Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

December 13, 2022

The Orange County Museum of Art Embeds Culture in a Changing Suburban Context

Designed by Thom Mayne’s Morphosis, the new art museum boasts radical geometry and public open space, but questions of access persist.


Alicia McCarthy, Architecture, Art, Articles, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Morphosis, Pelli Clarke Pelli, Sanford Biggers

“This is the beginning of a cultural institution,” said Morphosis principal Thom Mayne in late September, seated in the plaza of the nearly completed Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), in Costa Mesa, California. Behind him, VIPs dressed in black tie streamed from the valet to the white-on-white lobby for an exclusive opening event on the structure’s upper terrace. The $94 million building—its swooping prow jutting like a glazed pompadour from the facade—opened to the public on October 8.

Located at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a suburban campus studded with architecture by Pelli Clarke Pelli and Michael Maltzan Architecture, Morphosis’s 53,000-square-foot museum is the last piece of a plan devised by civic leaders and philanthropists in the late 1960s and begun in the ’80s. It was designed to cluster Orange County’s arts organizations—like a food court for culture where you can catch the symphony, a touring production of Hamilton, and now an art exhibition.

But who is the audience? Orange County has changed significantly over the past few decades; this bastion of white suburbia has grown demographically more diverse. Its politics shifted from red to purple in the 2020 election, and density has increased—it’s now second only to San Francisco County in the state, out-densifying Los Angeles County. Multifamily housing has started to crop up around Segerstrom Center. As OCMA lands in Costa Mesa, leaving behind a smaller building in Newport Beach and a temporary space at the nearby South Coast Plaza Village, it arrives with a mandate to face these realities. For instance, its inaugural exhibitions California Biennial 2022: Pacific Gold, 13 Women, and Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World) feature a range of artists whose work and identities resonate with a contemporary OC.

Morphosis won the OCMA competition in 2007 with a very different scheme from what was built, including two revenue-generating residential towers. Mayne categorizes his role in the 14 years since then with language that is part C-suite, part mystic, part architecture whisperer. “I’m not there to design a building; I’m there to help an institution find its way,” he says. “We concretize it, which gives you this type of museum and a future for the institution.”

Despite a claim by Mayne that OCMA isn’t in the camp of the “shiny object” that exemplifies a type of early-21st-century museum building, Morphosis’s formal geometry brings drama to the entry sequence. The firm worked with Best Contracting Services to develop the terra-cotta tile skin, which snakes across the facade and spirals upward to create a 52-foot-tall atrium lobby, crisscrossed by steel and glass bridges that lead to the education center and upper-level café and event space. The final details of the terracotta were still being installed at the time of the press opening. PVC panels had been temporarily inserted as camouflage as they team awaited the yet-to-be-delivered steel plates. The substitution, however, gave the impression of a complex design poorly executed.

Behind the dynamic front-of-house gymnastics, the parti is relatively simple: roughly 25,000-square-feet of rectilinear gallery space. With polished concrete floors and nearly 20-foot-tall ceilings equipped with hanging systems and indirect lighting, the architecture speaks the universal language of contemporary museums: white walls and flexibility.

“It’s not really a building; we built a public space with an edge,” says Mayne, referring to the 10,000-square-foot terrace that tops the museum, where a site-specific, metal sequin-covered sculpture by Sanford Biggers is currently on view. An amphitheater-esque set of risers cascades down from the terrace to the mezzanine level, offering visitors a balcony perspective of the main plaza, including Richard Serra’s 65-foot-tall sculpture Connector, whose torqued steel forms echo those of the museum.

Architect and Morphosis partner-in-charge Brandon Welling notes that these outdoor spaces were a way of giving back to the local community. Prior to construction, the site was a grassy field—not an official park, but a place where people would walk their dogs or have a picnic, he recalls. Conceptually, the architects like to think of the terrace as the result of lifting that green expanse and slipping the galleries underneath. A row of live oaks—street trees—line the terrace edge.

Yet “Who has access?” is one of the chief questions. For OCMA, the inquiry parallels one of audience in a place where distinctions between suburban and urban have grown a little fuzzy. Welling explained that a visit to the museum is part of the curriculum in local public schools, and entrance is free for the first 10 years, so it is possible to bypass the exhibitions and hang out on the terrace when the museum is open. What happens after hours is less clear; there’s a narrow exterior stair at the rear of the building, but does it grant entrée to morning dog walkers or late-night picnickers?

Would-be visitors may have to satisfy themselves with a stroll along the Avenue of the Arts, just to the east, where two new large-scale paintings, one by Oakland, California–based artist Alicia McCarthy and the other by L.A.-based artist Sarah Cain, are visible at all hours behind a glass storefront that runs nearly the length of the museum. OCMA CEO and director Heidi Zuckerman considers this her favorite part of the building, nicknaming it “the peninsula.” She considers Cain’s artwork a kind of talisman that could channel energy and wealth to the museum. “The public can come and wish for abundance,” she says. Others may wish for a grassy field.