Two weeks ago, one of the city’s most beloved cultural institutions began to disappear before our eyes. LACMA is coming down. First, the interiors of the east campus buildings were cleared of hazardous materials, but the shells of the buildings still stood — in apparent defiance of their fate — allowing many of us to hold out hope that the museum as we’ve known it might be saved. But construction is considered “essential” work during the coronavirus shutdown, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is racing ahead with museum director Michael Govan’s misbegotten remake, to the point of no return.
I live nearby and watched two “high reach” excavators — fitted with arms like giraffe’s necks, one wielding a jackhammer, the other a lobster-claw-like crusher — rip away a chunk of the Wilshire-facing facade and tear a three-story-high hole in the La Brea Tar Pits side of the Bing Pavilion, all in less than a day. What was the backstage of the 600-seat Leo S. Bing Theater is now a cavern, ingloriously ripped open, bits of architect William Pereira’s fluted columns dangling from threads of rebar.
In the coming weeks, galleries will crumble, ceilings implode, floors collapse. As LACMA’s own Twitter account proves, the teardown has evoked a cri de coeur — the image of the wreckage, amid so much recent human suffering, suddenly awakening a profound melancholy for a world being left behind.
As the buildings vanish, a kind of amnesia will likely set in. We will begin to forget the LACMA we’ve known. Which is precisely what Govan and the board of trustees are depending on. There is no better way to create the cultural space for the idea of the new museum, no matter how undesirable, than to wipe out the existence of the old, erasure being the prerequisite to replacement.
This is especially necessary for LAMCA because from the moment the museum unveiled the latest version of its new design — a flat-top boomerang bridging Wilshire Boulevard — critics have piled on, and citizen opposition has grown to chorus level. The proposed museum has been skewered as a costly aesthetic dud; it will add to a debt burden at the museum, calculated by this newspaper, that is already unusually high. It also shrinks rather than expands LACMA’s exhibition space, and the galleries, we’re told, will abandon the usual permanent display that defines an encyclopedic museum. In response, the Ahmanson Foundation, LACMA’s crucial supporter for 60 years, has turned off the spigot of donations.
The criticism has been a troubling headwind for Govan’s plan, but with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn now likely to follow, it could become a gale force. But the demolition of the existing museum — a trio of 1965 Pereira pavilions and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer’s 1986 Art of the Americas Wing — cements, like nothing else, an air of inevitability and irreversible necessity to the new LACMA: With a hole in the ground where a museum used to be, the plan will have to go forward.
There is a deep cynicism in Govan’s insistence that demolition must proceed. Nothing is more certain to upend the always uncertain fundraising for his $750-million-plus project than the fiscal crisis that is looming in the wake of the coronavirus. Will the $640 million in pledges promised so far come through? Where will the balance, $100 million and change, come from? Will creditors back the $300-million construction bond the county has agreed to issue on the museum’s behalf? When the pandemic subsides, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Govan standing with the backdrop of a gaping pit behind him and proclaiming that his coffers must be replenished with taxpayer money.
There is another way. We may lament the destruction of LACMA’s east campus, but we still do not need to embrace its foolish and inadequate replacement. It is not too late to reconsider just what kind of museum ought to be built. Our present crisis, when public resources are so badly needed elsewhere and when the city and county will face a massive coronavirus-induced shortfall in revenue, gives us the chance to pause and ponder the best possible museum that can emerge on the site now being cleared. Later this week, in fact, the Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA will announce the winner of an international architectural competition aimed at rethinking the museum’s plan.
Now more than ever, when we are all reexamining every aspect of our lives, we must revisit LACMA’s plan and suspend construction. To continue is to commit an act of civic vandalism, turning the remains of LACMA into a lever for blackmail. The museum as planned is not a force for the greater good, which is what we desperately need in this dire time.
Greg Goldin is the co-author of “Never Built Los Angeles” and “Never Built New York.” He is a founder of the Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA.