It's part 1950s Case Study house, part magic carpet, part canopy of trees and part old-world piazza. If all goes well, this should add up to the new face of the largest encyclopedic art museum in the western U.S., to be completed in less than two years.
"I don't think it's changed a lot," said the lanky, low-key Piano, strolling the site in a battered tan coat. The 20-acre campus, its soil crossed with tractor tracks, had been lined with a limestone footprint to define the project's contours. "Just the fine-tuning: size, detail, construction, how you put things together."
Some of the plan's details had been filled in -- such as the design for the glass-enclosed Lynda and Stewart Resnick Grand Entrance Pavilion and accenting the campus with bright colors -- and there was one tangible change: the streamlining of a plan to hang brightly colored fabric scrims and banners along Wilshire Boulevard. Piano originally had said these screens would offer unity to a campus widely regarded as confusing and disparate.
"In reality," Piano conceded, the plan "was a bit too complicated and expensive" and might have hidden or obscured the buildings. But he's still convinced that the banners are an important part of the project.
"The banners become a fundamental way for the museum to tell its story ... to talk to the city," he said. "Look at the traffic, and at the traffic light," he said of slow-moving cars on Wilshire Boulevard as he walked along it. "People will perceive this."
The banners will likely be commissioned from contemporary artists and will stand for six to eight months at a time, Piano estimates.
Some will probably be tied to exhibitions, and even shows of pre-modern art will be announced by banners with a contemporary edge, LACMA President Melody Kanschat says.
Piano stresses, however, that the banners will not resemble the typical exhibition advertisements that fly in most cities.
The courtly, Italian-born Pritzker Prize-winner's appearance at LACMA was both an opportunity for him to work with museum officials, trustees and a botanist on details, and the announcement of the start of the first phase of construction for the museum's expansion and renovation.
Completion of the first phase, which includes the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, funded by trustee Eli Broad, and the new entry pavilion, is scheduled for late fall 2007. The second phase will involve interior work and reorganizing the museum's collection, and the third a reconfiguration of LACMA West, which will contain gallery, library and administrative space. Fundraising for these is ongoing, and the museum remains open during construction.
Thursday's event, largely a photo-op, never quite became a groundbreaking; shovels, never used, were on hand for show but were later returned to the store.
The museum's 20,000-square-foot main pavilion, by which visitors will enter the campus, is named for donors Lynda and Stewart Resnick. Built with a concrete floor and walls mostly of glass -- the architect is famous for his use of natural light -- the building will be the museum's new focal point and will resemble an airy midcentury Case Study house, Piano says.
Resnick Pavilion, he says, will have a "Matisse blue" roof meant to evoke the sky. "Around you, you have nature, the park." He's striving for transparency and a human scale that offers "a friendly, informal welcome" with its ticket booth, bookstore, restaurant and event space. Piano likens the roof, which will seem to be floating above it, to "a magic carpet."
The new pavilion, and the new Broad Museum, will help connect LACMA East, the current museum's main compound, with LACMA West, the Art Deco-style former May Co. building. A covered concourse -- running east-west and connecting LACMA West with Resnick Pavilion and the Ahmanson Building -- will tie together what Piano says are buildings that seem to be "flying away from each other."
The museum's current main entrance, which brings visitors into a courtyard, will be reworked in the second phase. (It will be closed on opening day to focus attention on the new entrance.) Also in the second phase, a corner of the Anderson Building will be demolished and rebuilt, and part of the Ahmanson Building, considered by many LACMA regulars an eyesore, will be "rehabilitated," in Kanschat's words.
Piano also plans to use a light, almost orange shade of red for pathways, escalators, fire stairs and accents to help unify the campus, although greens and yellows will be used in some places as well.
The concrete- and oak-floored Broad museum will be made of travertine, of a shade Piano calls "much warmer" than that now on LACMA West.
The Broad's roof will be a series of layers including screens that will allow in a gentle natural light but filter out ultraviolet and other harsh light.
What interested Piano the most seemed to be the landscaping of the area that connects LACMA East and West, which will begin with grass and ivy and reach up to a canopy of jacaranda and sycamores as well as soaring palm trees.
Piano spent hours considering "the number of trees, the size of trees, exact placement of trees," he said. "It's a very planned job, architecture." He also spoke about the relaxed, park-like setting he hopes to create with a series of relaxed piazzas and the way the new design will open up views of Hancock Park, which has been mostly obstructed.
"The park," Piano said, "will be the most important element for unifying the different buildings," built from the 1960s to the '90s.
This was the first time Piano had seen the museum after the leveling of the Ogden Street parking garage -- which contained now-destroyed art by Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen, work mourned by fans -- and the filling in of the street itself. Parking will be underground, and the museum can now be boldly oriented on an east-west axis that will parallel the flow of Wilshire.
"The thing for me that's astonishing is that we were able to destroy a street and demolish a parking lot -- in Los Angeles!" Piano said, marveling at the way the destruction opened up the campus. "The symbolic city of traffic!"
The overall impression conveyed by this architect known for a collaborative spirit was his effort -- in contrast to the bolder, scorched-earth design of Rem Koolhaas, which would have destroyed most of LACMA's buildings and was eventually rejected -- to work around the existing campus and the surrounding cityscape.
Piano emphasizes that every city sets its own pattern.
"I was yesterday in New York," he said, "where we're working on the Whitney Museum. So different! There is no reason to repeat yourself -- unless you are a stupid guy. There is always a new story to tell."