This is a tale about a blob in a park. Or, this is a tale about a blob in a park with a bridge. Or the tale of a blob in a park, a bridge, and a tower designed by LA’s most famous architect. Or, it’s the tale about a city and a blob in a park, a bridge, a tower, a lacklustre sphere, and a subway stop. It’s a cautionary tale.
In late June the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) releasedPeter Zumthor’s revised design for its new museum building. His earlier preliminary design, a self-described “black flower” raised some 30 feet above the ground on oversized glass footings, oozed a wee too close to the La Brea Tar Pits that inspired its undulating form. Leadership at the Page Museum, which actively uses the pits for research, expressed concern and asked Zumthor to back off. Squeezed in and smooched out, the new Schmoo-like scheme maintains the approximately 400,000 square feet required to display museum’s extensive collection, but it does so by stretching across Wilshire Boulevard to a piece of property that is currently a LACMA parking lot.
And as if a bridge spanning Miracle Mile wasn’t eyebrow raising enough, a week later LACMA director Michael Govan, in a story written by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, divulged plans for a mixed-use tower across the street from the museum, above a planned Metro subway stop. Govan’s dream architect for the job? Frank Gehry.
To add this up, we have a blob, a bridge, a tower, and a subway stop. Let’s not forget the somewhat spherical appendage to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences that Renzo Piano Building Workshop will add to the back of the existing May Company building on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. And a ribbon-like new facade for the Petersen Automotive Museum designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. What is missing is a masterplan. The current approach to Museum Row is semi-benign accumulation, a technique at work on the existing LACMA site with its collage of buildings from different architects, styles, and eras: Piano, Hardy Holzman Pfeifer, William Pereira, and Bruce Goff.
A decade ago, LACMA engaged Piano to develop a masterplan for the campus as it embarked upon the first phase of its self-proclaimed transformation. In it, you can see the glimmers of the spine that connects the Pereira buildings to the May Company Building – identified as LACMA West – and the new Piano addition, then identified as the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Phase II, launched in 2008, saw solidification of an axis through the site — let’s call it a kabob approach — and the addition of the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion, also designed by Piano. By this time, Broad had moved his own museum to Grand Avenue.
In many ways, the aspiration of the Zumthor design is to demolish, declutter, and reorient the inward looking vestiges of Piano’s planning to the street. Yet without an overall urban approach, the scheme reproduces the problem on city scale.
In a sweeping assessment in The Los Angeles Review of Books, New York-based architect and critic Joseph Giovannini makes the case for Govan to turn the museum design over to Gehry, an overdue masterwork in the architect’s hometown. My mission, however, is not to overturn the Zumthor plan per se, nor is it to lobby for any one of the many talented architects in Los Angeles capable of taking on such a grand commission. I’m arguing for something more meta: a civic assessment.
As a critic who often covers urbanism and, often, the “tactical” and “DIY” sides of cities, I hesitate before making a case for larger scale urban planning. Daniel Burnham may have said “make no little plans,” yet my own predilections have been for the discrete and iterative. The field is still shaking off Twentieth Century missteps and overreaches, while at the same time the rise of “placemaking” suggests a gentler approach to neighbourhoods and communities.
In a phone conversation, Govan evokes the High Line when describing the glazed promenade that follows the perimeter of Zumthor’s undulating form and continues as a bridge over Wilshire. “It’s a continuous veranda,” he explains eagerly. “It’s higher than the High Line in New York and offers a perspective on the streetscape and there’s a beautiful view of the park.” He also reiterates his admiration for Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, a 76-storey skyscraper in Lower Manhattan. Each project, however, has a uniquely ambivalent relationship to the street. Although the tower is defined by sexy undulations, crimps and folds rendered in stainless steel and glass, the building’s base is an unremarkable exercise in orange brick. The High Line’s largest impact at ground level is to increase real estate value and the number of surrounding condos and cultural buildings.
“By reimagining our streetscape, we can create transformative gathering places for Angelenos to come together, whether they travel by foot, transit, bike, or car,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as he announced the city’s Great Streets Initiative in early June. That project pledges $800,000 in seed funding to study fifteen corridors around the city.
Getting Angelinos to use the LACMA campus as a public space is one of Govan’s biggest successes. Families gather under the museum’s grand canopy. Across the street food trucks pull up to the curb. Impromptu picnickers fill the spotty lawn in front of a bland office building. The users are in place, more will come with the Metro stop, but where’s the more ambitious approach to the street itself?
Govan is betting on Zumthor’s track record for making beautiful, impeccably detailed buildings to carry the design forward. He’s dreaming of a Gehry tower that not only houses the museum’s architecture and design collection, but also Gehry’s own archive.
But a collection of signatures does not make a text. The cost of only Zumthor’s design has been estimated at $650 million to upwards of $1 billion. Surely there’s some incentive to make a public and transparent study of the LACMA scheme, the impact of a high-rise over the Metro stop, and the linkage to the additional museums in relationship to the whole Wilshire Boulevard cultural corridor.