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Museum Facade and Art Function: New Babylon Meets Wilshire Boulevard

<i> Allan Temko, architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, this fall visited new Southern California arts facilties. </i>

Whether the big new wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is seen as a wild Art Deco put-on or an improvement that at last allows LACMA to function as a decent museum--and it’s possible to see this mixed-up building both ways--there’s no question that the Los Angeles cultural Establishment blew a $35-million chance to transform its worst mistake of the 1960s into an exalted work of architectural art.

Why LACMA should get such poor results on Wilshire Boulevard while the Museum of Contemporary Art was doing far better downtown is anyone’s guess. MOCA may not be a museum of the future but LACMA is turning out to be yesterday’s museum of tomorrow--today.

For everything about the Robert O. Anderson Building, as the new wing is called after the beneficent former head of ARCO, harks back half a century and more to a mythic L.A. of the movies’ palmy days when buildings could be tricked out as stage sets. Like a ‘30s hangover, here is a tremendous piece of scenery, 300 feet across and stepping up like a bland, asymmetrical ziggurat to its full height of 100 feet.

The materials carry a nostalgic aura. Broad horizontal bands of tawny Minnesota limestone and bluish-green glass blocks, Moderne-era favorites, are laced through by thin emerald lines of glazed terra cotta, another nearly extinct material that has been lately revied by post-modern historicists. And cut out of the predominantly yellow wall, as if it were butter, is a mock-imperial portal--as high as a five-story building and 50 feet wide--that could have been cribbed from an extravaganza by Cecil B. DeMille.

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This stroke of drama, through which horsemen might gallop in Roman armor, is obviously meant to upstage older parts of the museum, which are partly screened from Wilshire but not wholly eclipsed by the new wing. It’s a pity that they couldn’t be altogether erased (although eventually they will be disguised by new masonry shells) because the original scheme by the late William L. Pereira was hopelessly out of date when it opened in 1964.

Indeed, the aim of the present architects, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York and Los Angeles, with Norman Pfeiffer in charge of the design, can’t be understood except as a riposte to Pereira’s triad of pompous pavilions, set back deeply from Wilshire in a U-shaped pattern without the slightest respect for the street, like a suburban mortuary.

Of all the pseudo-cultural American monuments from the 1960s, when Mussolini’s notions of architecture were resurrected at Lincoln Center and exported westward from New York, LACMA was probably the most bogus. Although the buildings were straightforwardly framed in steel, to lighten their loads on the squishy terrain near the La Brea tar pits, the spindly uprights, coated with concrete, had about as much structural vitality as congealed toothpaste. The banality of the exteriors was exceeded by the nouveau-riche fussiness of the galleries and the intractable layout, hampering all the operations run from a once-dingy netherworld of basement offices.

The final embarrassment occurred after primordial tar seeped into the museum’s outer circuit of shallow moats and fountains, which were filled in the ‘70s and turned into a sculpture garden. By the end of the decade--before serious planning got under way for MOCA--the powers at LACMA knew that a drastic overhaul and major expansion were needed for the museum to accommodate growing and vastly improved collections.

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What LACMA could have used at that point was dynamite. But donors of the Ahmanson, Hammer and Bing pavilions were very much on the scene; and out of tact or terror the museum and Pfeiffer hit on a strategy that would convert the U-plan into a square by adding a new wing on Wilshire, leaving the existing buildings to be put right as time and money permitted.

The concept made economic sense and included the dividend of a spectacular enclosed space, which has ended up as the Times Mirror Central Court--twice the area, at 40,000 square feet, of the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Such a court, done properly, would provide the clear focus--a grand place of arrival--that LACMA had always lacked. At the same time, if the court were properly entered from Wilshire, the problem of a missing main entrance would be solved in a museum which hitherto confronted the visitor with a bewildering choice of trivial access-ways.

Then the Anderson Building, with 115,000 square feet of exhibition, storage and administrative space, would be a sizable museum in itself, slightly larger than MOCA where the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was faced with the difficulty of placing most of a 100,000-foot museum underground.

Quite apart from the theatrical facade on Wilshire, basically a slickly manipulated blank wall making no overtures to passers-by, the Anderson Building starts to fall apart as a concept upon entry to the grandiose portal.

If the effect on Wilshire was Babylonian-Roman, the mood in the towering entry passage, sloping up to the central court, is Pharaonic. The musical accompaniment here should be the triumphal march from “Aida”: Pillars clad in deep green terra cotta--the same glazed veneer as outside--soar 70 feet to support a translucent plastic canopy that looks cheap in a major museum. Natural light filters downward, eerily enough, through this honey-colored covering of tilted panels, open at the sides--appropriate for Southern California.

But they are so lofty that the scale is overwhelming, or seems to be, until the whole pastiche is revealed as a toy Temple of Karnak. Pfeiffer, by no means merely a post-mod collagist, is enough of a straight modern architect to expose at top and bottom pins of steel that signify the structural cores.

Now a discordance sets in, because the new Anderson Building on the left is no longer walled in limestone but with painted metal panels that extend around the sides and back. These pale industrial surfaces are not too obtrusive in the entrance-way because attention is diverted to a channel of water running beside the ramp, next to a low wall--reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington--which in a very Southern California way is inscribed with names of contributors to the museum.

The funereal mood subsides in the central atrium. There is a sudden opening of space, an elating play of light beneath the high translucent canopies and friendly bustle in the court. Open-air cafes, festively done, create a civilized air.

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Yet although the space is big, it is not truly great because trivial elements, including the remaining hulks of the Ahmanson and Hammer pavilions, clamor for attention on all sides. It’s too early to pass final judgment on the court in its unfinished state; perhaps when Pereira’s buildings are resurfaced the court will become less restless and the space can come into its own.

Failings are partly redeemed by the new galleries. The Anderson Building provides the museum with sorely needed elbow room. The high-ceilinged spaces, painted a soft silvery-gray, are reticent compared to the strident exterior; and the surprisingly fine collections of 20th Century art are for the first time amply displayed in a coherent way.

Yet the art does more for these essentially traditional rooms than the architecture does for the art. In a sense the sequence of spaces, which museum people call an enfilade , is simply a careful series of salons, except in the spaces directly behind the Wilshire facade where natural light pours gently through clerestories of glass blocks. In this part of the building the prow-like end of the Wilshire front, which from the outside seems an arbitrary formal device borrowed from I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery, can be finally understood as a more or less utilitarian stairwell--a dubious use for such an assertive triangular form--where the curators have crowded in odd pieces of sculpture that deserve a more generous setting. Unfortunately, that’s the

closest LACMA gets to an inspired ambiance for large-scale contemporary art. The Anderson Building has nothing to compare with the pyramidal spaces of MOCA, particularly the room where Isozaki transformed a subterranean gallery into a magical sky-lit stage for David Smith’s sculpture. Pfeiffer at LACMA has understated the problem of designing a museum for the virtually limitless array of art--growing, changing, unpredictable.

For that reason it’s instructive to walk over to the curious new pavilions for Japanese art, conceived by the late Bruce Goff, Frank Lloyd Wright’s marvelous maverick follower. The structures, virtually a LACMA appendage, are at the corner of the complex next to the Hammer and Bing wings. Like most works by the uninhibited Oklahoman who did some of the most madly endearing houses of the century, the pair of circular buildings slung by cables from round towers look disorganized. Especially while construction is going on, the startled beholder may suspect that the model fell off the table and was haphazardly pushed together again.

Yet these buildings present an idea--not an anthology of historic quotations--of how architecture may be put at the service of art. In this case the art is a special collection of Japanese scrolls and other exquisite objects, donated to LACMA (together with almost half the money for the $12.5-million project) by Goff’s fellow Oklahoman Joe Price. Goff sought an original, non-historic equivalent for subtly lit Japanese houses that are made for such art; as a high-tech substitute for shoji screens, he chanced upon an unassuming commercial product called Kalwall (the same synthetic insulating material that Pfeiffer--designing LACMA a few years later--chose to cover his court).

Goff’s schematic concept is being carried out by his associate Bart Prince, who drew the final design. Whether it will have Goff’s crazy legerdemain is a question: My hunch is that the exterior, at least, will always look extremely odd.

But the principle of meeting art with searching architecture remains intact. Fearless buildings need not be oddities; there are museums all over the world to prove it. Instead of bombast on Wilshire, LACMA might have tried to achieve the nobility of the late Louis I. Kahn’s Kimbell Museum at Fort Worth or the quiet splendor of Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston. But that would have required one patron so brilliant, so uncompromising as Dominique de Menil; we have yet to see her like at LACMA.

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