Cylon Base Star update: Peter Zumthor’s drive-thru LACMA plan

Architect Peter Zumthor has revised his design for LACMA. Instead of extending over the tar pits, the building will send a blobby finger over Wilshire, as seen in this rendering.

As was widely reported this week (in the L.A. Times, New York Times and others), Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has revised his proposed design for a new building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

In the original proposal, a single pseudopod from Zumthor’s black blob cantilevered over a portion of the La Brea tar pits — a gesture I seriously dug, since it got the museum to engage the tar pits rather than turn its back on them. (Seriously, that mammoth drowning in the muck is one of the best, most surreal pieces of public art in L.A. I was happy to see an architect acknowledge it.)

A number of environmental factors made that extension problematic, so Zumthor has rerouted his building so that it turns south, over and across Wilshire Boulevard, where it lands in what is now a parking lot.

This has created the potential of an interesting art tunnel on Wilshire — a sort of “drive-through LACMA,” as described by William Poundstone. I’m the kind of person that loves to drive through the buildings that surround Grand Central Station in New York, so I find the idea intriguing at a hypothetical level.


But as my colleague Christopher Hawthorne points out, the new design seriously distorts the previously elegant shape, which resembled a painting by Jean Arp. If the extension over the tar pits was a slim finger, this one now resembles a sausage-y thumb.

It also, as Hawthorne points out, transforms this from a single architectural project into a bigger urbanistic piece of the L.A. puzzle. As urbanism writer Alissa Walker pointed out in a tweet, it may not be all that pleasant as a pedestrian experience.

There are a lot of things I love about Zumthor’s ideas for the new LACMA: It is a democratic museum with no hierarchy, multiple entrances mean the journey through art can vary depending upon the door the viewer picks, and I deeply admire the fact that he went with a non-boxy shape, which, as I wrote last year, feels very Cylon Base Star (in only the best possible way).

But I do have questions about the scale. The museum, made out of concrete, will hover 30 feet over the ground. Which makes me wonder what it will be like to walk around underneath it — namely, that the experience could feel like trekking around under freeway underpasses.


Mind you, I appreciate freeway underpasses. I think one of L.A.'s most intriguing public monuments is the super-stacked intersection of the 110 and the 105, a veritable freeway sandwich. But I do wonder if a museum works on this kind of scale. And I wonder if navigating the area around it might feel like too many of L.A.'s other walking experiences, where you walk and walk and walk and you feel like you’re getting nowhere.

For a city that is reconsidering its relationships between the car, public transport and the pedestrian, it’s something to think about.

Twitter: @cmonstah