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Architect for Newport’s Art Museum Fired

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Newport Harbor Art Museum has dumped renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano as designer of its new $30-million expanded building and plans to hire the prominent New York architecture firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates to take Piano’s place, museum officials announced Thursday.

The museum’s board voted “overwhelmingly” Wednesday night to switch to Kohn Pedersen, board president Thomas H. Nielsen said. Co-founder and partner William Pedersen, who will serve as head architect on the project, was hired privately by museum trustee Donald L. Bren early this year to draw up alternatives to Piano’s design after some prospective major donors to the $50-million overall fund-raising campaign, including a $20-million endowment, complained about the estimated cost and amount of gallery space in Piano’s design.

Nielsen said that Pedersen’s alternative, while not expected to save any money, would offer greater flexibility in its use of space for galleries and other needs.

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Nielsen said he called Piano in Genoa, Italy, on Thursday, but reached only an assistant who expressed “disappointment” on Piano’s behalf over the museum’s decision. Attempts by The Times to reach Piano, whose projects include Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Menil Collection museum in Houston, were unsuccessful.

Piano, who was originally hired for the project in November, 1987, worked to modify his plan according to museum trustees’ desires, but his structural design for the building’s roof posed unacceptable “limitations,” Nielsen said.

“The Pedersen design involves a series of different buildings to house different functions and (has the) ability to change (the function of) these buildings to meet different needs,” Nielsen said.

Trustee James V. Selna, who has been closely involved in the design negotiations, said Pedersen’s plan would result in more gallery space--targeted at 40% of the 75,000-square-foot building--as well as increased space for educational programs, administrative offices and an auditorium.

Kohn Pedersen projects include the 1000 Wilshire Building (now Coast Savings & Loan) in Los Angeles, the Procter & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati and the recently completed Western Digital building in Irvine for the Irvine Co., whose chairman is Bren and vice chairman is Nielsen.

Reached by phone in New York, Pedersen said Thursday that the company has never designed a museum, though in the early 1970s Pedersen assisted architect I.M. Pei in designing the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

He called the new Newport Harbor building, slated for the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard, “a wonderful project. Art museums of course are considered to be one of the best architectural commissions possible.”

The museum trustees also voted Wednesday to terminate work with Blurock Partnership, the Newport Beach architectural firm that was assisting Piano. Negotiations will begin with Gruen Associates, a Los Angeles-based company, to assist Pedersen, Nielsen said.

Contracts with both Piano and Blurock have been fully honored to date, Selna said, noting that the cost of developing Piano’s design totaled about $1 million.

Replacing one architect with another on a project of this scale is not unprecedented. Still, controversy has dogged museum officials’ efforts at developing a design for their new building, expected to about triple the size of the existing museum site.

After learning in January that the museum had temporarily suspended his project after 2 1/2 years of work, Piano wrote to the board in March expressing surprise and grief about hearing from Pedersen, not the museum, that the American architect had been retained to provide alternative designs.

It was Bren, as chairman of the Irvine Co., who pledged 10 acres of the company’s land in Corona del Mar, where the new museum would be built, and who has final veto power over major elements of the building’s design. Some museum insiders said that Bren was personally dissatisfied with Piano’s plan, and that he engaged in a “power play” by hiring Pedersen without prior approval of the full museum board. He has refused to be interviewed on the subject, but a senior museum official who requested anonymity said Bren took action only after he was approached by the chairman of the museum building campaign, David S. Tappan Jr.

(Bren was not present for Wednesday’s vote, which caused no trustees to resign or potential donors to withdraw their support, Selna said.)

In addition, after raising $10 million, the museum’s building campaign has been stalled for several months by the reconsideration of the Piano plan and because the museum has still not hired a director to replace Kevin E. Consey, Piano’s chief advocate, who resigned late last year to take a similar post at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.


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