Monday, July 14, 2014

More Reasons Why Zumthor's LACMA Design Should Not Be Built

Two more voices have been added to the growing opinion that demolishing the original LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) buildings would be a mistake (as I stated here June 17th) and that building the Zumthor design could end up being a civic tragedy.

First, architecture and urban design professor/critic/writer, Witold Rybczynski, brilliantly supports the retention of the original three buildings to preserve LA's cultural history (even though he is not a big fan of the architecture) and because they have, even more importantly, created a great urban space.
Most art museums today resemble either palaces (if they are old), or upscale automobile showrooms (if they are new). This was neither. Groups of excited children played on the plaza, and clusters of teenagers wandered in off Wilshire Boulevard. The familiar mall-like atmosphere made this an unintimidating space; it was definitely not the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it struck me that this vulgar (in the literal sense of the word) solution to an art museum succeeded in one important way. Because of its lack of pretension, this was a cheerful place in which people appeared decidedly at home.

A sense of place is an elusive quality, difficult to achieve, and not easy to maintain. It is the result not only of architectural forms but also of behavior, habit, and time. Learning to use what you have is as important as having the perfect building. That’s why it’s a shame to hear that LACMA has decided to wipe the slate clean and demolish all its older buildings, except the Goff pavilion. Why does Los Angeles, which has little enough history, feel the need to keep reinventing its surroundings?
Rybczynski also has problems with almost every part of the proposed Zumthor design.
It would be better to reconsider this wholesale demolition. Especially as the proposed replacement, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, leaves much to be desired. It is a spreading building raised up on stilts; instead of a friendly plaza there is a dark and gloomy undercroft. The kidney shape is supposed to have something to do with the nearby La Brea Tar Pits, but it reminds me of a 1950s coffee table. Finished all in black, the proposed museum will be a somber presence among the palm trees on Wilshire Boulevard, as anomalous as a Calvinist preacher on a sunny Malibu beach. 
Next, Aaron Betsky, writing in Architect Magazine, both opposes the demolition of the existing campus and has considerably problems with Zumthor's design.
Does the Los Angeles County Museum of Art need to start over again? That is the question this institution is answering with a resounding, $650 million “yes.” They are proposing to tear down all of their original buildings, as well as a mid-1980s addition, and replace it with Peter Zumthor–designed, blobby behemoth they say will add 70,000 square feet of gallery space and create a coherent core in which they can pursue their mission.
When I visited LACMA to see this show, as well as the James Turrell exhibition (about which more later) and a few other offerings of what has, it was clear to me that this institution has, under the leadership of Michael Govan, become one of the liveliest and most innovative art museums in the country. The place was bustling. The cafĂ©, nestled under a canopy that shades LACMA’s central space, was packed; people were wandering from pavilion to pavilion, and the whole compound gave you the sense that there was something else to discover around the next corner or in the next building.

That is why I am wary of the notion of wiping most of this out to create a single, amoeba-shaped labyrinth of galleries lifted above street level and accessed through five separate cores. Through pure circumstance, LACMA has arrived at a state of vitality that is due, I would argue, not only to good leadership and programming, but also to the very messiness of its campus.

Betsky also questions why LACMA should spend... $650,000,000.... and only end up with 70,000 feet in additional space.
But together, these bits and pieces create a condensation of the Los Angeles landscape that is, if not high art, certainly typical in its sense of accretion of forms, images, and spaces that flow from indoor to outdoor again. It seems to me that it would be logical to keep going in this mode by adding on, renovating, and intensifying those qualities.

Would it really cost $650 million to fix leaks, add solar panels to the roofs, create 70,000 square feet of gallery space in additions or separate pavilions, and design effective wayfinding tools? Nor would such a strategy embody a lack of vision. In fact, I would argue that this kind of first-one-thing-then-another, modular, tactical, and renovation-focused way of making spaces is the wave of the future.

I will also admit that I do not quite understand the Zumthor design. Though I have loved just about every building of his I have ever seen, this attempt to turn the adjacent La Brea Tar Pints into a black piano nobile disassociated from the human-made city around it strikes me as odd, out of scale, and out of real context.

Both critics also praise Michael Govan for what he has done at LACMA - and I am Govan's biggest fan when it comes to his revitalization of LACMA - and they each praise the relatively small, coherent, logical, jewel box structures Zumthor has designed in Swiss Alps near his home. Four qualities totally lacking in his LACMA design.

And now - below is my entire original post on the six reasons why the Zumthor design can not and must not be built:

Kevin Roderick over at LA OBSERVED has the best round-up of articles on architect Peter Zumthor's latest revised design for a new LACMA; a design that now crosses Wilshire Boulevard and  incorporates part of the parking lot (and future LACMA development site) across the street.  This was done to lessen the building's impact on the tar pits in Hancock Park.  But by doing this, new problems have been created - two of which are large enough to - in my opinion - kill the project once they are properly considered.

 But there is a potential solution to this possible stalemate..  Build a new museum on the parking lot parcel - which eliminates the need to demolish any of the existing buildings at this time - and then decide what to do with the rest of the campus.

Below are the six reason why I feel this project will not go forward.  But it is really reason number 6 - and 5 to a lesser extent - that I feel will make the project impossible to construct.  But first read Kevin Roderick's summary.

1.  The original LACMA buildings - though not the great architecture they could have been if Mies van der Rohe had been selected - are increasingly emblematic of their time and are now an important part of our social and cultural heritage.  The complex is also reaching an age when the merits of its urban planning design and its architectural style are able to be better appreciated and evaluated.

The Anderson building is more problematic.  Its architecture is merely typical of hundreds of buildings of its time and its awkward siting disrupted the entrance to the original complex.  Still, with a new architect, the Anderson might be reconfigured to play another role or be totally remodeled/rebuilt to become part of  the new building design and possibly the new main entrance to the complex.

Ideally, the Bart Prince designed Pavilion for Japanese Art would also be kept.

2.  The proposed new building still remains a sprawling blob with no clear entrance and no obvious connection with either the sidewalk or the street.  It remains an alien object hovering over Wilshire; an object seemingly meant to be driven by - and driven under - but never actually entered.  It is the literal recreation of the old Los Angeles myth that LA is not a city but only 37 suburbs in search of a city. Now, granted, those who already regularly go to art museums will likely find the alien quality of the structure - towering above them on 30 foot silicon legs, intriguing.  But it is far less likely that those who already find art museums too intimidating will feel welcomed by this structure.

3.  The sprawling floor plan is a museum goers nightmare.  By going horizontal rather than vertical - besides eating up all the usable land on the existing site and destroying the viability of the site across the street - Zumthor makes navigating the museum much harder.

Tourists already suffering from museum feet after days of walking and locals who want to stop by for an hour to see some of their favorites will no longer be able to take an elevator in the Ahmanson or the Anderson and find what they want to see.  They will instead have to walk far longer distances to get from one part of the museum to the other.  This design is to museums what urban sprawl is to cities.

4.  The new building will still plunge everything under it into darkness.  But that shadow now also includes Wilshire Boulevard and the sidewalks  on both sides of the street.  Unlike the Getty or the present LACMA complex (which allow you to go out into the sunlight and the fresh air of a plaza between each building to refresh your palate), Zumthor rejects any interaction with the ground or the outside world other than viewing it from up high through windows.

5.  Unexpectedly, this latest plan also has the side affect of making any major future, logical expansion of the museum - close to impossible.  By having the building across Wilshire and incorporating the middle of the parcel across the street that LACMA had  bought for future development - Zumthor not only destroys what previous architects have built - but he also destroys the ability for LACMA to have any future architect develop a major building on the other site - or on any other part of the existing LACMA campus

And now that the May Company - which was originally going to be part of LACMA before it became the Hollywood Museum (one of the brilliant moves Michael Govan has made since taking the reins at LACMA) is gone and with the new building now being forced to sprawl over all the developable land on the other side of Wilshire, any major future expansion will have to occur on another site.

And since the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is only LA museum that collects the entire history of  art and in every possible medium from medieval armor to contemporary fashion to antique zoetropes - the only way it can compete for major donations for its dozens of different collections  - is by having the land for major donors to build the spaces needed to greatly expand those collections.

6.  Finally - here is the last - and most important - reason why this plan can never never be built.

Throughout history art has found itself under attack by those who oppose the culture it sprang from.  Al Queda's destruction of major cultural monuments in Afghanistan and the current destruction of  'offensive'  art and artifacts in Iraq are only two of many recent examples  And if LACMA  constructs a massive art museum over Wilshire Boulevard that millions of people will pass under each year -will  create not just a target  - but the perfect target imaginable for those who oppose the cultures that created that art.

All it will take is one person - a single Timothy McVeigh - or a solitary terrorist with misguided religious beliefs  -  to detonate a truck filled with explosives - or a portable bomb - while driving under LACMA to bring the building's connection over Wilshire tumbling down  And there is no way that type of attack can be prevented.

So by building a museum filled with thousands of years of Western (and non-Western) art over a major iconic road in the heart of a major city, LACMA will be creating a uniquely - and totally unnecessarily vulnerable -  target; a compelling, failure free target perfect for any international terrorist group  - or any single person - wanting to attack that culture.

And that alone is reason enough not to build this project.

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