A CRITIC'S VIEW / DESIGN : New Japanese Pavilion Is a Work of Art Itself : It May Look Like a Warrior's Helmet From Wilshire, But How It Works Inside Is What Counts

Rising out of the La Brea Tar Pits like a pterodactyl perched on a sinuous space station is the new Pavilion for Japanese Art.

Anchored by two stone cylinders of quartz aggregate, topped by an undulating roof supported by steel cables suspended from prominent hornlike steel beams, clad in an angled translucent plastic panels known as Kalwall and squatting on a gray green stucco and stone base, the pavilion is an architectural oddity.

But while the exterior of the pavilion might look bizarre--to me something like one of those wonderful overwrought warrior helmets, replete with horns and animals' ears, that were worn by ancient shogunate samurai--the interior appears to work magnificently for both the art and the viewer.

There is a simple circulation system, easy access to ingeniously installed displays, a series of soothing pools. And if the Kalwall looks, well, flimsy on the outside, inside it acts much like a delicate, rice-paper Shoji screen, permitting an opaque light to flood the exhibition areas. The effect is quite evocative, a sublime setting for the sublime art.

The 32,100-square-foot, $13-million pavilion, which opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a building that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

You cannot look at it as a piece of sculpture, another gaucherie along Wilshire Boulevard, an egocentric architect's statement about contextualism or something that waltzed down the hill from the Trousdale Estates. Here is a building that may not please popular taste, or coalesce the LACMA complex, but it is a pleasure to visit.

The design is the capstone of the idiosyncratic career of the late Bruce Goff, a free-spirited disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. For more than half a century, until his death at 78 in 1982, Goff produced a wealth of singularly styled, imaginatively engineered structures using odd as well as commonplace materials in arbitrary combinations.

One of Goff's few public buildings, the pavilion as completed by protege and former associate Bart Prince is said to have been designed with an emphasis on function--how the building should serve the unique Shin'enkan collection of Japanese scroll and screen paintings and netsuke sculpture of connoisseur Joe Price. Apparently there was no conscious effort by the designers for the building to express a particular Japanese motif or to relate it to the surrounding site.

Indeed, before entering the embrace of LACMA the pavilion was first designed to be built in Bartlesville, Okla., where Price had assembled his extensive collection, and then was later redesigned as a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Most of the nearly 150 realized designs by Goff are in the Texas and Oklahoma region, including a series of buildings he did for oil and gas fortune heir Price, who in later years became the architect's principal patron

Actually, the pavilion seems oddly appropriate in Hancock Park, sitting as it does on the west bank of the belching La Brea Tar Pits, with its braying mastodons, across from the modestly mounded modernistic Page Museum and adjoining the immodestly styled Neoclassical and Post-Modernistic pastiche that is the recently expanded and revitalized county museum. The total makes for a sort of architectural petting zoo in which the Goff design executed by Prince sparkles.

Helping is the architectural landscape design by the firm of Hannah Olin, particularly the tall stand of Japanese bamboo that promises as it grows and thickens to soften the transition along the curving ramp from the hardscaped Times Mirror Central Court to the welcoming glass-enclosed lobby of the raised pavilion. It is nice to be able to look out from the lobby to both the north and south.

To the west of the lobby is a series of exhibition areas, including an intimate space for the up-close viewing of netsuke in special so-called finger cabinets, and a larger space for the display of Japanese sculpture and ceramics. Adjoining are two small balconies for sculpture and viewing the gardens below and the park beyond.

There also are hints of Japanese themes in the chrysanthemum shape of the skylight--the chrysanthemum being the flower of the Imperial House during the Meiji period--and the curve of the beams above some displays. The curve is similar to that of the cross member that tops a torii, a Shinto shrine gate. But it is in the three-story east wing where the design scintillates. Circulation in the domed space is on a curving ramp next to the exterior walls, similar to Wright's scheme for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But in the New York structure, viewing and circulation are at cross purposes; one has to look at the art standing at an annoying incline on the ramp in the middle of traffic flow.

Goff solved that problem by creating six-level viewing platforms, cantilevered off the ramp into the center of the dome. The result is that a person can step onto the platform, out of the ramp's flow of traffic, and view the art on a level.

In addition, the displays of the select screens and scrolls are in mahogany-inlaid alcoves, called tokonoma , separated from the platform and the viewer by an unobstructive clear acrylic rail and a yawning, three-foot space above a series of pools. The concept is not unlike animals at a zoo being separated from the crowds by a moat.

As a result, the displays in the pavilion's east wing do not have to be protected by glass and can be seen as the artists intend them to be--in the open, as a singular experience and, thanks to the translucent walls, in natural light. The effect is both calming and exalting, aided by the sound of the water circulating in pools below.

The only disappointment was that the ramp ends in a modest foyer at ground level, with no natural light or water element to ease the transition back to reality after one views the art within Goff's ethereal dome. Off the foyer beyond the public area is a storage area and a study space for scholars featuring a kotatsu , a traditional sunken scholar's table. Here also translucent panels aid the lighting.

According to Price, the thrust of the design was to identify the art as the principal client. "What makes the art most beautiful, most happy to be in that space--that was the most important consideration," wrote Price in a summary of the design process.

There has been of late in the design of museums a subtle battle between the architect and the art, with the architect in quest of making a personal aesthetic statement that might sacrifice the art. The result has been some marvelous-looking museums that unfortunately do not function very well, for the art and the viewer.

Goff, guided by Price and aided by Prince, has created in the pavilion a new standard in museum design that, because it conscientiously serves the art it encloses, is sure to become an architectural landmark and a popular Los Angeles attraction. The pavilion looks odd, but it works.

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