The intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Boulevard is under an evil spell. Otherwise, I can't account for the two most questionable museum proposals to descend on the area formerly known as the Miracle Mile. Making those proposals even more surprising is that two architects responsible for two separate proposals – Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor – are among the most gifted museum designers in the world.
Renzo Piano has a gift for conceiving museums and museum renovations that seem perfect for their sites. In San Francisco, the rolling roofline of his Academy of Science Museum in San Francisco, covered in a layer of green planting, has attracted new crowds to Golden Gate Park. His new Whitney Museum in New York, in contrast, manages to address the differing scales of surrounding buildings, while responding confidently to the tough urban texture of the surrounding industrial district. Piano was also responsible for a modest redesign of the existing LACMA campus, a new entrance sequence that began at the parking structure , rather than Wilshire Boulevard, which made long-familiar buildings and spaces seem new.
Yet the very same Piano is proposing a giant sphere for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sited to the immediate north of, and attached to, the landmark May Company building, the big ball looks like a golf ball with the bottom third sliced off. The top half of the sphere is glass, which will cover a dome-like ceiling. In fairness, it could be very impressive from the interior.
Globes, or at least domes, have captivated architects since Roman times. At the time of revolutionary France, the architect Boullee, who specialized in imaginary, impossible-to-build ideas, famously proposed an immense hollow globe as a monument to Isaac Newton. More recently, architect James Polshek designed a largely glass ball for the Apple store in Manhattan, which won wide attention for the local temple to i-Gadgetery.
If the spherical shape of the building has some art historical roots, why is this particular museum adopting it? Specifically, how does a sphere connote Hollywood movies? Does this shape allude to the bouncing ball we followed in movie sing-alongs of the 1940s? Or the spinning globe of the world that appeared at the beginning of movies from Universal Studios? No, it's the majestic ball of light that accompanies the arrival of the alien spacecraft in "Encounters of the Third Kind."
As if the sphere were not daring enough, the architect has proposed that the bulk of the ball is to be cantilevered outward from a skinny base, which makes the structure appear slightly absurd, like a hedgehog rearing back on its hind legs. (The massive overhang is not a pure cantilever, actually, because there is a single structural column beneath the ball, like the invincible arm of Mighty House holding the world. Actually, I suspect the sphere-plus-cantilever is a gimmick meant to suggest special effects and the suspension of disbelief. Still, the design seems forced and unintentionally funny, like an animated cartoon about an Airstream trailer that is filling full of water – the work no doubt of that rascally Roadrunner! – and seems ready to burst.
No doubt, Piano wants to open up some more sidewalk space for pedestrians, so visitors will be able to examine the architecture and make cooing noises at close range. Yet is the spectacular effect of the cantilever worth the brain damage in structural engineering? Is there an easier way to achieve the same goal?
The normally reliable architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne, has suggested that further design is needed. That's a safe way to sidestep the issue.
City lovers seeking further frustration, meanwhile, can go next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to check up on the latest iteration of the proposed redesign of that sprawling, multi-building institution.
As discussed in a previous post, LACMA would like to scrape nearly all the existing buildings that Piano was so careful to preserve in his redesign. Zumthor was chosen by LACMA chief executive Michael Govan to reconceive the entire museum as a single, sprawling structure. In the two earlier design phases, the architect created a squiggly, soft-edged footprint for LACMA inspired, perhaps by the ink-blotch outlines of the local tar pits.
The second iteration in particular worried me, because Zumthor proposed a second-story bridge crossing Wilshire Boulevard, apparently in the interest of creating an uninterrupted museum-going experience. From an architectural viewpoint, the bridge could be seen as a cool idea; from an urban design vantage, however, it's destructive. Much of the view of Wilshire Boulevard from this important intersection would be blotted out by a thick bar of black glass, resembling a black censor mark.
Version Three of the LACMA design introduces something like a row of seven self-contained pavilions, laid end to end like a row of dominoes. If I'm reading the plan correctly, the concept of self-contained galleries, while possibly more manageable from a curatorial standpoint than an endless ribbon of exhibition space, goes against the notion of a continuous path around the museum.
But abandoning the "endless" circulation scheme, means, in part, that the rationale for the bridge across Wilshire Boulevard has also gone away. Yet the bridge survives in the third version of the LACMA design, even though the bridge has no programmatic reason to exist other than to trumpet the size and importance of this public museum. But is the museum so important that it should allowed to block the view of everything east of Fairfax on Wilshire Boulevard?
In Los Angeles, private developers often get cast in the role of insensitive city wreckers. In this case, a public arts institution is advocating an insensitive and irreversible act of city killing, and using tax dollars toward that purpose. Exciting buildings, even great ones, don't make sense if the sense of urban coherence is damaged. But try to tell that to Govan, the self-appointed arbiter of taste who thinks that that the most important thoroughfare in Los Angeles is his own personal toy to play with and to break.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has already endorsed the bridge concept, with apparently little protest. Like I said, there's an evil spell on the place. When the spell wears off, however, Los Angeles residents may be dismayed by the results.