WHEN the Los Angeles County Museum of Art set out seven years ago to expand and remodel, it definitely was not looking for an extreme makeover. It nearly got one anyway.
Museum leaders were taken by an innovative architectural design that promised a Cinderella-like transformation in a one-of-a-kind new building. But the romance went only so far, and with the projected price reaching $300 million or more for the Cinderella plan, LACMA’s wishes ran up against the complexities of public policy and political decision-making. The much more conservative outcome -- the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and other architectural elements that will open Feb. 16 -- is a case of California dreams yielding to California reality.
What LACMA’s leaders wanted, in the beginning, were incremental improvements. The museum was launched in 1965 with three buildings, designed by L.A. architect William Pereira, facing a central plaza on Wilshire Boulevard. Two more were crammed in during a 1980s growth spurt, then a sixth was added in 1994 when LACMA bought the former May Co. department store, a structure that was literally out in left field, a block west of the museum’s core. From an architectural standpoint, LACMA had evolved like the homely, humped creature in the saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. Meanwhile, new expectations of daring and beauty had arisen for cultural buildings after the acclaim heaped on Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
LACMA’s buildings were not only mismatched but hard to navigate. Confronted with the museum’s profusion of structures, many visitors felt lost and confused.
“Nobody knows where they are going at LACMA,” its then president and director, Andrea Rich, said in February 2001, the day she announced an intention to do something about it. “At a certain point, you have to stand back and say, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe it’s our generation’s job to sort all of this out.’ ”
Devising a better layout was no small consideration for the largest “encyclopedic” collection in the West, spanning art-historical developments from cuneiform tablets to digitally tweaked video installations.
The first step, museum leaders decided, would be to add a new building for contemporary art, giving each era or geographical region a building of its own while also creating a new entrance and pathways.
Five leading architects were paid $200,000 each to submit proposals addressing the goals. Four followed directions. The other, Rem Koolhaas, threw them in the trash. Playing the rebel, the Dutch designer -- tall, tieless and clad in black, his cachet certified the previous year when he won architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize -- insisted that LACMA was beyond renovation.
He would raze four of the five plaza buildings and replace them with a single huge structure raised on concrete stilts and topped by a billowing, tent-like roof made of Mylar skin and steel bones. He proposed a novel layout of galleries that experts felt would do for the museum what the Dewey Decimal System had done for libraries: render a vast array of things both intellectually coherent and easy to find. Walk in one direction and you could follow the art of Europe, Asia or the Americas in a progression through time. Take a perpendicular path, and you’d stay in one time zone while sampling the styles and themes cropping up simultaneously on each continent.
LACMA’s project committee swooned. Trustee Eli Broad, already committed to making a keystone donation exceeding $20 million, was “so jazzed by this thing that he is considering numbers he never would have thought of when they started this process,” one source in county government said at the time.
“Hypercaution and compromise . . . left Los Angeles with a major museum housed in a mishmash of humdrum buildings. . . . Now LACMA’s trustees have seen the light,” applauded a Los Angeles Times editorial. “The people of Los Angeles have always been daring, eager to embrace change and -- face it -- prone to drama.”
Taking a vision to the voters
ELEVEN months later, LACMA leaders were sweating out the quintessential American drama: an election-night cliffhanger. The post-9/11 economy was in a recession, and stocks were in the tank. Broad was still game to give a bundle, but even he couldn’t single-handedly float a $300-million project. Other prospective donors held back, wondering whether Koolhaas’ roof would allow in enough natural light, or whether LACMA should risk a tear-down and rebuild that could close most of the museum for years.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a big fan of the Koolhaas plan, suggested taking a shot at public financing. He helped devise a $250-million county bond proposal in which LACMA and its sister institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, would get about $100 million each for construction. Several other arts organizations would share the rest.
On election night, after a $5-million get-out-the-vote campaign, LACMA leaders gathered in Rich’s den in Hancock Park. Melody Kanschat, then LACMA’s senior vice president, now president, followed precinct-by-precinct returns on a laptop computer propped on a coffee table and surrounded by pizza boxes. Almost anywhere else, the 60.5% vote in favor would have been a landslide victory. In California, one of three states, along with Missouri and North Dakota, that require a two-thirds supermajority to pass a local bond measure, it was a narrow defeat. In Dallas, Miami-Dade County and Denver, arts-bond issues totaling $670 million have passed in recent years with less than two-thirds of the vote.
The Koolhaas plan was dead, throttled by a hand reaching from deep in California’s past: the two-thirds voting requirement was written into the state constitution in 1879. LACMA’s makeover was back on the incremental track. The stock market and the economy started to rally, and wealthy backers stepped forward. Broad paid for the $56-million contemporary art museum -- the Broad Contemporary Art Museum -- kicking in $10 million more to buy artworks. Renzo Piano, the prolific Hank Aaron of cultural architecture, was Broad’s choice to dust off the original plan, the one Koolhaas had tossed away. With the lively piazzas of Italy, his home country, as a template, created BCAM, clad in Italian travertine, with galleries bathed in natural light, as well as the new entrance and the easier pathway through the museum that LACMA leaders had envisioned from the start.
For Broad, the $156-million Phase 1 -- with Phase 2 expected to move ahead soon, funded by $200 million LACMA borrowed last November via a bond issue backed by its own revenues -- has been a case of all’s well that ends well. The Koolhaas scheme was brilliant, he said recently, but it might have been impossible to carry out even with ample funding because of the concerns over natural light and the need to shut down most of the museum during construction.
Yaroslavsky says he is happy with how things turned out, even though he still considers the Koolhaas plan a missed “opportunity of a lifetime.” Who knows, he mused: Maybe by the time LACMA is finished with its remake, the problematic old plaza buildings will be gone, just as the Dutch architect had imagined, with something new and dazzling in their place.
There are no regrets, Yaroslavsky insists. “We are living in the golden age of arts and culture in this region. How can you look back when all eyes are looking forward?”
Kanschat admits that she sometimes thinks of LACMA’s near elopement with Koolhaas -- as even happily married folks are prone to do when it comes to old flames. “I’m not disappointed,” she says. “We are getting what we needed and wanted. But it was a fun flirt, I’ll tell you that. It was a fun flirt.”