Q&A: Peter Zumthor and Michael Govan: Delineating a Bold Vision for LACMA’s Future


American art museums thrive on growth, reaching out to donors and collectors to enlarge their holdings and the space to display them. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has 135,000 artworks—the largest encyclopedic collection in the western United States. It has expanded five times in its 52-year history and is now planning a major transformation to replace defective elements and complement those that work well.

Peter Zumthor, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect from Switzerland, has designed a building that has the potential to become the next great landmark in Los Angeles. It promises to intensify the art-viewing experience and bring all of the city together on Wilshire Boulevard at the midway point between downtown and the ocean. Like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, it is purpose-driven architecture that enriches the urban experience. And as with Gehry’s masterpiece, the first presentation of the design aroused all the naysayers. Nothing surprising there: Every bold departure from convention—from the Eiffel Tower to the Sydney Opera House—provoked hostility before winning popular acceptance.

All too often Los Angeles has settled for the safe and the second-rate. LACMA’s board did that at the outset, in 1965 selecting Pereira and Associates’ three disconnected pavilions and rebuffing the director’s choice of Mies van der Rohe. That error was compounded in the mid-1980s, when the Art of the Americas building by Hardy, Holzman and Pfeiffer walled off the street front and turned the museum inward. In 2001, five internationally renowned architects proposed radical changes. The board vowed to build Rem Koolhaas’s big “tent” but were unable to secure funding.

Since Michael Govan became director in 2006, LACMA has raised its sights and proceeded methodically. Renzo Piano’s entry pavilion, BCAM, and the Resnick Building have refocused the museum, opening it up to the park, major artworks and lively public gatherings. Attendance has boomed. While most museums would plan a big expansion under these circumstances, Zumthor and Govan have proposed new galleries that are only slightly larger than those they will replace, prioritizing quality over quantity. Instead of turning the museum into something resembling an airline terminal—as New York’s MoMA has done—LACMA may choose to open satellite galleries in other parts of the city. The Zumthor building is still evolving, but construction could begin as early as 2019 and be completed by 2023, when the subway is scheduled to stop across the street.

Earlier this year, Govan and Zumthor explained their goals in a public presentation, and then continued their conversation for DesignLA.

Michael Govan: From the beginning, I was interested in a dialogue with somebody who would think deeply enough to reverse expectations, take risks, move forward and backward, and I knew it would be a long process. We all know that competition-winning designs can be radically changed before they’re built—Disney Hall is a prime example. For me the real issue was the quality of the thinking. The biggest mistake that’s made in public buildings, and museums in particular, is that you wait for a patron who is often at the zenith of his or her life, and so you have a competition and aim to open in just a few years. Think about the complexity of such a project—it’s not a two-year proposition! Client-architect relationships have to be nurtured over time. We sought a competition of points of view rather than of architects. One approach was to minimize cost by fixing up the old buildings; another was to be consistent and have Renzo Piano do the whole thing (even though he didn’t want to do it); a third was to dust off Rem Koolhaas’s model. When I arrived at LACMA, each proposal was urged on me. I threw out a fourth idea. Peter Zumthor is a person who understands site better than anyone. What if I work with him and give him my thinking?

In our very first conversations, we discussed whether we could keep a core of the 1960s buildings and whether it was practical, because he had done so much with ruins. Everything was open and I was interested in what Peter, with his sensitivity, thought. I had seen what he had proposed for Kolumba [a museum in Cologne built into a war-damaged church]. We started with questions about what the museum of the twenty-first century would be. Our first serious dialogue was in Rome—my favorite city—when Peter was at the American Academy. We talked about the philosophy of the museum, never about architecture or what it would look like.

Peter Zumthor: We were working from the inside out. I have a lot of respect for old things and try to weave them into the new, but unfortunately I saw that the substance of the original building had been lost behind the 1980s extension.

Michael Govan: There was this notion that LACMA was the only major museum made of cardboard rather than stone, in contrast to the solidity of traditional buildings. After two or three years, we came to the conclusion that it had to be rebuilt. The 1960s buildings had not been seismically retrofitted, and the cost of trying to save them would have been astronomical. It became increasingly clear that a hybrid solution was impractical.

Peter Zumthor: My first problem was the site, how to react to the classicist approach of Renzo Piano on one side, which I could not share. I was much more interested in the park and the La Brea Tar Pits on the other side. It was a long struggle to find the right answer to this heterogeneous complex, but from the beginning it was my idea to liberate the park.

Michael Govan: In an early meeting Peter proposed that the two sides of Wilshire Boulevard should be connected. It’s rare that you get to design a view on both sides of a boulevard and conduct a dialogue between them. I remember saying, “That’s great but we can’t do it; let’s move on. Years later, when we came to an impasse—a conflict with paleontologists and the work they wanted to do—I remembered Peter’s first impulse to cross Wilshire, and said: “What if we brought it back?” The boards of LACMA and the Natural History Museum, as well as the county, agreed it was a brilliant solution. Frank Gehry sent me a sketch from the 1990s in which he had proposed the same idea.

Peter Zumthor: I knew the city and loved the light from when I taught at SCI-Arc in the 1980s. I started to feel good when I developed this organic form with inner courtyards. We called it the black flower since it sprang up next to the Tar Pits. This free form allowed me to make a reference to every side—a building with no back. But when it had to cross the street, it could no longer be a flower. Sometimes you have to kill the things you love. I abandoned the organic shape and developed a more urban form, and the black gave way to the mineral-like tone of Texas limestone. I’ve used a single material—board-formed concrete—which has a dense, elemental character. I’d be happy if people were to see it as an excavated temple.

Museums bring people together to learn something and have fun. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a favorite of mine, an encyclopedic museum of objects. Too often the context is lost. My task could be to create a new home for these homeless objects. Bring them up from the archives and learn something. Maybe there should be fewer paintings on the walls, and no labels. It’s important that we look at objects and then ask for information. First the emotion and being touched before the scientific explanation.

What is the task of the architect? Daylight is important, coming in from the side. I love intimate encounters in domestically scaled spaces, with natural light and shadow. When I did the glass-walled Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, I was told that artists would hate it, but they are still lining up to have shows there. Here the ground level is left open, and a single floor of exhibition space is supported on seven towers. The peripheral spaces are shaded from direct sunlight and offer a panorama of L.A. In the middle are cluster galleries, pocket galleries and tall tower galleries with clerestory lighting. That creates nuclei which you circulate around rather than an enfilade of orthogonal galleries. There’s a free choice in the circulation— a sense of discovery, as in a city. I don’t like to participate in guided tours, and I want people to make their own discoveries.

The artworks are so diverse, and they feel so lonely when they are in storage, afraid that they’ll stay forever in the basement. That was the starting point. At the end it’s organizing this huge collection in a building that crosses the street and lets you forget that this is a big museum. Now I look at the plan and think, “Maybe this is seven museums.” The shape of the building allows you to see all seven and even visit all of them in one visit. I look at the plan and think, “My God, why did this take me so long? It’s so simple!”

Michael Govan: Our discussion was not about how the building would look—that’s Peter’s job—but about transparency and combining the intimacy of a small museum with the excitement of a big one. In contrast to the Louvre or the Art Institute of Chicago, the size is manageable. You could follow a linear course, as in a Beaux Arts museum, but it’s more likely that people will make detours. The building curls back on itself so you can wander and come back to a familiar place, and you know how far you have to go—as on Frederick Olmsted’s curving paths in New York’s Central Park.

Peter’s design breaks the grid of the city and relates to both its orthogonal and free-form neighbors. Remove all the buildings from the site and you have a buried square, an irregularly shaped lake and a building by Bruce Goff that’s based on a lotus leaf. Two of the three are non-rectilinear. There will be staircases and elevators at either end, and a theater on the south end across Wilshire. The base of the towers serve different roles—café, bookshop, education and the Rifkind Center. Permeability and openness are returned to the park. We’re planning a drought-resistant desert garden—no more English lawns. What’s best is the variety of places to go—outdoor sculpture, jazz concert, restaurant, palm grove, Urban Light, Levitated Mass. Tony Smith’s Smoke will stay close to where it is, but outdoors with a roof canopy. We want to keep what we’ve created—a living room for Los Angeles.

Since this is being built in the twenty-first century and most other major museums are a hundred years old, we should create a form that no one has ever seen before. We have a collection from many cultures, points of view and models of time. Rem’s plan was a linear model, a Cartesian time grid. In Asian and ancient American cultures time is circular, and the grid is no longer neutral in non-European contexts.

What is monotonous about the museum experience and makes people feel tired is the evenness of each room. Peter and I share a bias toward the alternation of spareness and density in the installation of artworks, which imparts energy and a rhythm. Each of these seven museums will have its own character. We asked Peter to design a museum in which we could rotate objects. Slow-motion rotation and small temporary exhibitions. In a Beaux Arts museum, when you close down the central gallery, you close off the whole floor. If I rehang one of these seven enclosures, it doesn’t affect the patterns of circulation. A nonhierarchical arrangement of cultures allows the curators to present many stories over a period of time. This will offer the most up-to-date sense of art history. There’s a constantly shifting way to tell stories, no one best way. Blur the distinction between what you borrowed and what you own. We wanted an infrastructure that allows that.

What excites me about museums is the range of possibilities. We built two Renzo Piano buildings that are flexible white boxes—much like Dia Beacon in NewYork, which is a converted factory. But some of the deepest experiences I’ve had have been in repurposed old buildings with stone walls that don’t move, where you are constrained by history. This campus is big enough to strike a balance between fixed and flexible. There’s no one way to build a museum, and you want to offer a range of experiences. Peter has created a brilliant new-old building. Older objects always look out of place against Sheetrock, whereas if you’re designing new walls for every show, it’s always a new experience. People are going to be fighting each other to work in this building.