The Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced plans this month to build a new wing spanning Wilshire Boulevard.
It also wants to build up — way up.
The museum is working on an ambitious proposal for a skyscraper near the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue, on land partly owned by LACMA across from its main campus.
Museum officials envision the tower, rising above a planned Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway station at Wilshire and Orange Grove Avenue, as having a hotel and condominiums. It would also contain LACMA galleries, including a new architecture and design wing and, potentially, architect Frank Gehry's archives.
"We're working with the other owners of the property and with Metro," said LACMA Director Michael Govan. "There's good reason to build a major development there. You've got subway access and density on Wilshire. My dream is some beautiful piece of architecture with an architecture and design museum at the base, which would add to Museum Row."
If built, the tower would offer a dramatic vertical complement to the relentlessly horizontal LACMA gallery building by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, which would bridge Wilshire.
The tower would also join another major skyscraper — the 73-story Wilshire Grand tower now under construction downtown — in heralding a new era of high-rise architecture along Wilshire Boulevard. For the most part the city's best-known and most influential landmarks have been houses of one or two stories.
Govan said he hopes Gehry will design the new building. Gehry completed a 76-story residential building in Lower Manhattan in 2010.
"That's my dream," Govan said. "I'm jealous that New York has a Gehry tower and we don't."
Gehry acknowledged he has talked with Govan about the tower site. "I'm open to it," he said.
Govan has been discussing plans for the site with Metro officials, including Martha Welborne, the transit agency's head of planning, as well as with a developer and owners of the adjoining parcels above the planned Purple Line subway station. The station entrance will be located at the southeast corner of Wilshire and Orange Grove.
"This is not being driven by me," Govan said. "The other owners, Metro — it's been a really collaborative discussion."
In a statement, Welborne said: "We are continuing to negotiate with the individual property owners to acquire or lease property needed for the Fairfax subway station, and we are also exploring, with the property owners, the possibility of a large mixed-use project above the station."
Those involved in discussions about the potential tower, including Gehry, described them as preliminary. To pull off the project, LACMA — which owns roughly 30% of the 80,000-square-foot parcel — will have to negotiate agreements with the adjoining property owners, Metro and the real estate developer who would build the tower.
"If we're going to keep the property — and the idea is we'll lease it to Metro — then the question becomes, what are you going to do with it?" Govan asked. "You don't want to see it as a flat parking lot."
He said a strikingly designed tower could act "as a model, as a sort of flagship" for a new vertical approach to development near transit lines in Los Angeles.
Govan declined to say how tall the tower might be, admitting that any talk of high-rise development in the area might worry nearby residents who are already girding themselves for a decade of construction as the subway is extended west along Wilshire and LACMA builds the 410,000-square-foot Zumthor building.
The question of height, he said, "is where you get neighbors all charged up. So I don't go out there and say I want the biggest, tallest skyscraper. But we know that density is the key to urban living and to the maximization of mass transit — and key to the environment. And so for all the right reasons, this is the right place" for a high-rise.
The tower would be the Miracle Mile's answer to the proposed Grand Avenue development across from Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. Long delayed, that project by developer Related Cos. and Gehry would include a pair of towers with hotel rooms, condos and rental apartments, as well as restaurants and shops at street level.
The museum tower would also be a West Coast counterpart to a controversial plan at the Museum of Modern Art to expand along West 53rd Street in Manhattan and occupy part of a new skyscraper designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.
LACMA purchased one corner of the tower site in 2008. Altogether it stretches more than 300 feet along Wilshire, Govan said, from Ogden Drive to Orange Grove. It is just west of the 32-story tower at 5900 Wilshire, which was completed in 1971.
The news that Govan is considering opening an architecture and design wing in the new tower will be of great interest to one current occupant of the site. The Architecture and Design Museum, known as the A+D Museum, occupies part of the building at 6032 Wilshire, which will be demolished (with two neighboring structures) to make way for subway construction.
The A+D Museum has been a nomadic institution and, thanks to that construction, will soon be on the move again. Govan said he was not ruling out the possibility that the A+D Museum could itself find space in the tower, if it strengthened its board and fundraising efforts.
"Could we give some space back to them? Possibly," he said. But he sounded more excited at the potential of building LACMA's own architecture and design wing to join the nearby Petersen Automotive Museum and forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
"There's car culture in L.A. and it has a museum; there's movie culture in L.A. and it will have a museum. I think the obvious thing that's missing is architecture and design."
Govan also mentioned the possibility of acquiring Gehry's models and papers as one anchor of a more ambitious LACMA architecture and design program.
"There's the Gehry archive floating out there; we all know that," he said.
Of his archive, Gehry said, "Right now it's costing me a lot to store it." He said he was looking at a range of options to "get that monkey off my back."
A+D Museum Executive Director Tibbie Dunbar was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Heather Patton, the museum's operations director, said that the museum would like to find a new location in downtown Los Angeles and that she was unaware of any plans by LACMA for the Wilshire site.
Wilshire Boulevard has long operated as a laboratory for new urban visions in L.A. It has also seen its share of major proposals for high-rise development.