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Critic's Notebook

Film museum's cast change may be a blessing in disguise

The academy should admit that the design process for the film museum needs more time
The film museum is a tricky and hugely ambitious project, not just architecturally but culturally
'The spaceship, alas, has lived to see another day' -- @HawthorneLAT on academy film museum

The spaceship, alas, has lived to see another day.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced changes on Monday to the design team working on a $300-million movie museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

Zoltan Pali, the Los Angeles architect who'd been collaborating with the acclaimed Italian Renzo Piano, has left the job. Another firm, soon to be named, will join the project as executive architect as it approaches the start of construction later this year.

The switch is a response to recent criticism of the proposed museum — and to a collaboration between Piano and Pali that has never seemed smooth or especially productive.

But it does nothing to address problems at the heart of the design, especially flaws in its spherical theater, which Piano has nicknamed "the spaceship."

Though Piano has taken several passes at the sphere, it hasn't coalesced into a convincing set of architectural ideas. The theater design remains gimmicky, alienated rather than emerging confidently from its site, as Piano's best museum projects do.

By refusing to budge on its construction timeline, the academy is doubling down on the least-promising elements of the design. Sure, some refinements might smooth out some of its more obvious wrinkles. What they won't do is salvage the design as a whole.

Only a comprehensive effort to rethink the museum's architecture will do that.

A wholesale reassessment would mean pushing back the groundbreaking to 2015. That in turn would require the academy to be more forthright about the missteps it's already made.

A hard-headed commitment to the current design — and to the smooth progression of the capital campaign, still underway, that is going to pay for it — has so far kept that from happening. Academy leaders in their statement Monday produced mostly empty spin, an attempt to show that they're responsive to criticism and public sentiment without changing course in any productive way.

"There is nothing unexpected or untoward about the transition currently taking place within the Academy Museum's design team," the statement said.

That's hard to believe. Having Pali leave unceremoniously and without comment at this stage was surely never part of the original plan.

The statement also said that bringing in an executive architect at this stage "is customary with projects of this nature." That's misleading at best. Executive architects — who guide building projects essentially by serving as liaisons between design architects and their clients — are typically part of high-profile projects from an early stage.

When Eli Broad announced plans in 2010 for a museum on Grand Avenue to hold his art collection, just to pick one well-known recent example, the full architectural team was already in place. The New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro was named design architect and Gensler the executive architect.

(Gensler, by the way, has to be considered the front-runner to be named executive architect on the film museum.)

The academy should stop worrying about public-relations fallout and admit that the design process for the museum needs more time. It should announce that it is taking at least six months to take stock.

It should give Piano the leeway to change the basic design concept if he needs to. And it should make clear that the option of changing design architects is always on the table if the plan remains stuck.

This is a tricky and hugely ambitious project, after all, not just architecturally but culturally.

Hollywood, like Los Angeles itself, has never been very good at tending to its own history or separating that history from myth-making. Its leading figures have rarely been forward-thinking philanthropists or — with the exception of a few important modern houses — thoughtful patrons of architecture.

And Los Angeles, even more than most cities, has trouble taking the long view. Pundits in this town refuse to take certain major civic projects seriously simply because they might not be finished within five or 10 years. Who wants to talk about a subway line or a high-speed train if it's not going to be running until the 2030s?

The academy and its chief executive, Dawn Hudson, are falling into a similar trap. The Monday statement seemed above all fearful of disrupting fundraising efforts or the construction timeline, which calls for the museum to open in 2017.

But meaningful architecture often follows a slow or tumultuous route to completion. Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall took a leap forward architecturally every time its construction was put on hold in the 1990s. The finished building, completed in 2003, looks nothing like Gehry's winning competition entry of 1988.

The political battles that plagued plans for Union Station also had a silver lining; they gave its team of architects, led by John and Donald Parkinson, several crucial opportunities to improve the design in the 1930s.

The academy should keep the complicated history of those great buildings in mind as it decides how to proceed with its own construction project. A delay at this stage could turn out to be the film museum's saving grace.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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