CRITIQUE : Hammer's Modest Museum : HAMMER: Museum

Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

The architectural style of the many new art museums built in the United States in the past few decades runs the gamut of expression from the grand to the modest.

While many designers seem eager to create pompous Palaces of Culture, a few are content to build self-effacing structures subservient to the works of art they house and display.

The new $60-million Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood is a rare example of such architectural reticence.

The museum, tucked behind a bland 1960s Wilshire Boulevard building, headquarters of the late Armand Hammer's Occidental Petroleum Corp., is discreet to the point of anonymity.

Designed by New York-based Edward Larrabee Barnes, the Hammer Museum turns a blank, cold face to its surrounding streets. A high wall of horizontally striped Carrara marble screens the museum and its interior courtyard from public view.

The only hint that something interesting may be going on behind the wall is found at the rear of the site, on Lindbrook Drive. Above this secondary entrance is a wide, flat arch--shaped like a semi-circular "eyebrow"--that allows an oblique view from the street into the upper level of the courtyard.

"In turning the building in upon itself, we followed the precedent of the traditional Renaissance palazzo, " Barnes said. "We chose to shut out the street, to shield the interior space from its noisy urban environment and create an arena of tranquility."

Tranquility is not the hallmark of most of the art museums that have been built or planned in the past decade in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

A desire for architectural excitement motivated the design of such new cultural landmarks as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Temporary Contemporary, the Anderson Wing and Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Fine Arts Center in Brentwood, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Jewish American Museum in Sherman Oaks, the Weisman Foundation museum in Beverly Hills and the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

But Barnes is famous for architectural restraint.

Among the several museums he has designed--including the Dallas Museum of Art and the IBM gallery in Manhattan--the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has been praised by many curators as a perfect space for the display of art, a simple modernist white box free of any intrusive architectural ego statement.

The Armand Hammer Museum goes much further than the Walker in its stylistic understatement. From the moment of entry, the building is utterly devoid of architectural excitement.

Whether you approach the central courtyard from the bland, office-building-style lobby off Wilshire Boulevard or from the rear door on Lindbrook Drive, the visitor is unaware of penetrating a cultural precinct.

In fact, the whole way one enters the museum is downbeat and confusing.

Due to the slope of the site from Lindbrook Drive to Wilshire Boulevard, the main courtyard is one floor up from the main Wilshire lobby. From the lobby, which is flanked by a small museum shop, the visitor must mount a wide stair to reach the courtyard level.

This entry sequence is further confused by the fact that, when you reach the courtyard, you find yourself once more out in the open air. And you still are not at the main gallery level, which is situated yet another floor higher, reached by one more flight of stairs.

The courtyard itself, lined by wide arcades and terraces, is an awkward rectangle broken into two off-center sections. Its odd proportions make it seem as if it were a leftover space, an afterthought in the process of design rather than the museum's main feature.

If Barnes had faithfully followed his Renaissance palazzo inspiration, the courtyard would be the museum's true centerpiece. It would have strong and clear proportions and a shape that lifts the spirit, not the nondescript configuration we find.

Having created the courtyard, Barnes does not seem to know what to do with it. An expanse of granite paving and a few disconsolate trees and plant boxes only emphasize the area's lack of focus.

Because of budget restrictions imposed by a court order that challenged the appropriateness of using Occidental's corporate treasury to finance a private museum, many of the finishes seem cut-rate.

For instance, the walls and parapets that line the courtyard are finished in cheap gray stucco, and the proposed ground floor library and 248-seat auditorium still lack the funds to be completed.

Half the budget was swallowed up by the necessity of excavating and constructing a new 5 1/2-story underground garage under the courtyard to replace the original subgrade parking area. Entered off Westwood Boulevard and Glendon Avenue, the garage serves both the museum and the office building beside it.

Despite the general disappointment of the courtyard, the area offers one rather incidental delight.

Standing on the upper level, you have a view, framed by the Lindbrook Drive eyebrow, over the one-story rooftops of Westwood Village. Here you may enjoy the lively warmth of Westwood's Mediterranean, red-tiled skyline as a relief from the cold modernity of the museum itself.

The self-effacing quality of the Hammer's architecture shows in the way in which the doors to the galleries appear as almost incidental openings along the upper terrace.

Hammer Museum director Stephen Garrett said the advantage of a small private museum is that its modest size and humane scale avoid the kind of cultural intimidation one finds in larger, public institutions.

"We offer a balance between high seriousness and entertainment," he said, "and the building reflects that balance. That, to my mind, is its prime virtue."

The acid test of any art museum must be the quality of its galleries as spaces for displaying art, and here the Hammer scores handsomely.

Barnes' design restraint pays off in the galleries, which are well-proportioned and pleasantly lit by a mixture of natural and artificial light.

To maintain a steady level of illumination in the galleries, track lighting supplements louvered skylights controlled by photo-electric roof sensors. The sensors have to deal with a wide range of external daylight conditions, complicated by the deep shadow cast by the adjoining office high-rise, whose bulk blocks out much of the southern exposure. When the sun pours in during the morning or late afternoon, the translucent louvers shut down to shield the artworks from harmful rays.

Tucked away in a corner is the windowless, chapel-like room housing the codex of writings and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The religious atmosphere of this cool gray space epitomizes an almost sacred view of the artist-as-genius.

A second-floor bookstore and the museum's administrative offices fill the remainder of the upper-level area.

Architect Barnes said he aimed to achieve "a simple sense of flow and order. Despite the corporate setting, we set out to create a feeling of intimacy appropriate to the scale and personality of the collection."

In choosing Barnes, Hammer found an architect who could play down his own ego to an amazing degree. But the designer has been too modest for his own, and the building's, good.

While Hammer's museum offers the kind of "absent" architecture many curators might applaud, it lacks any hint of personality.

It was a basic design error to hide the galleries out of sight away on the second floor. It was another mistake to turn a blank facade to the surrounding streets and so subordinate the museum to the corporate high-rise that towers over it.

A welcoming and urbane, free-standing pavilion on the corner of Lindbrook Drive and Glendon Avenue would have achieved a more assertive and coherent building in scale with the village neighborhood.

As it is, the extreme modesty of the Armand Hammer's architecture comes across as coldness. The design sends out an unpleasant message, a perverse feeling of being secretive and hidden.

This would-be palazzo lacks distinction, and just adds one more bland element to the architectural mediocrity of Westwood's Wilshire Boulevard commercial corridor.

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