An open letter to LACMA architect Peter Zumthor: Stop dissing L.A.’s art

Art Critic

Dear Peter Zumthor,

We haven’t met, but I have been following your work on a design for a new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ever since word leaked (13 years ago) that you had been tapped for the project. Following along hasn’t always been easy. Transparency about the building plan is not the museum’s long suit.

The other day, though, you gave an interview about LACMA to your local newspaper in Zurich, Switzerland, and it made me blanch. Like the museum’s director, Michael Govan, you have had no experience with encyclopedic art museums prior to your LACMA involvement — and it shows.

You said a couple of things about the museum that betrayed profound misunderstanding. Since they go to the core of an institution I know fairly well, they seem worth clarifying.


Three statements are particularly troubling. I’ll start with the knottiest one.

You are quoted describing an encyclopedic art museum as “an asylum for homeless objects” — displaced, apparently, because the diverse global cultures that produced most of these paintings, sculptures, textiles and the rest are either long gone, if the objects are historical, or far away, if the art is contemporary.

These objects have lost their context,” you explain. You plan to give these homeless objects a home.

But encyclopedic art collections are distinctive. They are a powerful invention of the European Enlightenment, which arose from a crucial understanding: Art objects get authentic context from other works of art.

A displaced art object gets its primary illumination not from a grand new building, nor from wall labels or chattering people (including critics). With all due respect, your contextual analysis is wrong. That means your proposed solution is wrong too.

In any case, your work as an architect is widely celebrated for very different kinds of structures — thermal baths in an Alpine village, a Norwegian victims’ memorial, a small Swiss contemporary art center. Your plan harnesses those same architectural gifts for LACMA’s art.

But architecture cannot compensate for lost context. Beautiful light won’t do it, nor rooms with atmosphere. Detailed craftsmanship won’t either.


Architecture cannot compensate for lost context.

These are the elements for which your work is known. But they’re irrelevant to counteracting the rupture of a vanished world that, a thousand years ago in China, brought about a stoneware ewer in the shape of a parrot. Or a relief of carved ivory showing a serene Buddha Shakyamuni in 18th century Sri Lanka. Or Diego Rivera’s altar to the endurance of indigenous Mexico, painted in the wake of a modern revolution.

Light, space, atmosphere — these and other architectural dimensions might turn out to be very beautiful. Given your venerable track record — the Pritzker Prize isn’t handed out to architects of dubious skill! — I have every reason to believe that the museum’s objects could look very handsome in their new setting.

But context? It will still be lost.

Architecture cannot repair it or substitute for the loss. A therapeutic design approach works for a spa, but it will fail for the art museum.

Therme Vals, pictured here in 2008, designed by Peter Zumthor in the Swiss village of Vals.
(Susan Spano / Los Angeles Times)

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In fact, the museum’s building design is ultimately irrelevant, except for the ways it serves the curatorial program. Believing otherwise betrays your inexperience with this museum’s form.

The key attribute of an encyclopedic museum — proximity in the depth and diversity of other art — compensates for the lost context. Art is an eloquent conversation among artists, past and present, which smart museum curators know how to host.

I know you pretty much waved off meeting with LACMA’s talented curatorial staff during your lengthy design process, but that was a serious mistake. No painting, sculpture, costume or ritual object is an island, entire of itself — if I might repurpose the poet John Donne.

Every artwork is “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Objects perceptively chosen and shrewdly installed so that they can speak freely with one another, teasing out meanings one might not otherwise see, are what begin to discover or build an expressive context.

History is about the past and the present simultaneously, not one at the expense of the other. Encyclopedic art collections understand that.

That’s why I was saddened — and, I confess, a bit upset — by another contentious comment in your Neue Zürcher Zeitung interview. You were explaining the plan to simply dismantle the encyclopedia as traditionally conceived, in favor of a constant rearrangement of LACMA’s collection to make perpetually changing thematic exhibitions.


It is an encyclopedic museum, with 135,000 objects that came together by accident: furniture, clothes, stone sculptures.

— Peter Zumthor

“The museum director Michael Govan and I have long agreed on this new order,” you told a reporter. “It is an encyclopedic museum, with 135,000 objects that came together by accident: furniture, clothes, stone sculptures. One could say: It is completely disparate, what is gathered here.”

By accident? That’s just wrong.

Yes, serendipity was involved, as it is in building any art museum’s vast collection — especially one as varied (or disparate) as an encyclopedia. But “accident”?

That might describe a freeway crackup, but it insults the insightful, considered labor over more than five decades of scores of LACMA professionals, benefactors and volunteers, men and women whose work has tried to make sense of global artistic plenitude. They started putting their shoulders to the wheel long before you or the director arrived on the scene — neither one with a day’s work experience at an encyclopedic art museum.

It insults the Ahmanson Foundation, in LACMA’s history the single largest donor of money to buy art — more than $160 million — without which the museum would be gravely lacking in “homeless objects.” I could continue with a very long list of such names — half a century of growth is not nothing — but one more example should suffice.

The unparalleled array of three dozen 17th century Dutch masterpieces collected by the late Edward and Hannah Carter is the exact opposite of an accident. Acquired by LACMA during the tenure of emeritus curator J. Patrice Marandel, it includes only first-rate still lifes, landscapes, seascapes, city views and church interiors from a specific time and place.


Art objects get authentic context from other works of art.

The pristine Hendrick Avercamp skating scene alone is the envy of the museum world. But, together with the other brilliantly chosen Carter works, plus others in LACMA’s 17th century rooms, context begins to come into pretty sharp focus.

There are plenty of other examples. Speaking of which, where is the Carter collection, now that the museum has been packed up for the impending tear-down of existing buildings? Storage? Will it be hidden away until your new building is opened five years from now, then occasionally brought out piecemeal in temporary shows? What a waste of an incomparable resource, already contextualized.

And how will that affect the terms of a bequest that says if the matchless paintings are not on permanent view — as they should be — the gift is rescinded, and the collection transferred to the National Gallery of Art?

Talk about lost context.

Presumably you didn’t mean to insult these folks, who represent a core museum constituency. Every art museum serves two publics — an art public and a general public. After the affront, your interview puts a thumb on the scale for the latter.

Of plans for the museum’s gallery layout you say, “I deliberately create spatial networking in such a way that personal, free and intuitive passages through the collection are possible and provoked.” We still haven’t seen any gallery floor plans, but you are describing a stroll through the whole museum. Who does that?


Think of any other encyclopedic museum in the world. If anyone tries to see all of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in one bite, it’s only tourists. Your thinking is apparently shaped by tourism — which leaves out the people of L.A., plus aficionados who visit often. What about them — the LACMA community?

Or maybe your notion is shaped by small, single-subject art museums — like the two you’ve designed in Europe. One concerns artifacts from a local Catholic diocese, the other shows contemporary art. They can easily be seen in a brief visit.

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One writer — Tyler Green, historian and producer of the Modern Art Notes podcast — calls your LACMA design the Coffeetable Kunsthalle. The coffee table part is a funny jape about the design’s similarity to a piece of midcentury furniture, an undulating shape raised on legs; but the kunsthalle part is more telling. A kunsthalle — “art hall” — is an exhibition-only venue without a permanent collection, never mind an encyclopedic one.

Granted, I read your interview in translation. (My command of German text disappeared shortly after I completed graduate school exams more years ago than I care to remember.) If I misunderstood, I apologize. But, given your misplaced faith that your building can repair art’s contextual issues, I doubt it.

It pains me to have to say this, but the design’s critique of the encyclopedic form is shallow, the revisionism uninformed. LACMA’s encyclopedic collection is not an accident, and no architecture can compensate for lost context.


And you have to get this building right. When it’s done, your work is what people will know for LACMA’s next 50 years.

Few remember the two museum directors present at the 1965 birth of the original buildings, but everyone now speaks of their architect. Like you, many speak of William Pereira’s three-pavilion design with disdain. It badly cramped the LACMA mission.That’s why his buildings are being torn down.

Sincerely yours,