‘The Scenic Route’ Exalts the Car at the Petersen Automotive Museum

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The exterior of the new Petersen Automotive Museum has Angelenos divided, some shaken, some stirred. But what about the interior?

Photo by David Zaitz.
The new exterior wrapping of the Petersen Automotive Museum is unmissable, and has divided passersby. Photo by David Zaitz

Now that cars are seen as a cause of problems — pollution, sprawl, obesity, global warming — their pleasures can be overlooked: the brilliance of their technology, their beauty (sometimes), and the liberation automobiles afford (when not stuck in traffic).

But the pleasures of cars are certainly not overlooked at the newly designed Petersen Automotive Museum, which is about to reopen its doors after what the museum describes as a 13-month “aggressive renovation” of its 21-year old dowdy interior (itself an unaggressive renovation of Welton Becket’s 1962 Seibu department store). 

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

The goal at the Petersen has been simply to celebrate cars and our century-long obsession with them.

“Everyone has a story about a car,” says Adam Langsbard, head of marketing at the Petersen, and the redesign pulls no stops in telling that story, as anyone can attest who has recently passed through the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire and gotten a blast of the metal ribbons and red cladding that have turned the building into a giant, zany billboard for its contents.

Beyond the delirious skin, designed by Eugene Kohn of New York corporate architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, lies the interior — and the job of giving it equal firepower went to The Scenic Route, a Pacoima-based design company specializing in trade shows and rock concerts.

Helmed by owners Ulf Henriksson and Sean Culhane, and creative director Ron Gould, The Scenic Route was in charge of “everything from master planning to design to technical design engineering” and “also all of the heavy fabrication,” including heavy welding and all the construction.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

Critics have been wondering how the interior would connect to the exterior wrapping, designed by different teams, and whether the new design would both enhance the collection, and the midcentury commercial building it occupies.

As The Scenic Route saw it, their job, says Gould, was to bring “what we’ve learned in storytelling… technology and flexibility and understanding of entertainment” to bear on creating a dynamic environment that woos all generations and “supplies the Petersen with a future-proofed,” flexible and durable solution.

To that end they opened up the floors, making a feature of the former department store columns, not concealing them. They inserted a spiral staircase that cuts through the building, bringing in light and a sense of connection and views between floors.

They have opened up the interior to the outside, with a new pedestrian entrance on the Wilshire front and a cafe, still in construction, with an outdoor patio, on the Fairfax side. And to create a sense of connection to the undulating ribbons, they’ve created curving pathways and views.

The palette is sleek, gray, corrugated metal, red (as on the exterior) with LED lighting that is intended to further flatter the cars — called “heroes” by the designers — which need little flattering because the collection is stunning.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

You’ll see none of the colorless vehicles that clog our streets today; rather on the ground floor you’ll see a showroom of mostly French classics from the 1920s and 30s, a passion of Petersen board chair Peter Mullin, who largely drove the overhaul of the museum.

You’ll find an upper level room of silver-finished cars, including Bond’s first Aston Martin. On the first level there’s also a space devoted to art cars — as in cars painted by artists; on show is a work by Alexander Calder and a BMW painted by David Hockney.

White walls serve as large screens for video clips including famous film scenes set in cars and old road movies. And there’s lots of digital interaction for kids of all ages, including a room where you can tap into your inner race car driver.

LA’s first self-propelled vehicle, dating back to 1900; Photo by Frances Anderton

The result of all this is a makeover that is more muted than the exuberant exterior but every bit as dramatic and airy a change from PAM’s first, dull iteration.

The point of the makeover is that “you don’t need to be the quote unquote ‘gearhead’ to enjoy this museum. This is a museum for everyone,” says Adam Langsbard.

“Whereas the old museum was really focused on a very deep core of automotive enthusiasm, today we have Disney/Pixar for children. We have Microsoft XBox for older kids and young adults and. . .if your idea of automotive enthusiasm is top down with your hair in the wind on PCH, we’ve got that for you too.”

Henriksson, Culhane and Gould were so jazzed by the Petersen project they devoted more than 100 staffers and the last two years to working on it.

This weekend their design will be revealed to the first crowd of visitors. DnA caught up with them as they were overseeing finishing touches and got their perspective on how to create a scenic route through a museum of cars that are not moving.

From left: Sean Culhane, Ulf Henriksson and Ron Gould of Scenic Route
From left: Sean Culhane, Ulf Henriksson and Ron Gould of Scenic Route; photo by Adam Langsbard

DnA: What was your main objective in redesigning the interior?

Ron Gould: Our job was to take the Petersen experience and update it for today’s audience. And the way that we did that was to utilize what we’ve learned in storytelling and bring all of the technology and flexibility and understanding of entertainment to bear on the project.

So over the last two years, we have thought about what that visitor experience is going to be, and how to supply the Petersen with a future-proofed solution that is completely flexible, that is durable for the visitors, and also transcends both global and local and every age group.

And to do that we need to think about what we’ve done in the past and how we’ve done that. How we can supply those entertainment pieces, if you will, in a way that is acceptable to everyone, so that we have digital experiences that are active and that you can get more information from?

But we also thought about the people who like to take in their information passively. So we have the large signature galleries of videos, multi-projector screens, etc. And then we also thought about the people who love to look at the artifacts, and the storytelling that can take place [in] the display cases that we’ve built.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

DnA: This is a building that has a little bit of history in L.A. It was a department store designed by Welton Becket.  What did you do physically with the space?

RG: First we took it down to its bones. We wanted to see what was here — and there were many columns. In the previous incarnation of the museum they did a great job of building set pieces that encased the columns. What we wanted to do is have an art museum and not be afraid of the bones themselves. So we utilized those columns for separation in some of the galleries.

We built other exhibit pieces around the columns themselves.

But we also wanted to utilize the opportunity to let the cars shine through and to do that we developed a palette, if you will, that’s very small. We have white walls. We have black text, we have black and white photography.

When you see color you see it on a screen, you see it on a projection or you see it in a car. That allows us to really make the cars the heroes that they are.

Photo by David Zaitz of the rooftop, which will be used for private Petersen events. A public access cafe on the roof is under consideration.

DnA: And there are shots of red, and the red carries through from the exterior, correct?

RG: Yes, the red works very well with the black and the white but we also introduce grey. So we bring the steel color from the outside. We bring that into the corrugated, undulating wall on the inside as well as you see on some of the accent walls that we used the grey.

And of course black and white photography is all shades of gray, so the black, grey and red and white palette gives us an opportunity for, I think, a very sophisticated look, and also for people to take in information without getting overburdened with enlarged graphics with multiple colors.

We want them to concentrate on the vehicles, we want them to concentrate on the collection and the stories that can be told throughout.

View through concourse to Wilshire pedestrian entrance; photo by Frances Anderton

DnA: The museum used to be more contained. This iteration actually does connect to the street in certain ways. Just explain those.

RG: The new lobby allows for a walkway, a concourse that goes from the parking structure to Wilshire. And you can see all the way through the lobby to Wilshire and what is just beyond the doors. You’re seeing the red ribbons through the doors.

When you stand in the restaurant you can look through the restaurant and you see the inside of the ribbons there as well. We see the lobby area as a transitional space. So people can walk into it and they still have the undulation of the walls. They still have the architecture that they’re seeing outside. And then they are also seeing on the right-hand side the beginnings of this museum that is more rectilinear, but also has a lot of the curves incorporated into the cars themselves.

DnA: Did your team and the Kohn Pedersen Fox team have meetings together about the design or were you working completely separately?

Ulf Henriksson: We had some initial meetings where we basically made sure we understood what each other’s plans were. And we were very inspired by their work. They actually were brought on board first, so by the time we were asked to come on board, we knew what their design intent was.

And we tried to really respect that and it was a little bit of a challenge to try to figure out how to work with the very elaborate ribbon structure. In the beginning we came up with some concepts that were a little overboard. We started trimming them back and eventually we got to something that we’re really, really happy with, really in my mind a nice transition from exterior to interior in our new concourse.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

DnA: One of the biggest changes obviously that’s been made is you’ve cut a staircase through the entire section of the building. Talk about that.

RG: Well, the central core was one of the first things we looked at because one of the things that took place in the department store was an escalator. And that escalator only went to the second floor. And we now had a third floor. We have more museum space.

So we wanted to give the visitor the opportunity to take an elevator to the third floor and begin their journey there, but then walk down so that they can be exposed to the galleries as they walk through the central core of the museum. And then have more reveals as they walk through the museum. That also gave the opportunity for orientation. You’ll find within the Petersen there’s very little wayfinding, because it’s not needed.

It’s very open, you can see where you’re going. And that all comes from that idea of centralizing everything.

And when you’re standing on the staircase you can also hear the museum. So the museum is alive from the third floor to the second floor to the first floor and you can hear the music, you can hear people transcending up and down that central core.

Photo by Karen Bruckner

DnA: Most of your experience is in trade shows and rock concert . What do you think you brought from that experience that might make your approach differ from someone that works more traditionally within the art museum world?

RG: The Scenic Route has done other museum work before the Petersen. But this is the largest project we’ve taken on. And what we’ve learned through the years is [to start with] the person and their feeling, and what they’re thinking.

We look at what their expectation is, what was their experience walking into a rock concert, or a Las Vegas show, or a trade show, or turning on the television and watching an award show?

There’s a person on the other side of what we’ve done. And we take that to heart.

When we looked at museum work, it was that same experience. What do we do to entertain? What do we do to engage? What do we do to educate anyone who is walking up to what we have put our time and effort and passion into?

And then we go backwards from that. And we think, what’s next and what’s next and what’s next, so that we can help them enjoy what we’ve created to the greatest extent.

So in our mind there wasn’t a huge leap between doing trade shows [and concerts and the Petersen]. People walk into trade shows, they have a mindset about what they’re doing and what they’re looking for. They go to a concert, they have an idea of what they’re going to do.

So it was the same thing. How do we connect with those people and how do we tell the story in the most provocative way?

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

UH: And I just want to add to that. We don’t necessarily do traditional trade shows. The shows that we do are actual large events for companies like Activision. They are very immersive.  They use large format screens and have a lot of opportunities for interaction with games and things like that. There are multiple rooms that you go in; it’s almost like a little amusement park that you go through and experience lots of different things.

So, what I think we have brought here is the ability to draw people’s attention to our creation and to constantly surprise, to have new experiences around every single corner that you walk into… and just constantly use the latest, greatest technologies and ways to just make these experiences really, really cool.

Sean Culhane: We’ve developed many systems, the rolling platforms, the various elements that we put into the grid, the way that the projectors work, the way that the lights work, that the museum can then use for years to come.

And that is again something that was learned from working on various things and being able, not just as designers, but also curators and also fabricators, to put all those together with video and with interactive and with all of the other technology.

UH: I want to add to that a little bit and I think this is really worth mentioning. In doing a lot of the rock ‘n roll tours, that basically need to last forever, and be extremely durable, ship from city to city, install and strike in no time whatsoever, I think what we’ve been able to give the Petersen staff is our systems that function just like that.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

So we have made it extremely easy for the Petersen staff to load cars on platforms.

When we took you through the museum earlier you saw 30-40 million dollar cars. We have developed systems that basically lets the staff load cars on platforms without even touching the car. All of the platforms are built on something we call triples, with casters so if there’s an event, we can move cars onto platforms or off extremely quickly without ever having to touch a car.

We have thought through how this museum operates behind the scenes. So for events, we have provided all the staging, all of the equipment. Our infrastructure, our technology infrastructure allows for the event staff to tie into our audio video lighting systems on each floor without actually interfering with the main system of the building.

And we’ve created interfaces for them to very easily do this, so it’s very easy for the staff to rent this out to an event team that then can use all of this equipment that we’re giving to them.

So I think that is another thing that definitely is benefiting the museum, that we have learned in other fields that are not necessarily museums.

Early visitors start playing at racing. Photo by Karen Bruckner

Can each of you give me the the biggest rock ‘n’ roll moment in this museum?

RG: It really does depend on the visitor, because we have rock ‘n’ roll moments for people who are motorheads, [who] love motorsports, we have rock ‘n’ roll moments for people that are purists of the form itself, in rolling sculptures and the precious metals. We have rock ‘n’ roll experiences for kids that they can learn more about cars in half an hour here than they can learn in years and years in autoshop.

But the rock ‘n’ roll moment for me is going to be when the museum opens.

UH: That’s a very good answer, it’s hard to answer that very much better. If I can focus in on one specific gallery, I do definitely have a favorite; I’m very interested in motor sports racing and knowing the adrenaline that a race-car driver feels racing a car is something that is really hard to explain to people.

And it was very important to me and to the design process to try to find a way to communicate how it feels to race a car.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

So we have a motor sports gallery here that basically is a room shaped like a horseshoe; it has a 180 degree screen in it and the screen’s approximately seven feet tall and 145 feet long. We have 14 projectors, we have an amazing sound system and we have 10 of the most amazing race cars in this gallery. And we have created a video and an experience there that in my mind does an extremely good job of communicating that passion, that adrenalin.

You know what you feel at a day at the races. So I think that might be one of my favorite ones.

SC: I would think another major one would be on the first floor gallery, the artistry gallery, where we have some of the most beautiful cars in the world assembled.

And one gallery space in the entire back wall. The entire back wall is a giant video screen, 160 foot long video screen that is so large you can take it in even within your peripheral vision. And the sound and the music that plays along with it and accompanies it just sets an amazing tone inside the gallery that’s seen from the concourse as well. So that’s one of the most powerful views I think, and rock ‘n roll moments in the museum.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

DnA: The new experience at Petersen, based on my hour here, is very seductive. It celebrates the car in its extreme sexiness. And yet we all have to acknowledge that times are changing and there’s a changing attitude towards the car. Cities are trying to limit the amount of dependence on the car and there’s a generation in LA that is biking and walking. We’ve also got the climate change conference taking place right now where there are discussions about how to limit vehicle miles driven. So was that kind of changing relationship to the car part of your consideration? Or was that too political and not really part of what this museum’s about?  

RG: Well, museums should not be political and there needs to be a neutral stance to convey information, and let the visitor make their own decision. There is an alternative power exhibit where we show historically that electric vehicles were right along with gasoline in the very beginning. And we put them all together and in the same area.

There’s a lot of talk about autonomous cars.

In the industry professionals exhibit, we talk to people who currently build cars. They are the people who are dedicating their lives to making cars and making the next car. And we talk to them about: What about automation? What about autonomous cars? Do you think it will take the soul out of the car?

And some do [think so]. Some are just as passionate about keeping the soul of being able to get your hands dirty, being able to hold the wheel as there are people who are saying, ‘it’s going to be fantastic, I won’t have to do a thing.’ It’ll be like WALL-E, I’ll just sit back and they will take care of everything.

So we talk about each one of those subjects, but don’t take a stance on them.

It really is a question of, what is the history of the automobile, where we’ve been, what is the industry, where are we now? And what is the artistry? And that’s timeless.

I mean, I don’t know if there will be beautiful autonomous vehicles. I don’t know if my grandchildren will remember their first autonomous vehicle or if it will just become, it was just a car.

But right now in this moment people all have a story about their car. People all have a relationship with their car. And we think that people will wake up to that relationship just by going through the museum.

Photo by David Zaitz.
Photo by David Zaitz

DnA: Did you get bored with cars in the process of working on the Petersen remodel?  

UH: Never. No, we love cars. We absolutely love cars. We were so privileged to be working on this museum. We put basically, pretty much all our entire business on hold while we’ve been working on this. We said no to a lot of business so we could use our 100+ staff on this entire museum exclusively. And we’ve been on it for a little over two years and so far it is definitely our favorite project. And a lot of passion, a lot of energy has gone into this and I really hope that shows.

The Petersen Automotive Museum will be open daily, starting Sunday, December 6 with a ticketed preview.