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Check out the latest details on Zumthor's new LACMA building, including 'Meander' galleries

Thanks to a new website and a glossy brochure, we’re getting at least a slightly clearer sense this week of what Peter Zumthor has planned for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Swiss architect has been working with LACMA Director and Chief Executive Michael Govan for years on an ambitious and controversial new building to hold the museum’s permanent collection. But details — architectural and financial alike — have been hard to come by.

In 2013 LACMA showed early models at an exhibition connected with the Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time series. This summer an oversized model of one section of the Zumthor wing, which will be clad in dark gray concrete and raised on eight giant legs as it spans Wilshire Boulevard, has been on view in Italy, of all places, as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Now, to meet deadlines connected to the preparation of an environmental impact report, the museum is mailing a brochure to Miracle Mile neighbors that includes architectural renderings and a brief fact sheet about the $600-million project, which is scheduled to break ground in 2018 and be completed in 2023, the same year a Metro Purple Line subway station is expected to open at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue.

An accompanying website, at BuildingLACMA.org, went live Thursday morning. It includes additional renderings as well as a site plan, construction timeline and other information.

One figure in the brochure is certain to generate plenty of commentary: the fact that the new building will hold fewer square feet than the existing ones (three by William Pereira from 1965 and a 1986 addition by the firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer) that will be razed to make room for it. The Zumthor structure will hold a total of 368,000 square feet, compared with 393,000 in the four buildings slated for demolition.

Whether exhibition space will rise or fall depends on how you define the 71,000 square feet contained in the so-called “Meander” galleries along the perimeter of the new wing. Those areas will operate both as galleries and as wide hallways lined with built-in benches.

As part of the EIR process (which is being led by L.A. County and the museum, with input from the city of Los Angeles), LACMA will play host to a meeting on the Zumthor project — in bureaucratic language, a “public scoping meeting” — at 6 p.m. Aug. 24.

Zumthor’s firm relies more heavily than most on physical models and typically disdains the slick architectural renderings that are commonly used these days to promote and raise money for major new cultural buildings. When the project requires them for political, PR or legal rather than architectural reasons — as is the case with the EIR — his office produces them through the digital equivalent of gritted teeth.

The images released this week reflect that attitude and are unlikely to change the perception, widely held among architects and curators, that the Zumthor design has been unusually slow to evolve. More than a few look undercooked.

The renderings on the brochure show not the high-ceilinged galleries that Zumthor’s firm calls “Chapels” but the more conventional-looking “Cabinet” galleries, along with the Meander galleries along the glass-lined perimeter of the new building. The images suggest that the three types of galleries will flow from one to the next through wide, informal openings.

The images of the plaza, meanwhile, show that the eight legs supporting the new wing (referred to by the museum as “pavilions”) may be more open, with more glass, than models displayed earlier had suggested, particularly the sections facing north and away from Wilshire Boulevard. The pavilions will hold retail and exhibition space at ground level. The renderings also give a clearer sense of what the two staircases leading from the galleries down to the plaza level will look like.

The lighting above the plaza, attached to the underside of the museum, is stark and conventional in these images. The renderings also reveal few details about the landscape design at plaza level, which LACMA and Zumthor’s office are developing with artist Robert Irwin and the San Diego firm Spurlock.

On the website, some images give a clearer picture than we’ve seen before of how the Zumthor building will appear to drivers and pedestrians along Wilshire.

Generally speaking, the design has been trending in the wrong direction since the museum decided, after shrinking back from the La Brea Tar Pits to avoid damaging them during construction, to extend the wing south across Wilshire. It has lost some of the concentrated power it possessed as a bold, self-contained and biomorphic form rising entirely north of the boulevard.

The mailer and new website are meant primarily to temper worry in the neighborhoods near the museum about the effects of construction — and to argue that LACMA is not expanding but is instead replacing a group of aging buildings with a single, more efficient one.

But the images can also be read in purely architectural terms. What they suggest is that the great gray mass of the building could still succeed as a bracingly alien presence on the Miracle Mile — but only if its imposing forms and severe palette are tempered with blasts of color, inventive landscape design and appealing, richly detailed public space at ground level.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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