LACMA redesign arouses passions as it moves forward

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is undergoing a major overhaul that’s projected to cost $650 million.

The LA County Board of Supervisors met today and voted unanimously to approve the release of $117.5 million on the project, or a little over one-fifth of the total cost.

LACMA wheeled out some big guns in support of the project, among them Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton.

Supervisors also voted to approve the proposed design and to authorize the demolition of four existing buildings that will be replaced by an undulating, one-story, elevated museum that spans Wilshire Boulevard.

The project has been in process for many years, and attracted limited criticism in print. In the last week or so, however, there’s been a sudden flurry of panicked articles demanding LACMA go back to the drawing board.

Critics have decried the current design, the costs, the proposed reorganization of the departments and, primarily, the projected size of the new building. Its most recent iteration has 10,000 square feet less exhibition space than the four buildings slated for demolition.

The LA Times’ art critic Christopher Knight asked, “Is an Incredible Shrinking Museum really worthy of taxpayer support?” 

Supporters have also gone to bat.

LACMA board trustee Janet Dreisen Rappaport wrote to the LA Times, “Director Michael Govan’s vision for the new galleries, as well as our plans for satellite locations, are the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that an institution as vital as LACMA needs.”

Frank Gehry told DnA that having worked with Michael Govan on the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao and now at the LA River, he knows “he has the potential to do something special.”

Gehry, after all, can remember back to the first go-around for LACMA when Mies van der Rohe was rejected by the local powers-that-be in favor of William Pereira.

Frank Escher, co-designer of the lovely installation for “The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka”, currently on show at the Resnick Pavilion, wrote in an op-ed, “The large, covered outdoor space (created by lifting up the building) is a very good thing. The space will be unlike anything we have in Los Angeles, will be teeming with life, and will, I predict, become our city's agora. Above this and encircling the galleries will be a continuous circulation space, an ambulatorium, offering views across the city. The city then, the view north or south, east or west, will orient the visitor within the building and into the galleries.”

Michael Govan shared his thoughts in a conversation with DnA, condensed below.

A rendering of the Peter Zumthor design for LACMA. Image courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

On the size of the museum:

“Shrinking is just factually incorrect. It's not fair to tell LACMA -- who has raised all this money and worked so hard, the trustees and the staff and the planners -- that they're shrinking. The building itself is much smaller than originally planned because of reductions in all kinds of technical spaces. The offices leap the building, which is exciting because then everybody gets a window. We're going to move across the street to 5900 [Wilshire]. So we were really able to lighten the building a lot, and not drop the exhibition space a lot.”

To understand the size issue, Govan says, you have to understand the museum in its totality. He recalls that when he took the position at LACMA, LA County supervisors wanted the museum to expand without having to close it for several years.  

“So the idea was, let's build part of the new building first and that's the Resnick exhibition pavilion.” That gives “100,000 square feet of space that’s new, interior space plus public sculpture space outside. And then when we replaced or fixed the old buildings we'd never close because (we had) BCAM and Reznick. And now that we've added all of this property around it seems so correct to distribute that square footage better through Hancock Park. Create more open space, more urban park.”

He says this move was also to please the Natural History Museum, which had pushed back against the early scheme by Peter Zumthor, a dark biomorphic building, inspired by -- but promising to overshadow -- the tar pits.

That’s where the idea of having the building bridge Wilshire to the Spaulding lot on the south side entered in. The bridge over Wilshire has excited some people, horrified others. Critics have objected to it on cost and urban planning grounds. Why build an expensive curving structure with such a wide span? Would multi-story buildings on the north side be a more rational solution?

These strategies however would have defied Govan’s basic concept. He wants a one-story museum in an open-ended, multi-faceted building that does not have a hierarchy of spaces that privilege any part of the collection. Govan told DnA:

“The real cost to museums are the climate systems and the structural. And yes you could build some boxes, but of course then you'd have to have people who really wanted to pay for those boxes and I would have to ask you, it's Los Angeles. We have Disney Hall. There's been a high watermark set for an extraordinary building that is something that is unique to see. We've had to meet a budget but hopefully it's a little bit adventurous too and that's a nice quality for our creative city. That should be part of our ethos in Los Angeles.”

A rendering of the Peter Zumthor design for LACMA. Image courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

Critics charge that the building actually seems to have a retro feel, its horizontal concrete structure more evocative of 1950s drive-by architecture. Its innovation, at least as DnA understands it, is in the break from the white sheetrock gallery towards the sensory experience which is Zumthor’s trademark, a mastery of light, space and material that is very hard to capture in renderings. But the latest iteration of the design, in dropping from 85 feet to 60 feet tall, appears to have lost one of its signature features, the “chapel” galleries where sculpture would be suffused in celestial light from clerestory windows.

Govan says, that through the community process this changed, but, he says, “the chapels aren't lost; they've just changed their form. Most of the museum is comprised of these singular galleries which he still calls chapels. The difference is that they originally stuck up very high into the air and had clerestory lighting.”

Curators wanted more light controlled space, “so Peter created more galleries that he's calling chapels and in this case they have light control and he thought that the better things for the building would be to have this nice back and forth between spaces outside the chapels where you had access to some natural light.”

The latest iteration of the project has been captured in one rendering, an exterior image of the building spanning the street, an image that prompted New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson to compare it to the Autogrill chain of Italian highway restaurants that bridge the Autostrade. DnA asked Govan how this building differs from an Italian Autogrill?

“Frankly this building’s not going to look like anything else you've ever seen.”

Besides, he adds, “If you isolate a little rendering you can make it look like that. I remember being at the Guggenheim when everybody was calling it a toilet bowl. Rem Koolhaas’s building was called a circus tent. And that little segment that people isolated is a fraction of this whole huge shape that is continuous and whole and actually pays no attention to Wilshire in a way. It can be walked under. It can be driven under. It has these towers distributed through the park and across the street and so to take a little isolated picture is not the way the building's going to be experienced.”

Image courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

Another concern that’s been raised is one of programming as it relates to the building.

The LA County Museum of Art’s permanent collection has 125,000 objects, spanning centuries and countries. However, LA Times art critic Christopher Knight reports the new structure won’t keep this encyclopedic collection in one place.

He complains it’s going to be “balkanized,” spread across separate satellites around the city -- satellites that will be costly for LACMA to maintain.

He also worries that works culled from the collection will be assembled as temporary themed shows.

Michael Govan argues that the museum needs to “utilize collections in a more dynamic way,” and as for distributing the museum throughout the city,

“We are thinking about alternative locations in Los Angeles. Our publics are spread out over a vast metropolis and a lot of people simply don't have access to the cultural infrastructure that we believe is central to civil society. The idea that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would begin to think about serving all of Los Angeles County, that's an exciting idea and I think the board is is really excited about it, the county supervisors are excited about it.”

Now, if you talk to supporters of the LACMA project they will complain that critics of the project are failing to welcome a building by a noted genius.

But the jump across the street, the idee fixe of the one-story museum, the prospect of acres of concrete to walk under and Zumthor's lack of experience at a large scale are all valid reasons to be concerned.

The doubts that hang in the air, however, are due perhaps to how the design came into being.

Govan originally hired Zumthor unilaterally, not through a transparent, juried competition or an open RFQ process.

Most Angelenos have not seen buildings by Peter Zumthor, which are quite stunning in the flesh, and he has barely engaged with the public personally.

That reticence is more acceptable in Europe where museums often are state funded and the architect tends to be treated with great deference.

So all of this has led some to ask if architecture by Class A architects from outside LA or overseas can get lost in translation.

Roger Sherman, design director at Gensler and adjunct professor at UCLA's School of Architecture, told DnA that working in LA means understanding the dynamics of this region.

“Those basically fall into three categories: patronage, real estate, and regulation," Sherman said, adding that architects have to "find a means of actually navigating through a kind of process of these different adaptations... that if not conceived strategically from the get-go ends up becoming a death by a thousand cuts.”

For architects from outside, especially overseas, the process in L.A. is more participatory than some cities, defying a designer who comes in with a strong preconception of the building he or she wants to create.

“And that extends from local stakeholders and so-called NIMBYists and so on, all the way up to our patrons who have particular predilections [about] what they think is iconic and so on. And then of course you have regulators who are charged with enforcing rules that are based upon norms rather than necessarily exceptions and yet they're being applied to a building which is an exceptional instance of something and may necessarily require by definition some changes to the rules. What makes a building Angeleno is the process itself to which the building is being subjected.”

In conclusion, DnA asked Michael Govan if he felt the process had diminished Zumthor’s design in any way.

“The public process in L.A. is a grueling process. We really do have public participation. I am going to say from my perspective having lived through the process that it is not a compromised building. In fact I really value Peter Zumthor’s buildings and I tend to be somebody who loves clarity and simplicity, and that clarity and simplicity speaks volumes when it’s orchestrated in light and shade. And I personally think this is a much better building because of its clarity.”



  • Michael Govan - CEO Director of LACMA - @LACMA
  • Roger Sherman - Urban Projects Director at Gensler, and Adjunct Professor at UCLA's Dept. of Architecture and Urban Design