A new design with a spine

Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board met in April to approve a proposal for a major expansion of its Wilshire Boulevard complex, its members certainly breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Until now, the museum's physical development has been an architectural horror story. Soon after it opened in 1965, its reflecting pools were famously paved over when oil began seeping into them from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. A clumsy addition was built in the mid-1980s. And as recently as 2001, the museum announced an ambitious plan to tear down all of LACMA's major buildings and rebuild the museum from scratch, only to kill the proposal when donors refused to put up the cash.

The aim of the current design, by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is to salvage what it can of this muddled complex, while somehow fusing it into a cohesive architectural experience. It accomplishes this and more.

The proposed expansion plan, which has not yet been released to the public, will include the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum -- named after its sole donor, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad -- as well as a new 20,000-square-foot entry pavilion set along what is now Ogden Drive. A roughly 800-foot-long pedestrian spine will cut across the entire site, linking the new structures to LACMA West, the former May Co. building at Fairfax and Wilshire, and the existing complex to the east. To give the design visual unity, the buildings will be wrapped in a series of lightweight fabric screens -- a more refined high-art version of the boulevard's commercial billboards.

Although the design is in its earliest stages, its strength stems from its remarkable clarity. Piano neither seeks to obliterate the past nor conform to it. Rather, he reimagines LACMA as a potent blend of new and old buildings, each reflecting the values of its age. To unite them, he carves through the site with the ruthless precision of a surgeon. The result will be a carefully measured sequence of architectural spaces, a procession through the museum's collections and the city's cultural memory. The plan could also make LACMA a wonderful place to view art.

The success of Piano's approach is all the more striking given a selection process that was often as convoluted as the museum itself. Museum officials began their search for an architect three years ago, when they invited five architectural teams to compete to redesign the complex. All of the teams were well-regarded talents: the French avant-gardist Jean Nouvel; Santa Monica-based Thom Mayne; New York's Steven Holl; Daniel Libeskind, designer of the ground zero master plan; and the radical Dutch thinker Rem Koolhaas. Of these, Koolhaas' design was by far the boldest. Unveiled to the public in December 2001, it would have replaced the museum's existing campus with an undulating tent-like structure propped up on columns above a gargantuan public plaza.

But museum officials were unable to raise the $200 million to $300 million needed to build the scheme, so it was abandoned early last year. In June, Broad flew to Europe to offer Piano the commission. By then, Broad had committed $50 million to create his own museum on the site; LACMA expects to raise an additional $50 million through private bonds. Museum officials hope to complete the schematic design phase by October. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for December 2005, with completion by spring 2007.

FLEXIBLE APPROACH

In an age when philanthropists have become particularly adept at leveraging their gifts, the advantage of Piano's scheme centers mainly on economics. The resistance to the Koolhaas design had less to do with architecture than with naming rights. Many donors scoffed at the idea of signing a $50-million check to pay for a piece of a single, monolithic museum building when they can often get their name on a free-standing building for much less. What is more, board members who had already spent millions on earlier additions were reluctant to see those buildings fall to the wrecking ball.

By comparison, Piano's design can be conveniently paid for in stages. In an unusual arrangement for a public institution, the Broad museum is conceived as a separate institution with an independent board. Control of that board will revert to LACMA after Broad's death. The advantage of this arrangement, according to LACMA, is that it allows the museum to focus its fundraising efforts on other aspects, such as the entry pavilion and the renovation of existing structures. Anything it can't pay for now, it can leave for a later building phase.

But the real disjuncture between the schemes is a philosophical one. By threatening to wipe away most of the museum's history, Koolhaas was reaffirming Los Angeles' reputation as a city rooted in 20th century notions of progress, unbound by conventional traditions. To Piano, this would be cultural patricide. His design is shaped by the belief that all great cities attain their depth through the slow, steady accumulation of memory over time. The friction between different styles and periods is what gives them their meaning.

Seen in this light, the shift to the Piano proposal echoes a trend that has been redefining the city's cultural landscape for more than a decade. As it matures, Los Angeles has begun to embrace the trappings of older, more established cities. Piano's scheme is both a step backward and a step forward: Even as it strives to preserve the past, it represents a turn away from the spirit of unrestrained freedom that once made this the world's most modern city.

CITY SYNERGY

Piano did not always think this way. He rose to fame in the 1970s as the co-designer of Paris' Pompidou Center, a building whose colorful facade -- a jumble of exposed pipes, mechanical systems and structural supports -- was seen as a brash, youthful attack against established authority. Since then, however, he has mellowed, and his more recent work, such as the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, has tended toward a gentle, empathic relationship to its context.

In presenting his LACMA design to the museum's board, the architect compared the sprawling complex to a medieval village. In a recent interview, he said: "All cities are a mess. The question is how you tie this mess together. In this sense, LACMA can be like San Gimignano [Italy]. In a short walk, you find many surprises -- a church, a piazza, a palazzo."

In fact, Piano's planning approach is rooted in 18th and 19th century values, in particular the notion of architecture as a surgical instrument, one capable of cutting through the disorder of the past, and in the process, opening it up to the rational mind.

At LACMA, Piano begins by preserving all of the buildings. The new entry pavilion, which will align with the existing axis of Ogden Drive, will act as a kind of social filter. Piano sees it as a glass-enclosed, light-filled space. Large canopies will cantilever out over open-air plazas at either end. The idea is to create a virtually seamless transition between the urban life of the boulevard and the more pastoral setting of Hancock Park, which is now almost invisible from the museum's plaza.

From here, the museum's collection will stretch out along Wilshire in either direction. The Broad museum will rise just west of the new entry pavilion, on what is now an empty lot between Ogden Drive and LACMA West. The museum's galleries will be arranged on three floors, with a temporary exhibition hall sandwiched between permanent collections. A louvered roof system will allow light to flow down into the upper galleries. A secondary system of panels -- which rise above the rooftop like enormous billboards -- will be used to block out direct light.

The museum's substantial collections of European, American and Asian art still will be housed in the Ahmanson, Anderson and Hammer buildings, which surround the existing Times Mirror Central Court just to the east of the new entry. LACMA eventually plans to renovate the interiors of these buildings, but Piano was forced to keep the basic organization of the collections the same. Koolhaas' plan, by comparison, would have brought all the museum's art together under a single roof.

In Piano's design, the various collections will be linked by the pedestrian spine, which in the plan appears as a long incision, slicing through several of the existing buildings at either end. To the west, the spine slips along the back of the Broad museum and breaks through the facade of LACMA West, where it will connect to a new lobby. To the east, it will carve through the core of the existing Ahmanson building before stepping up to meet the Times Mirror court.

The plan is meant to express the intersection of two worlds, which Piano has called the sacred and the profane. The path through the entry pavilion remains the complex's main urban axis, a vast public forum for the city's cultured class. The new pedestrian spine represents the axis of art, a more tranquil world of inner contemplation. The relationship between them is meant to underline art's public function.

This notion -- of balancing the spiritual needs of the individual and the social needs of the collective -- is reinforced by the system of decorative screens, which will create a new facade along Wilshire. Fixed to the building's facades with a system of lightweight trusses, the screens' patterns and colors will subtly reflect the structures behind them, an effort to evoke a more textured universal language.

Ultimately, the success or failure of Piano's design will rest on his ability to transform these ideas into a powerful architectural statement. And Piano has yet to begin designing the individual spaces. The Broad museum's roof system, for example, is barely a sketch. It is lifted from earlier designs, such as his Menil Collection in Houston, an early masterwork. For the time being, the billboard-like screens are nothing more than visual markers.

But the process of creating architecture has its own natural flow. If the initial ideas are strong, the design can eventually take on a life of its own. Each subsequent decision will seem to take on a certain inevitability, reinforcing the initial gestures. As such, one of the most promising aspects of Piano's design is that it is already possible to imagine how beautiful each of these spaces could become. This is particularly true of the entry pavilion, which could one day surpass the Getty Center's outdoor courtyard as one of the city's most exquisite public rooms.

Similarly, the ideal proportions of the Ahmanson's existing interior court -- a 60-foot cube -- suggest how easily it could be transformed into a compelling outdoor court once it is stripped of its current clutter and opened to the sky. Piano has said he envisions it clad entirely in rich cherry wood.

Given LACMA's history, no intelligent person would expect this process to move forward without a hitch. The biggest stumbling block to the project's success is the division of the project into two phases. Among the most important aspects of the plan that will be left for a second phase is the redesign of the park, which would eventually serve as the museum's main entry. The existing parking structure dominates one corner of the park; Piano hopes to relocate it underground. And, eventually, he would like to wrap the exterior cladding system around the entire complex.

The museum has yet to set a timetable for the master plan's second phase. And it is conceivable that Piano's vision could forever remain incomplete. Piano, for example, has said that he would like to include the removal of the concrete canopy over Times Mirror court and the redesign of the Anderson building -- one of the complex's biggest eyesores -- in the first phase of construction. But that will depend on the cost. And in a recent conversation, museum President Andrea Rich said that she does not expect to expand the museum's construction budget, which could mean that such changes would be put off indefinitely.

AN EYE FOR THE PAST

However these issues are resolved, Piano's vision marks a critical moment in the evolution of the city's identity. The boldness of Koolhaas' design centers on his argument that the current LACMA campus is essentially trash. He was challenging an attitude that has pervaded architecture since the fall of Modernism. The large-scale urban planning schemes of the 1950s and '60s destroyed large swaths of historic fabric in the name of progress. Since then, even the most forward-looking contemporary thinkers have been zealous in their defense of preserving the past.

Koolhaas' position is not to urge a return to earlier times. He believes that the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. Cities, after all, are not static. All of them live through a slow but constant cycle of destruction and rebuilding. The question is what deserves preservation.

By comparison, Piano's scheme is rooted in the belief that it is possible to find meaning in what, to the critical eye, may at first seem worthless. Even an ugly building can be a repository of collective memory. The architect's task is to unlock its hidden secrets, to create transparency where there is none. In many ways, Piano's strategy echoes Michelangelo's approach to Rome's Campidoglio nearly 500 years ago. With its convex surface framed by covered porticos, Michelangelo's plaza was able to give proportional unity to what had been a disjointed civic landscape.

Such conflicting values -- one that embodies a spirit of freedom and another more respectful of the past -- have particular resonance in the landscape of contemporary L.A. During most of the 20th century, the city's raw, ephemeral landscape made it a magnet for avant-garde architects. Koolhaas' design tapped directly into that ethos. By elevating the entire museum on a gigantic platform, he was evoking the freeway structures that are the city's greatest monuments. His colossal, fabric roof evoked the temporary structures of 1960s-era collaboratives such as Archigram, which saw in Los Angeles' cheap roadside structures an antidote to the suffocating weight of European history.

That city is fading into memory. Los Angeles' urban history is becoming richer and more nuanced. Its inhabitants have become more aware of that past. Institutions such as the Getty Center have sought to impart a gloss of high culture to the city's image as a center of pop culture.

Piano is particularly attuned to such shifts. His desire is to engage the whole arc of history -- even in a context that is only 40 years old. As such, his design mirrors the city's transition from a place where anything seems possible to one more concerned with boundaries. It is a more tolerant approach, but it also represents the loss of a kind of optimism only associated with an adolescent city.

Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic. Contact him at nicolai.ouroussoff@latimes.com.

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