Shortlisted! The role of localism in design commissions

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Last week LACMA director Michael Govan and his supporters went before an LA city council committee to ask for the air rights over a portion of Wilshire Boulevard to be vacated.

The request was approved, removing yet another hurdle from the path of the construction of a new museum building at LACMA, a building designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

Zumthor’s proposed design has divided Angelenos. Among the arguments against it is the critique that Zumthor may produce marvelous buildings in some situations but he doesn’t fully get LA and his design does not seem to fit the site.  

But LACMA is just one of four institutions on Museum Row that are expanding and have tapped an outside architect to design the building: New York-based Gene Kohn at Petersen Automotive Museum; Renzo Piano at the Academy Museum -- and now comes the La Brea Tar Pits, which is soon to announce its chosen designer from a shortlist of three: Dorte Mandrup from Denmark, and the New York-based firms Weiss Manfredi and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (designers of The Broad museum and the new Shed at Hudson Yards).

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

These commissions have raised some questions in the design community: How are these selections made? Who best interprets local conditions? And should global cities like Los Angeles try and maintain their regional character by nurturing local talent or invite the brand of the world’s most talented designers to our high profile sites? 

The Architect Newspaper's Matt Shaw did not mince words about the line-up, writing. "It is a truly odd and troubling list. All three are talented firms, but their selection signals the wind turning toward a placeless architecture where, in California terms, “there is no there there,” reflecting classic donor-class aesthetics."

Shaw writes that this shortlist, along with the arrival in the Los Angeles of architects like Bjarke Ingels Group and Herzog & de Meuron, suggests that the Southland and its specific, regional architectural character may be at risk of being subsumed into a global non-identity.

The nature of LA architecture and who should get to build its signature--and quotidian--buildings will be discussed by Shaw and other speakers at a public event, Shortlisted!, taking place Saturday at A+D Museum, co-produced by DnA. 

On this DnA, we reached out two architecture writers -- Shortlisted! Co-producer Antonio Pacheco and the Los Angeles Times’ Carolina Miranda -- to get their thoughts on the changes coming to museum row, and whether local designers should have had more presence.

This rendering from Dorte Mandrup shows how research activities are integrated with new exhibition spaces. A new public roof top garden and the Tar Bar concludes the journey. Image courtesy Dorte Mandrup

 “This was an opportunity for the Tar Pits to really think about how this site might play with and or counter some of what's going on there. I think they have done something interesting in that all of the firms that they have included include prominent women designers. And I think that is very important to note because that is a very macho street corner when it comes to the architecture. But I personally would have liked to see an L.A. architect in the mix,” said LA Times art and architecture writer Carolina Miranda.

“Bringing the race down to three architects and not one of them is an L.A. firm, represents a failure of imagination,” Miranda added.

This issue of who should design it is not meant to sound parochial. LA has been built by people who came from elsewhere and the region constantly benefits from refreshing visions. 

But there are some sites that have a particular meaning to people who’ve spent time here. 

The Weiss/Manfredi concept for the La Brea Tar Pits features a new 1-kilometer pedestrian path that connects the site, enhancing amenities for community engagement and research. Image courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism

And the La Brea Tar Pits is one of them. Especially to folks who came here when they were in the second grade.

“I grew up in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. And I remember making the trip out to the tar pits with my elementary school,” recalled Antonio Pacheco, architecture critic and managing editor at Archinect. 

“I remember getting off the school bus and you march in a straight line up the block and then you turn the corner into the park and you immediately smelled the tar pits. That's such a visceral kind of memory for me as a child. And then, of course, you know, you see the mammoths,” he added.

Pacheco cites a New York Times article from 1977 when the museum first opened. It reads: “You can smell the site before you see it: The rancid odor of tar emanates from an asphalt lake the size of a football field. From a concrete observation platform you can look down on the muddy yellow water, the surface constantly broken by bubbles from hidden tar springs. At one end is a scum of tar into which a plaster mammoth sinks, its mouth open as if to bellow in useless rage.”

Diller Scofidio + Renfro's concept features a new arrival plaza at the corner of Wilshire & Curson. Image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Pacheco says he’d like to see more of an L.A. presence among the finalists of the Tar Pits redesign. That’s one issue he’ll raise at “ Shortlisted .” Pacheco is a co-producer of the free public event, also co-produced by DnA, this Saturday at A+D Museum.

Speakers will include Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, head of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County; and Christopher Hawthorne, who is Chief Design Officer for the City of LA.