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Prudent decision for LACMA is a setback for the city

Times Staff Writer

The decision last Wednesday by the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to put on hold its extensive $200 million-$300 million renovation and expansion plans at its Hancock Park campus is all but a death knell for the project, one of the city’s most important cultural initiatives.

The museum’s president and director, Andrea Rich, reached by phone over the weekend, explained that the decision came after a series of false starts in the museum’s fund-raising efforts. The museum has had to delay the public launch of a capital campaign because major donors would not step forward with the necessary “quiet phase” seed money. In November, voters failed to pass a bond measure that would have provided $250 million for physical improvements at county cultural organizations, including $98 million for LACMA.

Local billionaire philanthropist and LACMA board member Eli Broad said Monday that he had been ready to commit $50 million to the Koolhaas project. “No one else had made that commitment,” he said. “Even if you got one or two others, what you end up with might have gotten you halfway there.”

“It became overwhelming,” Rich said. “At this point I don’t see where the money is. It would take someone to come in with huge enthusiasm and put up a big chunk.”

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The decision comes almost exactly one year after the museum unveiled the plan, which was selected after a much-hyped seven-month international competition. Designed by celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the winning scheme would have virtually wiped away the museum’s existing campus, a pastiche of mismatched buildings built up over 37 years that many consider a civic embarrassment. In its place, Koolhaas proposed a monolithic structure, with the museum raised on slender columns and enclosed under an enormous undulating tent-like roof.

Rich added that the board will now look into other, more affordable options, which would mean significantly scaling back the museum’s ambitions.

“We have a little money for seismic rehabilitation at LACMA West,” she said. “We could make it much nicer and move some programs over there. That frees up space to do some program expansion and redo the [existing] galleries. It’s a much more modest look but doable in my lifetime.”

On its surface, the board’s decision may seem a prudent one. The economic downturn and increasingly conservative financial climate that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks make it more difficult to raise money for major building projects. In New York, the Guggenheim Museum has abandoned a plan to build a new $650-million Frank Gehry-designed complex in downtown Manhattan because of its financial troubles. The UCLA Hammer Museum has delayed its planned $25-million renovation in Westwood. And San Francisco’s Jewish Museum has put off plans to build a new home designed by noted Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind.

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But other institutions are pressing ahead. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, for example, had hoped to raise $98 million for its $300 million renovation project through the same bond measure that was rejected in November. But museum spokeswoman Leslie Baer said that the future of the project never relied on the bond. “We went into it thinking it was a longshot,” she said. “But the project didn’t hinge on the bond passing.”

The Natural History Museum hired New York architect Steven Holl last spring and expects to announce a final design team in January. The museum plans to launch the quiet phase of the capital campaign in a year.

The deeper issue for LACMA, therefore, is a total lack of courage on the part of its donors and the board. Koolhaas says that completing the schematic design would cost the museum roughly $4 million -- $1 million less than was spent on the effort to get the bond measure passed. Completing the design could take from 1 1/2 to two years.

If the board believed in the project, it could have postponed the capital campaign but continued with the design process. The investment would be relatively paltry, and it would have bought the museum more fund-raising time. No one can predict how much the economic climate will change over the next year.

It was a sense of civic duty that finally resurrected the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Seven years ago that project had ground to a halt after costs spiraled out of control because of problems with the working drawings. Today, after a renewed fund-raising effort spearheaded by Broad and then-Mayor Richard Riordan, the project is on the verge of completion, and it may well become the most stunning architectural achievement in the city’s history.

In some sense, Koolhaas’ design may be more important to the city’s future. LACMA houses the city’s only encyclopedic collection of art. Its location, midway between Santa Monica and downtown, makes it a critical hinge in connecting the city’s communities. As such, its contribution to L.A.'s growing cultural depth would be far greater than that of the Getty Center, a building that cost $1.3 billion and stands aloof from L.A., more of a quaint tourist attraction than a place for vibrant cultural exchange.

The power of Koolhaas’ conceptual design, in fact, was that it proved that a compromise solution would only add to LACMA’s current architectural malaise. Not only is the complex outdated in its physical plant, but the muddled galleries make it an awkward place to view art.

All four of the other finalists’ proposals in the LACMA redesign competition preserved the majority of the existing buildings. All added significant additions in an effort to give the complex some cohesion. All failed. “Our alternatives were a clean slate, as presented by Rem, or nothing,” LACMA board chairman Walter L. Weisman said at the time.

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Koolhaas’ proposal, by comparison, was remarkable for its clarity and power. Its enormous, open-air plinth, pierced by grand staircases and overlooking the park, would have acted as a lively public forum in a city that has few. Its flexible gallery spaces -- arranged as four parallel bands and housed under the spectacular roof -- allowed for a level of flexibility that represent a radical reworking of the conventional museum.

In short, the design tapped into Los Angeles’ greatest attributes as a city--its love of the new, its relentless charge toward the future. Its abandonment should be greeted with sadness -- and outrage.


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