The Academy Museum emerges

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It's been a long time coming. The idea for a museum of moving pictures was floated 90 years ago by silent movie star Mary Pickford -- and efforts to get it off the ground in the last few years have been fraught with enough drama to fill a Hollywood movie. But today reporters got a chance to see the the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, now known as the Academy Museum, under construction; and to see that it's for real.

At the press conference this morning people got a chance to tour -- many for the first time -- the building site of the new Academy Museum and see the May Company, now Saban Building, in a state of reconstruction and adaptation; and to get underneath the structure of the dome-shaped auditorium and public terrace that projects from the Saban Building.

The building's name change is a result of a $50 million donation from Haim Saban and his wife Cheryl to support the construction of the building. Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company and Chair of the Museum Campaign Committee, announced the donation today.

Their contribution — the largest gift to the Academy Museum Campaign — brings the museum's fundraising to $288 million, nearly 75% of its $388 million goal.

To date there had been a lot of reports about trouble and strife with this project ranging from challenges in the construction of the sphere, to a breakdown of relations between Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano and his initial architect partner, to cost overruns and delays in fundraising. Every bit as dramatic as the story of the making of any big movie but at times people were worrying this might go the way of Ishtar or Cleopatra.

But going around the site today was very exciting.

The Academy Museum will be dedicated to the art and science of movies and moviemaking. Its director, Kerry Brougher, hopes that it will be more than a dusty museum looking back at old Hollywood glories but rather will be a cultural and educational destination where you can learn about moviemaking past, present and future, see movies in one of two auditoria, and mingle and eat on a ground level plaza and on the terrace with restaurant atop the sphere, which offers a spectacular view of the Hollywood Hills.

With a design by Renzo Piano (who also designed LACMA's BCAM and Resnick Pavilions), the museum comprises two distinct, but connected buildings that will form a 300,000- square-foot campus.

One is the Saban Building — formerly the May Company building — now being stripped back to its frame and rebuilt with higher ceilings in some areas. Connected to the Saban Building by two glass bridges is a spherical addition that will feature a state-of-the-art theater and a terrace topped with a spectacular glass dome.

Renzo Piano is a remarkable architect and is known as a master builder -- his firm's full name is Renzo Piano Building Workshop -- and the man loves the work of piecing together materials.

But a sphere, seemingly a simple, pure form, is a very difficult geometric shape to build.

Piano has built one before: The Genoa Biosphere, also known as La Bolla, a glass sphere on the harbor directly behind the Genoa Aquarium in his native town of Genoa, Italy.

The sphere he has designed for The Academy Museum -- in partnership with the contractors Matt Construction and associate architect Gensler -- is not a complete sphere.

Rather, it is broken down into three parts: the middle section is made of concrete and will be the walls of the auditorium; the top is a glass canopy, attached to the concrete middle section, that will curve over a flat terrace; and the bottom part is essentially air. The sphere is truncated at the bottom and cantilevers over what will be a plaza area.

The curving concrete forms that make up the middle section being constructed by Matt Construction, a firm experienced in very high end construction, impressed Ann Gray, an architect who now edits and publishes a magazine called Form.

"When it first came out I was kind of feeling like, oh boy, another out of town architect is inflicting an obnoxious iconic form on the poor city of L.A. and in the name of Hollywood," Gray said. "But actually since then it's become much more grounded. It's got a more friendly, let's say sympathetic, relationship to the rest of the buildings on the site and in the campus and it seems to have floated back to earth. I'm really thrilled with the direction it's taking."

Photo: The construction of the Academy Museum's spherical building. (Avishay Artsy)