Peter Zumthor, Michael Govan plot LACMA’s future

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For those of you keeping score at home, we’re up to three architectural saviors for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in less than a decade.

First came a 2001 proposal by Rem Koolhaas to raze most of the museum’s Miracle Mile campus and arrange new galleries beneath a huge translucent tent. After that scheme hit the fund-raising skids, Renzo Piano was recruited by Eli Broad, a LACMA trustee, to produce a more pragmatic master plan and ultimately design a pair of new buildings.


Now -- even as the second Piano building, the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion, is still under construction -- comes word that Michael Govan, LACMA’s director and CEO, has been working with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Known for precise and subtle designs -- his biggest fans would call them rigorous to the point of sublimity -- Zumthor won architecture’s top prize, the Pritzker, in April but has never worked in this country.

Zumthor’s work for LACMA, Govan told me last week, remains largely conceptual. Still, it represents the first detailed evidence of a strategy by Govan to put his own architectural stamp on LACMA. It is also closely connected to the director’s plans to prepare the museum for the arrival of a Purple Line subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax, which is due to open roughly a decade from now.

Govan is known for a keen interest in contemporary architecture, and as director of the Dia Center for the Arts he oversaw a remarkably successful effort by artist Robert Irwin and architecture firm Open Office to turn an old Nabisco factory on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., into a new Dia branch.

But his collaboration with Zumthor will face a few obvious hurdles. The first is simply vision fatigue: many Angelenos will see this news as merely the latest in a long line of high-profile architectural plans to remake the museum, none of which has so far come close to fulfilling its early promise.

A related problem has to do with the dated symbolism of a Los Angeles cultural institution turning to Europe instead of this country, Asia or Latin America for cultural prestige and art-world know-how. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is winning raves for bringing in the young Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel to replace Esa-Pekka Salonen. The architecture schools at USC and UCLA looked to China and Japan, respectively, for their new leaders.

In that context, hiring three graying male European Pritzker winners in a row may stand out for all the wrong reasons. But we shouldn’t forget that Govan has used other means – such as boosting the museum’s collection in strategic areas – to forge connections with Asia and Latin America. After all, the Philharmonic hired a Finn before hiring a Venezuelan, and both choices turned out pretty well.


A final obstacle has to do with shifting expectations about what architecture is capable of doing -- particularly in a deep recession. Under the leadership of Ann Philbin, for example, UCLA’s Hammer Museum has proved that smart hiring and forward-looking programming can be a cheaper, nimbler means of redirecting an institution than almost any building campaign.

Govan has worked with Zumthor before. Together, they developed a project for Dia’s Beacon site that was never built. Govan said the architect was one of the first people he called after deciding to take the LACMA job in 2006.

Lately, Govan added, his discussions with Zumthor have begun to zero in on the eastern half of the museum site, which along with extensive parkland includes the original 1965 LACMA campus by William Pereira, a nearly universally disliked 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates and the quirky 1988 pavilion for Japanese art by Bruce Goff.

Ideally, the LACMA director could spend several years developing conceptual plans with Zumthor, who works in a highly deliberate style, begin to raise money in earnest once the economy has picked up and aim to break ground on a building, or buildings, around the same time that the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that runs in front of the museum is being torn up to extend the subway.

In that sense, Govan could take advantage of the slowness of both the economy and of Zumthor’s design approach without overlooking the fact that once museum boards decide to build something new they tend to want to do it quickly, in two or three years, lest public attention to their generosity and vision grow cold.

There’s also the matter of Govan’s delicate and hugely complicated relationship with Broad. When Govan arrived at LACMA he was saddled with the Piano-Broad plan, which had been approved by his predecessor, Andrea Rich. The assumption was that Broad would ultimately donate his collection of postwar and contemporary art to LACMA as well as paying for the Piano-designed contemporary art museum. After Govan was in place, Broad announced that he wouldn’t be giving his collection to the museum and would soon be looking for a place on the Westside to plan his own gallery building.


In the last couple of weeks, Broad’s search for that museum site has been much in the news. The speculation is that he wants to hire Thom Mayne and his Santa Monica firm, Morphosis.

Many at LACMA feel that Broad left the museum doubly in the lurch -- depositing an underwhelming Piano building along Wilshire and then deciding to take his collection elsewhere. At the very least, the timing of Govan’s decision to reveal his work with Zumthor is worth noting.

During times of economic stress, smart arts-world leaders always look for ways to promote new initiatives: you get more marketing bang for your buck that way, trumpeting expansion plans – even if they are largely amorphous – while other institutions are announcing cutbacks. That is surely part of Govan’s calculus here. But there is also a personal edge to these dueling building efforts.

Still, if Govan was looking primarily for a way to distance himself from the deal Broad brokered with Piano, Zumthor would hardly be the obvious choice. Both architects are known for a commitment to craftsmanship and nearly obsessive detailing -- as opposed to, say, Frank Gehry’s flamboyant forms or Mayne’s tortured facades.

But Piano has suffered from overexposure in recent years, designing a large, uneven group of art-world buildings in this country, of which LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum is among the least satisfying. Zumthor, even after his Pritzker, remains unknown -- a talent to be discovered, first by the trustees Govan will be raising money from and then by L.A.’s museum-going public.

If Zumthor ultimately produces a building for LACMA, Govan told me, ‘We’ll have the only one. It won’t be the seventh Renzo Piano building in the country.’


And don’t forget that Govan holds a significant trump card in reserve: a piece of land across Wilshire from the museum that LACMA purchased last year. That parcel could hold both a subway entrance and, above that, a new building by Gehry or another leading local architect. That way Govan could have Swiss rigor and L.A. style too.

There is one final difference between Broad-Piano and Govan-Zumthor that deserves mentioning. Broad’s interest in the progress of BCAM had largely to do with timetables and budgets. From a design point of view, Govan promises to be a far more active client and collaborator.

He is particularly interested in using art installations and landscape design to temper, shade or even playfully subvert the seriousness of Zumthor’s architecture. He likes the idea of playing up, rather than down, the contrast between the visual chaos of the Los Angeles cityscape and the precision of the architect’s work.

Already we’ve seen Govan add large-scale artworks by Chris Burden and Tony Smith to the LACMA campus. He also wants to install a gigantic hanging train by Jeff Koons. All these works aim for a monumental scale while also undercutting the very idea of monumentality. We can expect more of the same dotting the area around any Zumthor buildings at LACMA.

No matter what form his partnership with Zumthor takes, Govan told me, “I’ll be the one providing the irony.”

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photograph of Michael Govan, top, by Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times. Photograph of Peter Zumthor by Gary Ebner.