SUBSCRIBE

Building Type: Hammer Museum finally cues up a big expansion. Here's an early look

Complaints about the Hammer Museum’s 1990 building in Westwood have always had the ring of a Borscht Belt routine. It’s a terrible piece of architecture. And there’s so little of it!

A half-hearted late-career flirtation with postmodernism by Edward Larrabee Barnes, an architect’s architect who did much finer work at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Maine’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and elsewhere, the Hammer is a largely windowless box wrapped in bands of white and gray marble. It’s pushed awkwardly against the back of Claud Beelman’s 1962 Occidental Petroleum tower on Wilshire Boulevard.

The museum’s patron, Armand Hammer, was also Occidental’s chairman, which explains the unusual connection between the two buildings. When UCLA took over the Hammer in 1994, that connection began to look more like a liability, or at least a historical relic. And with just 14,000 square feet of gallery space when it opened, the Hammer was cramped from the start.

Now, after years of effective but piecemeal upgrades by Director Ann Philbin and Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan, the Hammer is finally ready to break out of Ed Barnes’ box in dramatic fashion.

A new master plan from Maltzan’s firm calls for extending the museum into a large section of the tower, which UCLA purchased in 2015 for $92.5 million after Occidental moved its corporate offices to Houston. The university will use the top 11 stories of the building for administrative space, allowing the Hammer to occupy five floors at its base in addition to the Barnes building.

Philbin and Maltzan gave The Times an exclusive look at the plan earlier this month.

SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter »

The museum already has a modest presence in the tower. The expansion will see it occupy the entire ground floor of that building along Wilshire, with a larger lobby, a contemporary gallery in the old City National Bank space and a circular outdoor terrace at the corner of Glendon Avenue.

As visitors make their way upstairs, they’ll see a new museum store and bookshop to their left, filling 4,300 square feet above the lobby. The store will include a space for readings and other public programs.

On the third floor, they’ll find a new gallery and study center for works on paper (where the museum shop now stands), a classroom and a new boardroom. Museum offices will fill the fourth and fifth floors of the tower.

Two questions and a caveat immediately present themselves. The first question is whether the Hammer is adding enough gallery space; though the expansion will boost exhibition square footage by 60%, only a quarter of the total new space is given over to galleries. With 26,600 square feet of exhibition space, the enlarged Hammer will still lag well behind the Broad museum (50,000) and the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art (68,000 across three venues).

The second is where the Hammer will find donors for an expansion of this scale. The museum has yet to disclose how much it’s expected to cost. But raising money for interior improvements of this kind is nearly always tougher than finding donors who want to put their names on the outside of a shiny new wing being built from scratch. The museum will be passing the hat at the same moment that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other cultural heavyweights are running capital or endowment campaigns.

The caveat has to do with the timeline of the new expansion, which the museum says it hopes to finish by 2020. Hammer fans with long memories will recall that when Maltzan’s initial master plan was unveiled in 2001, the museum declared it would be completed by early 2003. That turned out to be wildly optimistic.

The Hammer has timed its announcement to accompany the reopening Sunday of galleries renovated by Maltzan on the third floor of the Barnes building. The galleries will allow the Hammer to show major traveling exhibitions, which often exceed 10,000 square feet in size, in a contiguous space for the first time.

In the remade spaces as well as the new renderings from Maltzan’s office, there is none of the ambivalence, the sense of divided loyalties between very late modernism and increasingly fashionable postmodernism, that marks the Barnes design of 1990. Maltzan, at 57, has settled confidently into a mid-career style, which is precise and decidedly unflashy.

His proposal for the Hammer expansion is a surgical rather than a virtuosic or expressionistic one. Its ambition — and it is plenty ambitious, despite its generally polite dress — lies in its attempt to stitch a coherent identity for the Hammer from a number of disparate parts, spreading from the original building more deeply into the tower.

The new ground-floor galleries will have polished concrete floors, with oak in the renovated and planned galleries on higher levels. Maltzan’s plan also calls for planting the northern and eastern facades of the Barnes building, facing Lindbrook Drive and Glendon, with greenery and enlarging the existing entry on Lindbrook.

In certain ways (its largely interior focus, its crisp and restrained formal language), the proposal suggests a smaller version of Yoshio Taniguchi's 2004 expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which critics (including this one) praised when it opened but now tend to find antiseptic.

In urban terms, the changes the Hammer is proposing are more dramatic. As Philbin points out, for most visitors the front entrance to the Hammer is located in the depths of the parking structure beneath the Barnes building.

The re-imagined museum will have a dramatically stronger presence in the city. Anticipating a Metro Purple Line station at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards as soon as 2024, the expansion includes a new entrance at the southwestern corner of the Occidental tower. At sidewalk level, the museum will stretch a full city block along Wilshire.

As time goes on, in addition to Metro traffic, more Hammer visitors are likely to arrive on foot, by bicycle and using services like Uber and Lyft than they do now. The role the garage plays in the entry sequence will fade as the importance of the museum’s relationship with Wilshire grows.

The new master plan — to be technical, Maltzan says, it is an expanded and updated version of his 2001 proposal — is entirely clear about embracing that shift. An institution that was originally designed to ignore the outside world now seems determined, in a range of ways, to embrace it. The Hammer will be an urban museum for the first time.

The expansion will also mark a change and a new set of opportunities for Philbin. Since coming to the Hammer in 1999 from New York’s Drawing Center, she has dealt with the challenges of the Barnes building in ways both direct and impressively indirect.

With Maltzan, she has tweaked, improved and brightened the interior of the museum and its public spaces, adding the Billy Wilder Theater in 2006 and a pedestrian bridge spanning the courtyard in 2015, among other upgrades. It has been a thoughtful and largely successful redesign but also a piecemeal, slow-moving one.

More to the point, Philbin has made clear just how many nonarchitectural tools any museum director has at her disposal, significantly boosting the Hammer’s national and international profile with an adventurous exhibition and performance program and smart additions to the curatorial staff rather than a flashy and photogenic new building.

Philbin improved the hardware where possible, but the story of the Hammer’s rise to prominence under her leadership has really been a software story — a story about the ways in which cultural content can transcend a flawed and undersized container.

The expansion will change that narrative, but not entirely. Philbin will have a bigger and better container, but she won’t have a new wing or building to match the ones opened over the last year alone at the UC Davis and UC Berkeley art museums and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She’ll still face the challenge of bringing visitors from one building to another and back again without letting them forget they’re inside a single museum.

And implicit in Maltzan’s new plan, it seems to me, is the idea that this is the end of the line for the Hammer’s strategy of expanding in place.

After this, there’s nowhere left to go. The upper floors of the tower are spoken for. After this, if the Hammer still needs more room, comes a new building.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

ALSO

Building Type: Long road to the Arts District's first park

Building Type: Introducing a weekly column on architecture

Grand Park performs well with march huge crowds; Metro and Pershing Square, not so much

What does building George Lucas' museum at Exposition Park say about L.A.?

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times