Critic’s Notebook: Peter Zumthor’s L.A.-LACMA vision in need of update
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam does it. The Louvre does it — twice. The Sackler Museum at Harvard wanted to do it in the 1980s, but neighbors objected and its design was changed.
Bridging a major street, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art now proposes to do in expanding across Wilshire Boulevard, is not an unprecedented idea for a prominent museum. In truth the gesture by LACMA and its architect, Peter Zumthor, is the product not so much of boldness as a combination of diplomacy and fidelity — perhaps misguided — to certain elements of his original design.
And while L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials were quick to praise the updated version, my feelings about Zumthor’s LACMA have grown more complicated. The more I think about the plan’s newly attenuated form, stretched like a piece of black bubble gum across Wilshire, the more I wonder if the architect’s basic reading of Los Angeles could use an update.
LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, has said that among the first calls he made after accepting the job nearly a decade ago was to Zumthor’s office in the tiny Swiss mountain town of Haldenstein. As they began working together, Govan and Zumthor took a series of unusual steps to protect the design of a new LACMA from the pressures, political and financial, that so often dilute ambitious architecture.
They didn’t show the proposal to the public or start a fundraising campaign until it was well developed. They didn’t allow major donors to weigh in early on.
The design they finally unveiled last year was beautifully and powerfully strange — not only different from any piece of architecture L.A. had seen in decades but a departure, in what Zumthor calls its “freely undulating shape,” from his precise, rigorous European work.
It was also at that point largely unvetted and untested. And pretty quickly basic problems emerged.
Objection to razing four of the original LACMA buildings to make way for the new building was fairly muted. But Page Museum next door, largely left in the dark by Govan and Zumthor, had legitimate worries that it might damage the La Brea Tar Pits, both during construction and by throwing one or more of them into shadow.
Once Govan and Zumthor agreed to pull the building back and give the tar pits breathing room — and how could they not, given that they had proudly said that the design was inspired by the very pools it was in danger of hurting? — they faced a dilemma.
Shrinking the footprint of the proposed building would leave it short on gallery space by 25% or more. Adding a second story was hardly an option, since the Zumthor design relied for much of its visual power on an exaggerated, pancake-like flatness.
Hemmed in to the east and north by tar pits and to the west by a pair of gallery buildings by Renzo Piano, the new wing could expand in just one direction: by executing a dog-leg bend to the southeast, across the boulevard and touching down on a piece of property owned by the museum and now used as a parking lot at the corner of Spaulding Avenue and Wilshire.
The idea of stretching a major landmark across Wilshire is not new. In 1922 a landscape architect named Aurele Vermeulen pitched an ambitious plan backed by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler to line the boulevard with a series of triumphal arches, monuments and fountains.
Nine arches (some holding small police stations) were planned at major intersections, along with major buildings spanning Wilshire at each end. The plan fell apart after Beverly Hills and Santa Monica refused to sign on (plus ça change!) and because it was never clear how it would be funded.
Museums too have spanned major streets. At the Louvre in Paris, galleries cross intersections on either end of the Place du Carrousel. The Rijksmuseum bridges a section of roadway open only to bicycle traffic.
A covered pedestrian bridge stretches across 13th Street to connect the wings of the Denver Art Museum. In the 1980s a similar proposal, never built, was advanced to link James Stirling’s new Sackler Art Museum at Harvard with the 1927 Fogg Museum. Visitors to the St. Louis Science Center can stand on a pedestrian bridge spanning Highway 40 and aim radar guns at passing cars.
Because it would span not just any street but a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile, Zumthor’s plan carries different symbolic weight than those projects. It would allow museum-goers to stand above what has long been the automotive spine of L.A., looking down on passing traffic from a pedestrian bridge that will also hold gallery space.
Does the design fetishize car culture? At the very least it celebrates it, in that genuine, often earnest way that Europeans have long viewed our vast grid of boulevards and freeways.
In its revised form the Zumthor plan also echoes an early version of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s design for the Broad museum downtown. It called for a thick glass lobby wall that would have allowed people on foot to come face to face with drivers making their way down a ramp to an underground parking garage. Largely for practical reasons, that detail was trimmed from later versions of the project.
Along with stretching it south across Wilshire, Zumthor has made one other notable change to this latest version of his LACMA design. He has added holes to the roof of the museum so that some of the wide legs on which the building rests, which will contain staircases as well as visible storage and cafes, will be open to the sky.
Still, a full year after the first models were put on view the precise layout and scale of the interior spaces, including the galleries, remain a mystery. What’s more, there are several practical questions about how the building would operate as an urban object.
Forget driving — what will it be like to walk beneath it? Will it feel like you’re trudging under a freeway overpass? How will the underside of the building be detailed and illuminated?
Equally important is what the revised design reveals about Zumthor’s understanding of the LACMA site and Los Angeles.
The architect’s first-hand knowledge of the city was gained mostly during the early 1980s, when he spent a year teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. He has made repeated trips to L.A. since, but it seems the initial impressions were powerful ones, at least to judge from the new version of the LACMA design and the enthusiasm it shows for framing views of car traffic on Wilshire.
That enthusiasm is largely if not fundamentally romantic. It has more to do with the Los Angeles of Zumthor’s SCI-Arc days, or before that the L.A. of Reyner Banham, Denise Scott Brown and Ed Ruscha, than the 21st century city.
In that era (and in the work of those figures) the boulevard was two-dimensional — planar. It receded endlessly from view in both directions. Images of Zumthor’s updated LACMA design show the architect treating the boulevard in much the same way.
These days the drama along Wilshire is not simply at street level but also below ground, where a subway line extending west is finally being built, and in the sky, as rising density produces more vertical architecture.
Perhaps you can make the case that there is something eternal and unchanging about the tar pits and the role they play in L.A.'s sense of its own prehistory. You can hardly say the same about the city’s boulevards — especially at this moment, when the basic notions of mobility and scale along L.A. streets are so much up for grabs.
One virtue of Zumthor’s original proposal was the way it was raised in the air above a park-like landscape. You could walk toward it and under it from any direction. The building was contained, framed and given strength as an architectural object by that setting. These qualities will be lost if the building extends south to straddle Wilshire.
So where does that leave Zumthor and LACMA, assuming the museum’s commitment to moving forward on a new building hasn’t wavered? With a few options.
LACMA could stick with this latest sky-bridge plan and hope a series of refinements — in particular clarifying the new building’s relationship to Wilshire and its sidewalks — might give it some forward momentum. This strikes me as the most likely outcome, given that a) the new designs are preliminary; b) Govan has already publicly gone to bat for them; and c) Zumthor has a remarkable track record of turning rough, aspirational models into astonishing pieces of built architecture.
Alternately, the museum could ditch the sky bridge and build two black blobs, one on either side of Wilshire.
Or finally, it could build a smaller version of the original design entirely north of Wilshire. This would allow LACMA to steer clear of the tar pits while also keeping the Spaulding lot (one of two properties it owns on the southern side of Wilshire) free for a future multi-story building by Zumthor or another architect.
In my view this last option is the most appealing — and by a wide margin. Though it would moderately reduce exhibition space in the new building, it would have the major benefit of protecting the museum’s architectural and programmatic flexibility.
Why foreclose the option of a taller building on the Spaulding site just to extend a Zumthor design that may well lose its appeal by being stretched across Wilshire Boulevard? That sounds like a case of throwing good square footage after bad.
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