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A Black Hole On Wilshire Boulevard

Morris Newman on
Feb 16, 2014

The tar pit–inspired scheme by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to replace the eastern half of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a rare misstep by one of the world's most gifted architects. Surprisingly for a Pritzker-winning architect famed for his sensitivity to context and site, this ink blotch of a design shows little understanding of its park site, or, for that matter, the context of Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles as a whole, or museums as a building type. It should not be built.

I find myself typing these words in a state of near disbelief. Zumthor ranks high on my short list of favorite living architects, which includes Japan's Tadao Ando and Portugal's Alvaro Siza. At their best, each of these designers has combined deep thinking, with quietness, modesty and understatement. Each has produced buildings that provide pleasure to their users while inserting themselves into the existing built environment without violence.  

Perhaps it's understandable that a visitor to L.A. would be impressed by the tar pits that adjoin the county art museum. Yet the tar pits have hardly gone without unnoticed: The Page Museum, which stands on a hill overlooking the tar pits, is devoted entirely to fossil findings from the pits, primarily large mammals and birds from the Pleistocene Era (40,000 to 11,000 years ago). Plus, the museum maintains several tar pits as working paleontological sites. And as every Angeleno knows, the pits even make a nod to passing motorists on Wilshire Boulevard, in the form of replica mammoths that mimic the death struggle of animals trapped in tar (although the motorized motion, alas, of the animals no longer operates). So perhaps the tar pits are adequately celebrated as they stand.      

 

More to the point, Zumthor's proposal razes much of what has constituted the museum campus since its start in 1965. Replacing this set of admittedly imperfect buildings is a single, two-story sea serpent that twists and turns and bifurcates, as if the footprint of the museum itself was a splotchy tar pit. This twisting-and-turning does not accomplish much in terms of providing variety in exhibition space, however:  Much of the building appears to consist of a long hallways, which supposedly could be programmed either as "walk through" galleries or divided into smaller gallery rooms. Unless I'm mistaken, I see little opportunity for large installations, for example, of the kind that have made the Tate Modern in London a popular destination.

And as a low-lying building with a considerable setback, I'm not sure the Zumthor building would make much of an impression on either pedestrians or motorists on Wilshire Boulevard, on one of the most visible intersections in L.A. As urbanism, the Zumthor blob is big zero.

Meanwhile, the great black blob appears to encroach, or nearly so, on the Japanese Pavilion, a free-standing structure which represents a rare public building by the late Bruce Goff (completed by Bart Prince.) In homage to traditional Japanese buildings, this eccentric building by a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright was conceived as a building within a garden. Goff's building needs air and greenery on all sides, but the blob hems in on the western edge of the pavilion, surrounding the smaller building with pincer-like wings to the north and south, as if to swallow the Goff building.

The LACMA campus has undergone nearly as many facelifts as Joan Rivers, yet remains quirky and disunited. The Anderson Building, part of the original William Pereira design from the 1960s, is a poorly lit set of galleries that seems to scare visitors away from the museum's world-class ethnological holdings. A streetfront fountain that made a connection to Wilshire Boulevard was abandoned early on, and replaced by an outdoor sculpture garden, which weakened the visual connection of the museum to the important boulevard.

An enlargement from the 1980s by Hardy Holzmann Pfeiffer added several buildings, which are serviceable, if undistinguished. The best parts of that scheme was the courtyard framed by new and old buildings on the campus. The large rectangular space is usually crowded with people – and crowds are the gold standard in campus design. Free jazz concerts on Friday nights are filled to overflowing. In a major city with a dearth of successful public spaces, the LACMA courtyard is an important asset.  

A further enlargement, this time by the world's most  prolific museum designer Renzo Piano, chose not to alter existing buildings, but rather to change the way that visitors enter the museum from a new parking lot, while adding several new buildings. One of the best parts of the Piano enlargement is a prominent artwork by Chris Burden, consisting of a forest of historical streetlamps happily located close to the boulevard. The sight of constant visitors mingling amid the nostalgic lamp posts at last anchors the museum successfully engages the boulevard for the first time in nearly 50 years. 

The Zumthor scheme, in contrast, lacks any courtyards or social space. That failing alone should be enough to disqualify the project. True, floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the perimeter of the museum could arguably make the exterior friendly for people on foot. But there is no formal gathering place, no high point, no sense of arrival like that provided by the existing courtyard. The lack of a vital public space seems an extraordinary flub by Zumthor, whose 2011 design for a pavilion in London's Hyde Park—a simple rectangular enclosure., with an open-air garden and surrounded by seating and sheltered by overhangs--was a model way to create a small social space within a larger public area.

The best approach to LACMA may be "Burkean" -- that is, to tinker with the historical edifice rather than scraping it. Remember that LACMA sponsored an international design competition about 10 years ago, with big-name architects proposing various approaches to expansion. The winner at that time was a radical scheme by the iconoclastic Rem Koolhass, who proposed demolishing the campus and replacing it with a single giant box. The idea behind the scheme was intriguing: the Dutch architect had proposed arranging the museum's enormous (and largely unseen) ethnological collections in parallel rows, all coordinated along a giant timeline. Private museum patrons were hostile to the scheme, which was quietly shelved, while the museum went to the reliable Piano for an affordable addition that would meet the approval of big donors. 

The Zumthor proposal repeats several of the drawbacks of the Kollhaas proposal – a banal exterior, the destruction of the existing buildings, a lack of genuine social spaces and consolidation of the collection into a single building of monstrous size.  I don't know how Zumthor came up with such an inept design. I'm not sure why museum director James Govan should be so enthusiastic about the destructive scheme. All I'm sure of is that the Zumthor scheme should remain a blotch on the drawing board, -rather than a black hole on Wilshire Boulevard.     

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