L.A. Art Museum Decides to Radically Reshape Itself


Choosing between a tear-down and a fixer-upper, leaders of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art took the leap Wednesday.

They unanimously approved a proposal by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to demolish most of the buildings at the Mid-Wilshire site and replace them with a vast structure that sits on columns and is topped by a tent-like roof.

Koolhaas was the choice of the board of trustees’ architect selection committee in a competition for a $200-million commission to redesign and unify the museum’s disjointed campus. He edged out French architect Jean Nouvel, who would have added a major building while renovating the older facilities.


Andrea L. Rich, president and director of the museum, said Koolhaas’ proposal won because “it was simply the one that went the other direction. It was the most radical short-term solution, but in the long term it’s the most conservative solution, because of its flexibility and adaptability.”

The plan also has the advantage of putting most of the money into construction, whereas the other proposals would have used more than half the funds on “rehabbing old buildings,” she said.

Board Chairman Walter L. Weisman said the actual cost of the building might run as high as $300 million.

The fund-raising campaign will begin in a few months, said Rich, who acknowledged that the effort will be a challenge, given the current “financial dip nationally and internationally.”

The design remains “conceptual,” in Rich’s word. Ground breaking for the project hasn’t been set, and the museum is still drafting plans for phased construction, which will allow it to remain open as the work progresses.

“This is just a beginning,” Rich said.

Over a glass of champagne, Koolhaas said that undertaking a major project in Los Angeles is “a very great source of excitement” for him. “We tried to follow the original mandate, but we convinced ourselves that if we didn’t do something more fundamental, we would not be doing our duty. We decided to start from scratch, but you don’t know if you will win a competition by being so disobedient.”


The design leaves untouched only LACMA West (the former May Co. at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue), the parking garage and the Japanese Pavilion of the current complex. It replaces the Anderson Building, which fronts on Wilshire, the Bing Theatre, the Hammer Building and the Ahmanson Building, which now houses much of the museum’s permanent collection, with a single structure of three levels.

The lower level will contain offices and work space. The plaza level will include public spaces such as special exhibition galleries, theaters, shops and restaurants. The upper level will chronologically display each of the five major holdings of the collection--American, Asian, Latin American, European, and modern and contemporary art.

Koolhaas, 57, is known as an independent thinker and an unusually versatile, progressive artist. Educated at the Architectural Association School in London, he founded his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, in Rotterdam in 1975. Cited as “a prophet of new architecture” who is “in tune with the future,” Koolhaas won the 2000 Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious honor in architecture.

The board’s approval of Koolhaas’ plan is the culmination of a process that was discussed for many years but began in earnest during the summer of 2000. Rich asked Lord and Associates, a local consulting firm, to conduct a formal analysis of the museum and its needs, then enlisted Richard Koshalek, an architecture specialist and president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, to organize a competition.

Rich assembled the selection committee, with board Chairman Weisman at the helm and trustees Eli Broad, Robert Looker, Peter Norton, William Mingst, Linda Resnick and Michael Smooke as members.

They visited architects in their studios and looked at their major projects in Europe and the United States.

The list of candidates was narrowed to five in May: Koolhaas, Nouvel, Steven Holl Architects of New York, Daniel Libeskind of Berlin and Thom Mayne, the principal architect of Morphosis in Santa Monica. Each architect was given $200,000 to develop a design with a construction budget of about $200 million.

“We sent each of the five architects very dense material about our programs, square footage needs, technical requirements, storage, transportation,” Rich said. “We were looking for lots of design aspects, from functionality to aesthetics, from the inside to the outside.”

The five proposals were assessed by Koshalek; Neil M. Denari, president of the Southern California Institute of Architecture; and Sylvia Lavin, chairwoman of UCLA’s department of architecture. Senior representatives of the museum’s staff also analyzed the designs and stated their preferences in a report to the committee.

The committee planned to name the winner Nov. 15, but two days before the scheduled announcement, the decision was postponed and Koolhaas and Nouvel emerged as the final contenders. At that point, it became a choice between two dramatically different concepts.

LACMA’s plan is part of a nationwide museum boom that has reverberated from New York to Milwaukee to San Francisco. Los Angeles has also seen a lot of museum action in the last decade, with half a dozen institutions added or reconfigured, including the Getty Center in 1997 and the Japanese American National Museum in 1992.

Still, LACMA’s project looms large because of the museum’s immense size, the broad scope of its collections and programs, its public funding and its prominent location. It is the largest encyclopedic art museum west of the Mississippi, and the effort to give it a spectacular new home will be closely watched.

“This is revolutionary,” Rich said, “and LACMA can do it because of its unique history, which is not very long.”