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Venice Architecture Biennale, Day 1: Govan and Zumthor make their LACMA pitch

Having won a measure of financial and political support at home for their plan to remake the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan and Peter Zumthor have taken their show on the road — to Italy.

Govan, LACMA's director and chief executive since 2006, and Zumthor, the Swiss architect who has designed two remarkable art museums in Europe but never built in the United States, met up at Venice's Architecture Biennale on Thursday to present an oversize model of the new wing they hope will be completed by 2023.

"It's the right moment to show it to the professional community because the paradigm is there," Zumthor told me as the all-black model, showing a slice of the wing that will rise just east of the Chris Burden installation "Urban Light," towered over him.

From here on, he added, "It is only going to be small alterations."

The model was displayed inside the Arsenale, the old shipbuilding yards that contain a major section of the Biennale, which holds its preview days through Friday. Along with a few small site plans and architectural drawings under glass, it was accompanied by a textile artwork by Christina Kim made up of sheets of fabric in a range of colors (blues, oranges and yellows) hanging on hooks in two curving rows, as if making up the world's most glamorous dry cleaning shop. The music, almost too soft to hear, was by the late artist Walter De Maria — his "Ocean Music" sound piece of 1968.

Rather than bring artwork from the LACMA collection to exhibit alongside to the model, which would have been complicated and probably expensive to boot, Govan and Zumthor settled on the Kim work as a kind of abstract suggestion of how colorful paintings inside and a garden beneath the museum will play against the dark-gray concrete of the new structure. Despite the somewhat discordant match of fabric and architectural model, that struck me as a sensible choice, at least to the degree that the projects that tend to stand out from the crowded field of the Biennale are stripped down and atmospheric rather than weighed down with an avalanche of details or long blocks of didactic text.

Still, there was a noticeable gap between Zumthor's hopeful comments about the design nearing completion and the rather vague, impressionistic nature of the display. Donors and LACMA curators may need a far more detailed sales pitch.

The Biennale, directed this year by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, remains among the most anticipated gatherings in the profession, drawing architects, curators and critics from around the world. (Its art and architecture programs are held in alternating years.) Aravena asked Zumthor to take part in the main exhibition, which this year carries the title "Reporting From the Front," but left it up to the Swiss architect which project to display.

"For me this is a happy moment after so many years of trying, trying, trying" to finalize the design concept for LACMA, Zumthor said.

From the start the Zumthor LACMA proposal has drawn criticism, in part because making room for it will require the museum to demolish its original campus of buildings, opened in 1965, by the Los Angeles architect William Pereira. Over time the Zumthor plan has evolved substantially; what had been a fluid, biomorphic shape (with echoes of artist Jean Arp and architect Oscar Niemeyer) that cantilevered over the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits is now a somewhat harder-edged, anvil-like shape. It has shrunk back from the Tar Pits and instead extends south to bridge Wilshire Boulevard, touching down on a museum-owned property on Spaulding Drive.

Last month Govan announced two major gifts toward the new building, including $50 million from Elaine Wynn, co-chair of the museum’s board. He hopes to raise a total of at least $600 million. City and county officials in 2014 backed the idea of spanning Wilshire.

Zumthor's attitude toward supporters and detractors of the controversial design is the same, he said, unintentionally offering a twist on a famous statement about Los Angeles and its water by William Mulholland as he gestured toward the model. "There it is: Take it or leave it, love it or hate it."

Later, over coffee at one of the Arsenale's outdoor cafes, Zumthor and Govan focused on the elements of the design that haven't changed. It is still a resolutely horizontal, single-level museum lifted on eight thick legs, with one entrance north of Wilshire and another south of the boulevard. Zumthor likes to call the legs (which will contain ground-level space for glassed-enclosed galleries and cafes) "art towers," while Govan prefers "pavilions."

Zumthor was at pains to stress that he thought the underside of the museum, with 30 feet from plaza to the bottom of the gallery level, would feel open and airy — closer to a "railway station arrival hall than a freeway underpass." The spaces between the various legs will operate as a kind of shaded, open-air lobby.

At the same time, Govan said, each of the pavilions would give the museum some vertical energy to go with its horizontal spread. Zumthor said the decision to cross Wilshire, which in my view has weakened the design, had in fact given it a new strength and focus.

"I started with an amorphous, kind of organic shape. But I don't know that I've ever seen a successful building that is totally free like that. The moment we decided to cross Wilshire the design developed a tension with itself. It needed to anchor itself more. Now it's like a string that you hold tightly at two ends but allow to move freely in between."

Zumthor is working with the artist Robert Irwin and San Diego landscape architecture firm Spurlock to develop plans for the plaza under and surrounding the new building. "We want to get rid of this lawn, this English green," Zumthor said, and replace it with a desert garden.

"Our model is the desert garden at the Huntington" in San Marino, he added.

Inside the new building art will be displayed in three kinds of galleries, with a total of roughly 127,000 square feet of exhibition space on the main upper level. Around the perimeter of the building, what Zumthor calls "meander" galleries illuminated by side light through tall windows and edged with continuous benches will contain about 71,000 square feet of display space. "Cabinet" galleries with lower ceilings and more controlled light and acoustics will add another 34,000 square feet.

The third and most dramatic gallery type will be contained in "chapels" lit by clerestory windows rising above the roofline of the rest of the building. Similar to the tall, top-lit galleries at Zumthor's Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, the chapel galleries will hold another 22,000 square feet of exhibition space. The pavilions also will  include space for art at ground level and in a number of mezzanines.

This variety of spaces — and the way they will draw light from a number of directions — is central to the design, Zumthor said.

"There is no law laid down by Moses that art must be displayed in boxes."

Govan said construction would begin in late 2018 or early 2019, with the new building set to be finished by 2022 or 2023. LACMA is timing the work to coincide with the extension of the Metro Purple Line subway, which will have a station at Wilshire and Fairfax. The subway extension is also expected to be completed by 2023.

"I think it would be wonderful to have them open at the same time," Govan said.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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