County museum's expansion reflects two clashing visions

Times Staff Writer

You know that well-worn architectural saying: A great building requires a great client.

In the case of Renzo Piano's extension of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opens Feb. 16, the equation isn't quite so straightforward.

To begin with, LACMA has added substantially more than a single building. Though the 60,000-square-foot Broad Contemporary Art Museum, or BCAM, is getting most of the attention, Piano's changes to the sprawling museum campus also include a new entry pavilion and covered pedestrian walkway set back from Wilshire Boulevard, along with a reconfiguration of the ground floor of the 1965 Ahmanson Building to the east.

More to the point, it's a little hard to tell exactly who Piano's client is.

Is it Eli Broad, the billionaire LACMA trustee and donor who flew to Europe to recruit Piano personally after a bolder, more expensive expansion plan by Rem Koolhaas fell through?

Or is it Michael Govan, who took over as LACMA director two years ago, assuming responsibility for a design by an architect he likely would never have chosen himself?

The answer, of course, is both: Each man has a legitimate interest in even the most minor details of the expansion plan. Last month, after Broad made the surprise announcement that he wouldn't be donating his extensive collection to the museum, there was plenty of speculation about when and why his discussions with Govan over the fate of the artworks might have turned sour. But so far we've paid virtually no attention to the delicate back-and-forth between Govan and Broad over the details of Piano's design.

What a visit to the new LACMA makes clear is the extent to which the western half of its campus has become contested space, straining to hold two very different ideas of how a museum in Los Angeles should look and operate. One view belongs to Broad, 74, and the other to Govan, who is three decades younger. Much of the fun of making sense of the expanded museum, in fact, lies in figuring out whose influence and sensibility can be glimpsed in which parts of the new construction.

Broad has operated here as a patron in the classic sense of the word, working with his handpicked architect to produce a handsome, well-made container for his extensive collection.

Govan, though he would never say so publicly, seems to see that vision as largely out of date, or least inappropriate for a place as young, dynamic and distrustful of institutional wisdom as Los Angeles. He clearly would prefer that the museum's new architecture represent a highly informal, ever-changing city where art is produced and redefined on a daily basis and not just bought, sold, duly cataloged and hung on walls.

Each one has found a separate sphere of influence in the first phase of the Piano extension. (A new free-standing gallery by Piano to the north of BCAM, along with a renovation of the old May Co. building by the Culver City firm SPF:a, will follow in the next few years.) BCAM itself, not surprisingly, is Broad's territory, a building for which he footed the entire $56-million bill and where Govan has held comparatively little sway. To hold Broad's art, Piano has produced a crisp travertine-clad box with galleries on three levels. Its dramatic, high-ceilinged top floor bathes works by Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and others in natural light that is very clear and nearly colorless, if a bit thin.

Piano's attempts to add color and a sense of energy to the exterior of the box with a scaffold of escalators and stairs, which he collectively calls "the spider," suggest that he is looking back to his professional youth, specifically to the Pompidou Center in Paris. Designed with Richard Rogers, that exuberant, deeply optimistic museum helped make Piano's name when it opened in 1977.

The spider succeeds in lending some playfulness to a building that is otherwise rather formally dressed. Framed in steel beams painted a bright shade of red, the spider's various cantilevered platforms offer broad views toward the Hollywood Hills. On the other side of BCAM, facing Wilshire, John Baldessari's twin, oversize banners -- each one measuring roughly 52 by 55 feet -- work to essentially the same effect. So does the building's saw-tooth roof line, created by a high-tech collection of fins and screens designed to keep harsh southern light from hitting the top-floor art.

But that exterior flair can't entirely disguise the fact that, at least inside, the building is well-behaved to a fault, with gallery spaces that are hushed and relentlessly rectilinear. In the rather banal ground-floor galleries, where two new pieces by Richard Serra hold court, the low ceiling is crisscrossed with lighting tracks that distract from the monolithic visual power of the massive works.

The art and architecture combine in BCAM to suggest that its name is a bit of false advertising: Piano's design is contemporary in the same way that the pieces inside by Koons, Ellsworth Kelly and Barbara Kruger are contemporary -- which is to say, not quite. Seen in the most cynical light, the whole enterprise seems stalled in the late 1980s, which is when Piano's museum work and many of the edgier artists in Broad's collection hit their stride.

Around the edges of BCAM, meanwhile, Govan has found plenty of opportunities to tweak Piano's scheme. His first move was to bring in the artist Robert Irwin, who so famously clashed with Richard Meier, another Broad favorite, over landscape design for the Getty Center. At LACMA, Irwin has added a necklace of palm trees on the perimeter of BCAM and in other outdoor spaces that were freed up when the museum demolished a parking garage and filled in a stretch of Ogden Drive north of Wilshire. Especially on the northern edge of BCAM, the thickly arranged palms take Piano's crisp pedestrian axis and transform it into something messier and more layered.

Govan saved his most dramatic interventions, though, for a pair of open spaces carved out by Piano: one in the new forecourt, which sits between Wilshire and the entry pavilion, and the other on the ground floor of the Ahmanson Building. Piano planned both as civic, European-style gathering spots. Govan, as if rejecting that notion as hopelessly nostalgic, responded by giving over most of each space to an artwork that grabs your attention away from the architecture and won't let go.

He added a huge Tony Smith sculpture, "Smoke," to the Ahmanson atrium, where it hovers dramatically over a new grand staircase leading up to LACMA's eastern courtyard. And in the forecourt, which Piano is fond of calling a "piazza," Govan decided to squeeze in a dense installation of 202 vintage lampposts by artist Chris Burden. Titled "Urban Light," the piece is a kind of pop temple, deftly straddling the lines between art and architecture and between seriousness and irony. It's also a joy to walk through. But there's no getting around the fact that it turns what might have been an actual public square along Wilshire -- a space defined from day to day by the people using it -- into an outdoor room for one sizable and very insistent piece of art.

In the latter stages of his career, the 70-year-old Piano has evolved into a kind of surgeon. Instead of architectural fireworks, what he offers his museum clients is coherence, largely unadorned: strong axes sliced confidently across a site; substantial materials; the accomplished manipulation of shadow and light.

Those skills are all in evidence in the LACMA expansion, particularly in BCAM's top-floor galleries and in the new pedestrian walkway, which offers a clear connection between the May Co. building, on the western edge of the museum campus, and the Ahmanson to the east. Thanks to Govan, they share space with -- and cede ground to -- some other, very different attitudes about what a museum in 21st century Los Angeles ought to be.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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