‘The Edsel of architecture’? L.A. reacts to the Petersen Automotive Museum’s gloriously bad redo

Over the last few weeks, the world’s architectural spotlight has been focused on the new Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles. But across town, another museum has been rising -- and it is also architecturally significant -- though for very different reasons. The scaffolding is off the Petersen Automotive Museum on Mid-Wilshire, and even though the building isn’t yet open to the public, the reactions have been passionate.

“The New Look of the Petersen Automotive Museum is Really Really Bad,” trumpeted a headline in Curbed. (The story, by Marissa Gluck, went on to describe the building as “the Guy Fieri of buildings: obnoxious, loud, and, ultimately, sure to be inexplicably embraced by the public.”) Kevin Roderick of L.A. Observed wrote that it is “different and kind of hideous.” And L.A. cultural critic William Poundstone asked, is it “too Vegas for the Pritzker-ified Museum Mile?” (The building sits across the street from structures by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano at the L.A. County Museum of Art.)

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The building, designed by New York-based firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), is a bit of a statement to say the least: a red box structure wrapped in a series of churning steel ribbons, which are meant to evoke a sense of speed and movement. The new design, reported KPF’s website, “transforms the Petersen building into one of the most significant and unforgettable structures in Los Angeles.”


They got that right. Anyone who has been by the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire in recent months will tell you that it’s the sort of thing you just can’t unsee.

KPF is a big, corporate firm, churning out glassy business HQs around the world (including, no surprise, Abu Dhabi). In Los Angeles, the firm has also done 1000 Wilshire, an ungainly post-Modern tower that abuts the 110; an office building at 550 South Hope Street in downtown; and the remodel of Bloomingdale’s in Century City. KPF has also worked on a handful of cultural projects (if you count casinos as “cultural”), mostly in Asia.

But the Petersen has put the firm on the map in L.A. -- in ways the architects likely didn’t intend.

I put an image of the in-progress building (which is scheduled to open in December) on a couple of social media feeds and asked for input. It was variously described as being inspired by wrestler’s tights, Fruit Stripe gum, a pile of string cheese, an unspooled Diet Coke can, a pair of toe socks and the “Edsel of architecture.”

One respondent said he couldn’t help but like it: “It’s like the old museum crushed down a Redbull and vodka and put on some cool club clothes.”

Certainly, there is something about the building’s willful awfulness that I have to admire -- like a lady who puts on all of her shiny jewelry to go to the gala. This finger in the nose of good taste is even more intriguing given that this is the very moment that design critics and aficionados have been fretting about the look of the Miracle Mile while Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor’s develops his plan for LACMA and Piano prepares to construct an alien spaceball -- er, I mean, domed theater -- at the Academy Museum next door.

I spoke with Frances Anderton of KCRW’s Design and Architecture podcast about this very topic -- and why this exuberant piece of architectural insanity is so Southern California.

The Petersen segment starts at the 6:50 mark. In case you want more, there’s always the Petersen Construction Cam, which allows you to see what the building looks like this very minute. Blessed be the cockamamie design schemes of El Lay!

Find me on the Twitters @cmonstah. And don’t hold back on what you feel about the building