The architect behind the Academy Museum says his design is no ‘Death Star’

A man in a powder blue crewneck sweater, stands on the red carpet on the bridge of the Academy Museum
Renzo Piano on the red-carpeted bridge that leads to the spherical Geffen Theater he designed for the new Academy Museum.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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“It’s a soap bubble. It’s a flying ship. It’s a flying vessel, dirigible, zeppelin,” says an impassioned Renzo Piano. “But it’s not a ‘Death Star.’ It’s not about that.”

Piano is seated inside the very building he is referencing: the spherical David Geffen Theater that he designed for the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The 1,000-seat theater, which attaches to the north side of the old May Co. building at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, has come to be known colloquially as the “Death Star” since plans for it were first unveiled almost a decade ago.

Piano is insistent that his building is no such thing.

Renzo Piano never implemented his full LACMA plan. His Academy Museum gave him another shot at this corner of L.A. Our review.

He prefers the expression “flying vessel,” though he’s also partial to “magic lantern,” which has been used by actor Tom Hanks (a museum trustee) to describe the building, which opens to the public on Thursday. Piano pulls out his cell phone and shows me an aerial view of the Geffen taken by noted architectural photographer Iwan Baan. It shows the museum in the moody light of dusk, the theater’s globular form glowing warmly from within.

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“Look at that,” he says, with a bit of wonder. “It’s a soap bubble in the middle of a concrete city.”

An aerial view of Los Angeles with mountains in the background
An aerial view of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
(Iwan Baan)

It’s an evocative metaphor. But it’s a naming battle from which Piano is unlikely to emerge victorious. Movie-obsessed Angelenos have informally referred to the mechanical sphere as the “Death Star” since it materialized at the western end of the Miracle Mile. (Including yours truly, who may have absentmindedly deployed the term during a conversation with the architect — thankfully, while he was out of earshot.)

Piano nonetheless maintains his crusade for a more suitable metaphor. In the Academy Museum’s design, he doesn’t see death, but something more akin to love.

A view of the May Co. building at Wilshire and Fairfax in the afternoon light makes the gold mosaic cylinder shimmer
Completed in 1939, the old May Co. building on the Miracle Mile has been brought back to life as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“For me it’s like a flirt,” he says. “It’s a little love story between the older lady there, the May Co. building ... and we have the young flying vessel landing here.” He gestures at the building around us.

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Piano says the design is a gesture of affection toward the May Co. building, a Streamline Moderne structure designed by A.C. Martin and Samuel Marx, completed in 1939 and now officially renamed the Saban Building. (Though good luck getting anyone to call it that.)

“I never met a person in Los Angeles who didn’t love that building,” Piano says in an English inflected with the musical cadences of Italian. “I was fabricated in ’37, so I’m even older than this creature. I love this creature.”

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has opened as the ultimate celebration of Hollywood history, Oscar lore and today’s movie makers.

On Thursday, as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens its doors to the public, Piano will already be on his way back to France (he is Italian but also maintains a residence in Paris) — yet another completed museum under his belt.

At this point, the 84-year-old architect has designed too many to count. There is the Menil Collection in Houston (completed 1987), the Fondation Beyeler (1997) in Switzerland and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, a West Village waterfront structure to which the museum and its contents decamped from Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2015.

Plus, there are his myriad expansion projects for the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — for which he designed two pavilions over the past 13 years: the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion.

The facade of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum is seen at dusk under a cloudy, dramatic sky.
A view from Wilshire Boulevard of Renzo Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA upon its opening in 2008.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The most famous museum of the bunch, however, remains the ground-breaking Centre George Pompidou in Paris, which was designed in collaboration with Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini and completed in 1977.

Bearing the influences of 1960s avant-garde groups like England’s Archigram, an influential collective that was intrigued by the ways in which technology might remake architecture, the Pompidou was the museum that scandalized France by dropping a structure that looked like it had been built with an Erector Set into the middle of a quaint Parisian neighborhood. At the time of its construction, Le Figaro likened it to a “monster, just like Loch Ness.”

It is now a beloved Paris icon — remaking what was once a desultory parking lot into a lively cultural hub. (Plus, the views from the building’s external escalators are unparalleled.)

Though a vastly different building, the Pompidou is perhaps instructive for understanding Piano’s vision for his Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

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In a TED Talk in 2018, he described the Pompidou as “a spaceship landing in the middle of the Paris.” The same could be said of the Academy Museum. Though Piano is quick to point out that the Geffen Theater, which is suspended over the ground on four concrete plinths, never quite lands: “It levitates.”

A view of the bright colorful forms of the Centre Georges Pompidou is seen rising above the Paris skyline
The Centre Georges Pompidou, completed in 1977, brought otherwordly industrial forms to the Paris neighborhood of Beaubourg.
(Eric Feferberg / AFP via Getty Images)

Piano has long had a hand in creating structures that seem to be in the process of touching down. Switzerland’s Fondation Beyeler appears to hover over the pool of water that surrounds it. And the Whitney Museum, which is partly raised on pilotis, from certain angles looks like an industrial vessel that has set down on an elevated landing platform.

The Academy Museum’s form is inspired, in part, by the dirigibles that once landed in the area, when the neighborhood on this stretch of Wilshire served as an airfield. And it harkens to the sorts of voyages that unite the architect’s interests with the museum’s mission of telling the stories of film.

Piano was born to a family of builders in the Italian seaport of Genoa. “I grew up with two things: films and the sea,” he says. “And they were both about exploration. The sea, because something must happen beyond that — infinity. And the thing with film, because they take you into another world.”

The architect says that for a time, in his youth, he had fantasized about becoming a filmmaker but ultimately chose to study architecture. Though he notes that the two fields do share some traits.

“You need an army of people, you are working with a budget,” he says. “You are dealing with sequence. In film, you don’t move, you sit; the movie moves. In the architecture, it doesn’t move. We move.”

It indeed did take armies to build the Academy Museum — in particular the engineering-intensive Geffen Theater. This included an international team of designers from Piano’s namesake studio, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which included project architect Jonathan Jones and partners Mark Carroll and Luigi Priano. Also instrumental were the L.A. office of the global firm Gensler (the project’s executive architect) and KPFF Consulting Engineers.

Among the biggest design challenges: constructing a 12,000-ton spherical building that nonetheless felt buoyant. That was accomplished by minimizing the building’s connections to the ground. The Geffen Theater rests on four concrete plinths with base isolators, which support the sphere in the event of a quake.

“The dome is so thin and transparent because the building is base isolated, so the force of an earthquake doesn’t transfer to the structure,” says project architect partner Priano. “Otherwise, it would become much harder to resist the earthquake.”

A view of the spherical David Geffen Theater from below shows the building hovering over four plinths.
The David Geffen Theater is supported by a series of base isolators that help make the building earthquake resistant.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
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If the academy is the umpteenth museum Piano has completed, he appears to be in no way jaded by the experience. He may have racked up a Pritzker Prize (1998) and a Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (1989), but this is a designer who still gets excited about design.

On a cloudy weekday afternoon, Piano, accompanied by Carroll and Priano, walk me through the building, which is buzzing with life as it kicks off several days of previews. Piano points out the material of a banister, the gentle curve of a staircase and the transition from shadow to light as we proceed from dim galleries into daylight-saturated circulation areas in the May Co. building.

Base isolators, which steady a building in earthquakes, typically are hidden from view. But Academy Museum architect Renzo Piano left them for all to see.

He may qualify as a globe-trotting starchitect, but Piano comes off more like enthusiastic university professor in person, eschewing the stern eyewear and dour ensembles of the architectural set in favor of a look that is more casual. (On this day, that’d be a powder blue crew neck and a windbreaker.) At moments, he soliloquizes on topics such as beauty and metaphors.

“Metaphors are dangerous,” he says. “You cannot start by making metaphors. You start by making buildings.”

As we make our way across the red carpet bridge that leads from the May Co. building to the Geffen Theater, we catch a glimpse of the red elevator — red is a signature Piano color — that travels up and down the exterior of one of the building’s plinths. The architect is momentarily absorbed by the motion: “I like those satellites moving.”

Renzo Piano, in a crewneck sweater, adjusts his eyeglasses.
With his spherical David Geffen Theater, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano has added another icon to the Los Angeles landscape.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The Centre Pompidou, which arose in the wake of the Paris student revolts in the spring of 1968, has been likened to a gesture of protest. “Somebody had to do the dirty job of breaking things,” says Piano. “It was inevitable.”

But he is careful to note that the building didn’t make change so much as reflect as a shift that was already happening. “The things in the world didn’t happen because of Beaubourg,” he says, referring to the building by the name of the neighborhood it inhabits. “Beaubourg happened because it was the right moment for that.”

“You tell the story of the change, you don’t change the world,” he says. “What you put in writing, I put in building. That’s all.”

Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers smile as they stand in front of one of the machine-like escalators of the Pompidou
Renzo Piano, right, and Richard Rogers stand in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2017, when the museum hosted an exhibition of their works.
(Martin Bureau / AFP via Getty Images)
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So what shifting currents might the Academy Museum express?

Piano believes that it marks a changing L.A. landscape — a city of increasing urban density and more intense pedestrian street life. He recalls standing on Wilshire Boulevard when he began work on the BCAM building for LACMA almost two decades ago.

“I was standing on the street and in half an hour, I can count mainly 30 people on the street,” he says. “Now if you stand in the same place, you can count [thousands].”

“This building,” he says, “celebrates that moment of change.”

As a shrine to the Oscars and, more important, a tribute to the movies, the new museum is at its best when it sidesteps the obvious.

Indeed, the academy’s design shows great attention to pedestrian circulation. The museum charges admission, but the lobby is free and accessible to the public — allowing people to transit through the structure. Pieces of wall have been removed at lobby level to provide greater visual points of connection between the interior of the building and the street. A walkway that runs parallel to Wilshire will allow pedestrians to travel east from Fairfax and the Academy Museum towards LACMA and the La Brea Tar Pits without interruption.

Underneath the Bubble — shall we call it the Bubble? — chairs provide the public a place to sit in the shade.

The design, says Piano, is “about urbanity, the idea that people will walk here. They will naturally come.”

They certainly will. In 2024, the Wilshire/Fairfax Station of the Purple Line is slated to open across the street.

A view of the rows of green seats in the Academy Museum's Ted Mann Theater
The green seats in the Ted Mann Theater at the Academy Museum.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

At this point, there probably isn’t a type of building that Piano hasn’t created. He and his team have designed an airport in Osaka and a skyscraper in London (the jagged tower known as the Shard). Recently, they have been at work on hospitals, including a children’s surgical hospital in Entebbe, Uganda, the firm’s first architectural project in Africa.

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If there’s anything else he’s interested in designing, he hasn’t yet thought of it. “I’m too busy doing what I’m doing,” he says. “You just sit, you work.”

He pauses and produces a mechanical pencil and a green ink pen from his pocket: “You just need this.” Green is the shade that Piano favors for sketching. It’s also the shade of the seats in the Ted Mann Theater in the Academy’s Museum’s lower level.

“It’s about making a place for people, making a good place for people,” he says of architecture. “A place where people learn how to stay together.”

I ask Piano if that’s what he would like his architectural legacy to be: making good places for people.

“I’m a young man,” he responds with a knowing smile. “So I have time to think about my legacy.”