Govan pushes LACMA’s boundaries

Times Staff Writer

COUNCILMAN Tom LaBonge told The Times earlier this week that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art might use its newly acquired piece of land, across Wilshire Boulevard from the LACMA campus, to accommodate a new subway station. Whether that winds up happening -- LACMA itself has been touting the space beneath the old May Co. building, which the museum bought in 1994, as a potential Metro location -- LaBonge’s comments gave this significant story a curious, and limiting, spin.

Are we really supposed to believe that LACMA director Michael Govan is eager to share control of the parcel, for which the group of donors known as Museum Associates paid roughly $12 million, with Metro bureaucrats?

In a word: doubtful. Govan is serial builder and extender of museums. It is a kind of pathological talent of his. In his 20s he was a protege of Thomas Krens, helping guide the construction of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as Mass MoCA; Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and other Krens projects. Later, as director of the Dia Art Foundation, Govan hired artist Robert Irwin and the fledgling architecture firm Open Office to transform an old Nabisco factory north of New York City into the airy, crisply restrained Dia Beacon.


His recent experience with the Broad Contemporary Art Museum marked an end to that charmed run. When Govan took over at LACMA two years ago, he inherited an architect, Renzo Piano. Plans were already underway for a new wing largely conceived to please a would-be savior of LACMA, Eli Broad, who later revealed himself as a won’t-be. Throughout the construction process, Govan was forced into the unusual position of third wheel.

So forget subway stations, at least as the headline for this bit of news. This is a story about Govan and LACMA expanding the museum’s footprint and acquiring a valuable real-estate chip that could hold a new wing or mixed-use building or could be resold down the line. It is a story about a museum that has for so long turned its back on the boulevard looking to engage both sides of it.

And it may be a story, finally, about a director burned by a prominent donor moving to build gallery space on his own terms -- even if, just to keep things complicated, that donor remains on the museum’s 42-member board of trustees, alongside a growing group of Govan recruits that includes Barbra Streisand, Michael Crichton and MySpace founder Chris DeWolfe.

Certainly it’s reasonable to wonder why LACMA, which still can’t seem to figure out what to do with the expansive campus it already has, wants to take on the burden of additional holdings across the street. But the presence of LACMA on both sides of Wilshire, joining the galleries already in the neighborhood, could boost not just the museum’s profile but also the health of the Miracle Mile and its street life.

Unlike many of the city’s major east-west arteries, Wilshire as it runs past LACMA is narrow enough to allow real dialogue between buildings across the street from each other. That would be particularly true if a new free-standing museum wing were designed to rise nearly flush against the sidewalk, without a significant setback. There have also been plans, now stalled, for a restaurant and terrace, designed by L.A. architect Greg Lynn, across Ogden Drive from LACMA’s new property. If that project is revived, it could join a new LACMA wing in creating a remarkable critical mass of contemporary architecture on this stretch of Wilshire.

Though the museum hasn’t advertised this fact, it already owns a sizable parcel of land on the southern side of Wilshire -- at Wilshire and Spaulding Avenue. After Govan’s arrival, LACMA quietly put out a request for proposals from architects for a mixed-use development on the site, now occupied by a surface parking lot.

The decision to buy a second parcel may signal that the museum has given up on the Spaulding plan. More likely it means Govan and the board see the current market downturn as an opportune moment to add to the museum’s real-estate portfolio, setting the table for future initiatives on the far side of the boulevard. Indeed, the museum was able to purchase the property at Wilshire and Ogden only because its current owner, Miami-based developer Lennar Corp., abandoned plans to build lofts there.

L.A. Observed blogger Kevin Roderick suggested Wednesday that Lennar pulled out after “a problem of underground water . . . stopped the construction.” Govan couldn’t be reached for comment on that issue.

A new building on the Ogden property could be reserved entirely for art or include gallery floors stacked atop a Metro station. Or LACMA could model it on a recent deal struck by the Museum of Modern Art, which will occupy three floors in a new mixed-use tower, designed by Jean Nouvel and built by the Texas developer Hines Interests, next to its buildings on 53rd Street in New York. In that case, MoMA sold a parcel to Hines for $125 million while reserving 50,000 square feet of prime exhibition space for itself.

As I wrote when it opened last month, what is most disappointing about the Broad building, known as BCAM, is that it doesn’t live up to the C, for contemporary, in its own name. Both the architecture and the art inside seem to be idling at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Across the street stands an opportunity for LACMA to build new gallery space that reflects the status of Los Angeles as a place where cutting-edge art is produced daily. If I were an L.A. architect -- or one in another city with dreams of making a West Coast splash -- I might already be sketching out back-of-napkin ideas.

The new parcel also offers Govan a way to clarify his own attitudes about contemporary architecture and its relationship to art museums. At Dia Beacon and again during the fine-tuning phase of the LACMA expansion, he made a dramatic point of giving primacy to artists over architects. It worked out better at Dia than here, but then Govan came late to the Broad-Piano collaboration. And the Dia project was a renovation.

By comparison, the new property, which now holds the fragile-looking shell of a 1960 building, could offer a clean slate, which is surely part of its appeal for Govan and the LACMA leadership. Still, the director has something to prove to certain architects in town, who feel that he, unlike Krens, prefers to work with inexperienced firms he can control.

Designed by William Pereira and completed in 1965, the original LACMA campus is arranged as a cultural Acropolis, not unlike the Music Center downtown or Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Detached from the street, its courtyards lifted into the air, it has little interest in engagement with the city around it, particularly when it comes to its extensive, largely moribund Wilshire Boulevard frontage. A 1986 extension by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates wrapped the museum further into a cocoon.

LACMA’s recent expansion, with BCAM as its anchor, addressed this problem but ultimately failed to solve it. Piano carved out a spacious forecourt connecting the sidewalk with a new entry pavilion next to BCAM but then watched as Govan decided to install a huge artwork by Chris Burden, made up of a cluster of 202 vintage lampposts, in the center of the space.

In any case, by establishing a new pedestrian axis along the back of the new BCAM building, hidden from Wilshire, Piano had already acquiesced to the notion of the museum campus as separate from the life of the boulevard. BCAM itself, with blank travertine walls facing Wilshire, largely turns its back on the city as well. This is something of a tradition, of course, in Los Angeles. Aloofness from the street is central to the architecture of the Getty Center, the Getty Villa, the Huntington and the Norton Simon, among others. Those museums, all private, exist as leafy retreats from the city.

But LACMA is a public institution, and it occupies one of the few pockets of town where busy pedestrian traffic and urban street life is a real possibility in the next couple of decades, particularly if the subway is extended to its front door. By reaching across Wilshire, LACMA has a chance to break the mold of the gated-community museum once and for all.