, architects and some critics, many cautious of speaking publicly, are querying various aspects of the design. DnA lists some of the queries here:

Questions about the “Black Flower”

— its vast scale — at 340,000 square feet (more than six football fields), will the building be floating and transparent, or overwhelming?

—  its apparent darkness — in a city that loves its light? I’ve visited the Vals spa (right), and it is dark and lustrous; I’ve also visited Zumthor’s temporary Serpentine pavilion in London, and its opaque black walls were grim.

— its dissolving of the direct relationship to Wilshire — this is a supersize pavilion in the landscape. Will it carve a hole in the center of a city or be a brilliantly sleek, undulating form that continues an organic tradition found earlier Lautner and “Googie” roadside architecture?

— its maze of gallery spaces that in present sketch form seem oddly proportioned (tall relative to width). What kind of spaces will they be?

— its purportedly democratizing, but possibly reductive “encyclopedic” organization (Zumthor says the concept is about “not putting up big barriers to go in like a classicist European museum which intimidates you are the entrance.”)

— its Swiss-watch like perfection. Will Zumthor in LA command the extreme level of craftsmanship that is the essence of his European jewel boxes? The architect is known for an uncompromising, master-builder approach; is this realizable in less rigorous LA? Didn’t LA produce its ad-hoc, experimental and stagey use of materials, as seen in several of the projects at the MOCA show, precisely because construction here is less precise?

Govan Master of Melding Art, Architecture and Landscape

Knowing Govan’s skill at integrating art, architecture and landscape, and the elasticity of Zumthor’s organic plan, all of these conundrums would doubtless be resolved. (Listen to Peter Zumthor and Michael Govan respond to many of these points in the interview below)

But the LACMA display does not explain how. So the doubts exist, and are perhaps increased, ironically, because of Govan’s own success with the site to date.

Michael Govan arrived in 2006 to a hodge-podge of buildings that commanded affection through use, but not admiration. He took the muddle and, with Renzo Piano’s help, cleaned it up, reoriented the complex West, created clear axes, and added the Chris Burden Urban Light, the Stark bar, the Michael Heizer Rock, the Tony Smith sculpture, and so on and on. And in doing so, he has made LACMA a place people want to come hang out, not even necessarily even to see his shows, which have also been very warmly received, simply to hang out. It’s a remarkable achievement. Together Piano and Govan have enhanced what Piano has referred to as LACMA’s “little town” feel, and while none of the individual buildings at LACMA is great, they have turned space, especially inbetween spaces, into “place.” Attendance has skyrocketed.

Is LACMA on Road to Phenomenological Purity?

Despite wonderful forays into sensory overload like the Jorge Pardo-designed installation for the Pre Columbian galleries (left), one senses that his absolutely favorite artists are the 70-something extreme minimalists – Heizer, Robert Irwin, Walter de Maria, James Turrell and their architectural counterpart Peter Zumthor – and that he wants to continue pushing LACMA in that direction, toward a kind of phenomenological purity.

But even though few observers dispute the functional and aesthetic failings of the buildings slated for demolition, they are worried at saying goodbye to the “little town” Govan has created.

“I think one has to give the museum credit for the urbanity it has introduced into Los Angeles,” says Ed Dimendberg, Professor of Film & Media Studies at UC Irvine and author of a book about Diller Scofido and Renfro, “and the fact that the campus now is the closest the city has ever attained to the type of experience one finds in New York City and the front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art there where people gather and hang out and its become a destination in its own right. So this is significant and I would be worried that Zumthor’s design would interfere with that.” (Listen to Ed Dimendberg in audio below).

Zumthor for his part scorns the affection for the “little town” feel, calling it “ridiculous” and meaningless nostalgia.

Meanwhile the art community has been mostly tongue-tied about the project, mainly, says art critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, because they don’t believe it’s possible to raise the $650 million, but also because while “they are not sure about the building,” they certainly “don’t want risk losing Michael Govan.” She tells DnA that at a recent dinner party, a guest pointed out that “if this building does not get built, the sad thing is that Michael Govan would leave because he has invested so much of himself in the project” meaning “LA faces the possibility of losing one of the great museum directors anywhere.”

Craig BarrittThe LA Times art critic Christopher Knight finally dove into the topic last week, burying cautious praise for the Zumthor design in an article that mostly argued for not building new art museums at all, on the grounds that converted warehouses and factories make for far superior contemporary spaces.

Back to MOCA, and Frank Gehry

And this takes us right back to the MOCA New Sculpturalism show, located in one of the world’s preeminent converted industrial spaces, the onetime “temporary,” now “Geffen” Contemporary, remodeled by Frank Gehry (right).

Gehry was partially responsible for the chaos surrounding the MOCA exhibition, by dropping out of “New Sculpturalism” at a late stage. But out of it all Gehry got essentially his own show, in a room apart from the main exhibit space. And there you find a project — largely overlooked by critics consumed with irritation at New Sculpturalism — that reminds us just why Gehry’s work is great: his second-placed entry for China’s prestigious NAMOC competition.

Final Competition Model Models

With its sparkly “translucent stone” screen of dense glass wavy blocks, reflecting the landscape and offering diaphanous views of art behind the cladding, Gehry’s design appears like a serene and artful variant on “classical” grandeur — monolithic but not overbearing, human-scale in in the museum’s organization around a series of public spaces and pavilions, like past Gehry favorites. The design is simple and clear, with urban presence but a lightness at the same time. It looks like it is meant for a park within a great city.

In fact, the more one stares at it, the more one gets the feeling that this could fit right onto the site at. . .  LACMA.

Let us know what you think about the Zumthor project, the MOCA show, Gehry’s design and more.

If you want to join the discussion in person, this Sunday afternoon. . . Christopher Hawthorne will talk about the Zumthor design in the context of history this Sunday at LACMA.

At the very same time, I will moderate a panel at MOCA, with Guy Horton, who has offered up this intriguing counter-criticism of the “New Sculpturalism” show, Deborah Richmond, whose work is in the MOCA show, and Alan Hess, who has criticized the MOCA show for different reasons – its lack of attention to commercial architecture in Los Angeles – and who has also questioned the ahistoricism of Zumthor’s proposal for LACMA.

Hope to see you there.