ADDING INSULT TO MEDIOCRITY, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art now proposes oozing the oil slick of a building that Swiss architect Peter Zumthor proposed a year ago for the museum campus across Wilshire to a site on a corner opposite. The long, sad tradition of architecture going so wrong at LACMA sees no sign of reversing itself — this is no Rialto Bridge swanning gracefully across Los Angeles’s foremost ceremonial boulevard, but a cross between a pod, a pancake, and a freeway overpass, in black concrete. Perhaps the whole LACMA site is architecturally cursed by the spirit of vengeful mastodons and saber-toothed tigers still trapped in the pits, as, one after another, architects seem to fall into the slough of despond. In this case Zumthor is said to have admitted the shape of the building was actually inspired by the tar pool, so his capitulation to the pits, even as a metaphor, is voluntary and self-inflicted.
The modification of the original plan to shift galleries south away from the tar pool across Wilshire was forced by the Page Museum to protect its still active and vulnerable paleontological site. But as revised, the new proposal only confirms and extends the original mistake, an amoeba-shaped design that LACMA made public in an exhibition last year, “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.” (The title of the show, incidentally, copied that of the first International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1980.) The entire project, the original core proposal and its Wilshire extension, should be rethought before any commitment becomes irreversible, probably with a change of architect, possibly with a change of museological scope and mission. If the museum proposes spending $650 million to replace the existing buildings by William Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, LACMA, Angelenos, and the collections deserve better.
As conceived, the Zumthor plan, core and extension, is a thin design. Zumthor proposes consolidating all galleries from the razed buildings within a single floor lifted on glass-enclosed service cores. The perimeter of the elevated glass-and-black-concrete gallery floor undulates, referring to the curving edges of the adjacent tar pool, or for old-time Californians, to the Southland’s postwar glory days of ink-drop swimming pools.
From the point of view of architectural history, however, the concept is nearly a hundred years old, a floor excerpted from an undulating glass tower Mies van der Rohe proposed in 1922 for Berlin. Have we learned nothing since?
There are many recent precedents for museum designs that achieve better galleries in more convincing and even inspiring structures, designs that have succeeded both as economic drivers for their cities and as icons on the international cultural map. A design that should be pushing boundaries and precedent is instead retro, especially surprising and disappointing in a city that has long set a national and international standard for advanced architectural thinking.
The force driving the project is LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, one of the best informed, most charismatic museum directors in the country, and he has already succeeded, through astute acquisitions, site reconfiguration, building expansion, programmatic innovation, and raw showmanship, in extroverting what had long been a dowdy, introverted museum. Without a lapse in curatorial excellence, he has made LACMA smart and cool. His stewardship and initiative have been commendable. His enthusiasms are contagious.
And he is not wrong to want a project. His well-rehearsed arguments for tearing down the existing Pereira and HHP complex are correct and accurate, even if painful to accept and challenging to fund. The financial argument — that it would take $350 million to upgrade the existing buildings to seismic code — is convincing, even if it’s probably a fig leaf for the more serious concern: Pereira’s concept of three museum pavilions in a park, with a fourth by HHP, divides and conquers the collections. Their very spaces keep the museum from achieving a synergy of its departments and collections. The whole is much less than the sum of its many separate parts.
Do the math. Follow the geometry. Each “pavilion,” originally conceived as a structure floating in a garden lagoon (even Pereira couldn’t resist the metaphor of the pool), is a box separate from the others, and each box is divided by floors into a stack of pancakes that keep galleries vertically separated. The galleries themselves are conceived as boxes separate from each other. The divisive spatiality of the pavilions inside and out works against any curatorial continuity for the collections. The spatial compartmentalization, both horizontal and vertical, fights the flow, turning any visitor into a salmon struggling against the current. The spatial error is so systematic and fundamental that it is uncorrectable. The buildings as they exist are keeping LACMA from realizing its full potential. They are not a pleasure. They diminish the experience.
The fault is not in wanting a project, but in the Zumthor design itself. As a museum director, Govan is unusually well-informed about architecture. He has had a long-standing interest in space and light and their relationship to displaying art, and years of hands-on experience shepherding no less than the Bilbao Guggenheim into existence, working as assistant director to then Gugg director Tom Krens. He then shepherded Robert Irwin’s design for Dia:Beacon to completion, working with OpenOffice, when he was the Dia director, hiring Zumthor at the same time on an associated Dia:Beacon project. That Govan may be erring by promoting Zumthor's design is inexplicable given his insight, knowledge, and experience. The fault may be over-crediting an apparently monkish architect coming down from a village in the Alps with promises of architectural simplicity and authenticity. Zumthor has cultivated the aura of a self-effacing mystic, one whose rarefied sensibility answers only to the sublime. It is necessary, however, to separate the aura of the starchitect from the plan itself to see its deficiencies.
To bridge or not to bridge Wilshire is not a trivial question, and, as a proposal in and of itself, merits consideration. But the problem with the bridge, and the question of its necessity in the first place, originates at its core, the sprawling two-story complex that visitors saw at the museum last year when LACMA rolled out the design in a major charm offensive. The display also featured captivating images of the La Brea Tar Pits’ fossilized menagerie. The centerpiece of the show was a huge model set at eye level, plus a video of a long, focused, mutually supportive dialogue between Govan and Zumthor, who clearly get along great.
The model of the 400,000-square-foot glass-and-black-concrete structure, had it been presented by a student in a graduate-level architecture school review, would have been shredded by the critics. Govan, who cut his teeth as a museum director in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, believes in one-story museums: Wright designed what is effectively a single-story museum when he spiraled a ramp up seven stories, creating a single floor circling the magisterial void in an uninterrupted promenade that allows a sequential and continuous museum experience unbroken by staircases, elevators, or escalators. By an ironic coincidence, the same idea was realized by Bruce Goff, an admirer of Wright, in Goff’s Pavilion for Japanese Art built in a corner of the Pereira LACMA campus: ramps lead from the entries up to landings where the art is displayed. The experience is continuous, within open spaces that allow visitors to see where they’re going and have been, and also allowing them to see, compare, and anticipate art across the open spaces. For junkies of space, this is a thrilling promenade, but it also serves the art itself and the display of the collection as a whole. The interior is a paradigm waiting for takers.
Despite Wright’s famous precedent and its very successful local reinterpretation in the Japanese Pavilion, Zumthor has proposed a flat, single-story museum lifted on glass-enclosed cores, all of it oozing opportunistically around the site as it seeks available space in the surrounding park. The directionality of the amoebic shape is not mandated by any imperative from interior plans, which were vague and severely underdeveloped in last year’s model. The maquette showed a continuous corridor at the glass perimeter, as though the promenade were the deck of a black ocean liner offering a rail-side view of a park that isn’t really a park. Meanwhile the extensive interior spaces, as presented, were no more than a messy pileup of rooms — “a rat’s nest,” in the harsh appraisal of a nationally prominent museum consultant.
The role of eight glassy cores on the ground floor that support the gallery floor above is vaguely devoted to “services” like entries and staircases, and to the idea of “transparency,” a rather wishy-washy do-gooder ideal about allowing visitors in the park to press their noses up to the glass. The program on the ground is thin to the point of being wishful: Workshops? Open storage racks? How much ticketing space and how many cafés can a museum use? It’s basically a sacrificial floor meant to jack the museum up to a single floor on the second level.
The very large model was billed, of course, as a work in progress, to inoculate it against criticism, but the proposal was both grossly premature and conceptually dubious, with cellular galleries that, without any overall organizational logic, had run amok. The grids of galleries switched directions and scale abruptly, without transition; galleries were squeezed into the amoebic pods; the relationship between the curving edges of the building and the boxy galleries went completely unaddressed. As displayed they implied monotony — many the same size, most the same height, without directive or explanatory corridors that would give them, and the visit, vectorial thrust and curatorial organization. The distance from the perimeter to the center also discouraged connection to the outside, leaving only the possibility of skylights or courtyards to relieve the interiors. Any visitor venturing into the thicket of galleries would need a ball of string to find her way out and about. The plan made one yearn for the infinitely more sophisticated 2001 plan by Rem Koolhaas, when, in his winning competition entry to redo LACMA, he proposed an ur-plan structured as a comparative time line across cultures. Its weak spot was that the building itself was an inflatable, but the plan had an idea, and a good one. It was a diagram without a building.
Normally with a plan that needs work, it would just be time to go back to the drawing boards. But Zumthor’s portfolio inspires little confidence that he should be hired for a project of this size and cultural complexity in the first place. He has built only two museums, each somewhere between small and medium in size. A resident of the tiny Swiss town of Haldenstein, his claim to understanding Los Angeles is based on a short period of time he spent teaching at SCI-Arc in the 1980s.
Zumthor is clearly Govan’s personal pick, chosen perhaps because of their previous collaboration at Dia, but without a transparent, public process in Los Angeles. That Govan should have tapped Zumthor by fiat, without encountering any vocal public criticism, testifies to Govan’s persuasive governance and the extensive private consultations the director and architect made in the run-up to the show. Govan’s rather breathtaking sleight of hand, however, should not be given a pass: a private choice for such a public project half funded with public money and largely proceeding outside public comment sets a very arrogant precedent that wouldn’t pass muster in a publically funded governmental building. Govan has privatized a public process.
The LA press has been remarkably timid in both its assessment of the process and in its criticism of the project: Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, one of the journalists who has made the hajj to Haldenstein, even accepting hospitality overnight at the architect’s wood-frame vacation cottage, managed to only gently slap Zumthor’s wrist about the bridge. The New York Times recently published a reportorial piece without critical comment. There is virtually no public voice in Los Angeles that has emerged to take on all the issues.
Some designers are one-building architects who make their reputations with a particularly brilliant, well-received design, and indeed, in 1996, Zumthor achieved international acclaim for a thermal spa at Vals, in the Swiss Alps, which instantly became an architectural pilgrimage destination. Though the cubic mass of the blocky structure is stern, relieved somewhat by large voids punched into its flat exterior walls, the inside offers a remarkable environment — beautiful, evocative, atmospheric, serene — the horizontal strata of the crafted stone walls echoing the geology of the surrounding mountains. In a deft play of elements, Zumthor captures and directs natural light to rake the surfaces, and he orchestrates pools that lap the stone steps. Though massive and blocky outside, the inside opens to the surrounding nature, and seems even to improve on it, creating a mysterious atmospheric effect that conditions visitors for the experience of stepping into its waters.
Like coloristic composers or writers, Zumthor went on to specialize in creating atmospheres by designing nuanced haptic environments. His books, Thinking Architecture and Atmospheres, develop the idea. On the frontispiece to Atmospheres, he quotes 19th-century English artist J.M.W. Turner writing to critic John Ruskin: “Atmosphere is my style.” Scholars have interpreted Zumthor’s work as an architecture of phenomenology: the buildings deliver multisensory experience.
At their best, his buildings are both auratic and experiential, and he has prospered in the penumbra of his designs by cultivating his priestly reputation and mystic persona. This Zen architectural master lets it be known that he doesn’t come down off the mountain much, unless it’s to collect a Pritzker Prize (2009), or to work on a big project like LACMA. Journalists trek by car up to his mountain refuge like pilgrims, earning their way there with a long, hairpin drive. He plays against type as a starchitect by designing for what he considers eternal values. In an implicit rebuke to the faddish technology of computers, he still sketches by hand. He is not a stylist, or in any way Pop. He does not consider his brand of Minimalism a style. He is, basically, an architectural fundamentalist, an ayatollah of elementalism.
Despite Zumthor’s successes designing very select, smallish cultural projects, what gives pause is that he remains a boutique architect, with very little experience at the ambitious scale of LACMA. The leap from the scale of most of his work to LACMA in a single building is perhaps too far to make without other graduated work. An architect’s most difficult challenge is the translation of scale to larger buildings: frequently the language doesn’t work without significant adaptation or reinvention. Govan can’t simply transplant Zumthor from Dia, a Minimalist enclave in a quiet town along the Hudson where Dia serves mass to the choir, to an encyclopedic museum in a different cultural ecosystem. What Los Angeles needs is Beethoven along Wilshire, not Ravel, extroversion not introversion, presence rather than reticence. Uprooted to Los Angeles, Zumthor’s architecture may not take.
But beyond the issue of scale and projection is the question of capacity. The nature of the work so far, and his M.O., implies that Zumthor operates within a hermetically closed fundamentalist system of immutable values. The big warning signal that he is inappropriate for the commission — as opposed to simply not being ready — is the four-story Kunsthaus he designed in Bregenz in 1997, near Lake Constance, in western Austria. The structure is basically a rigid box veiled in a filmy glass that has a beguiling vaporous quality, admitting very even light inside: again, Zumthor does surfaces, materials, and light well. Inside, however, the architect reveals himself to be spatially limited, even challenged, piling three boxy galleries of column-free space atop the ground floor. Rather daunting flights of stairs at the rear of the building give access to the three floors of galleries. There is a total lack of connectivity between spaces, so no curator can overcome the spatial divide between floors if the show itself wants a visual connection. And despite notions of the phenomenology of experience in his buildings, each box is a sensory deprivation center, except perhaps for the light. The one-note building is spatially authoritarian. The simplicity is simplistic.
The boxes-within-the-box reveals that Zumthor is basically a box architect who does not flow spaces. Despite the wavy amoeba-like form of the LACMA proposal, he risks reiterating the very problem LACMA has suffered from since Pereira: the lack of connectivity between pavilions, floors, and galleries. A curvy, flat box is still a box. It’s a closed form.
Cloaked in a carefully cultivated mystery, with all the hauteur of an architectural mystic, Zumthor successfully avoids the inconvenient question of whether he is really up to a job of this scale and complexity. Citing simplicity is the fundamentalist’s defense against criticism: heathens just don’t get the Zen of it all. But you can only stretch simplicity and nuance so far before it thins out into boredom. His proposal for LACMA is a one-idea building. Even if the undulating form swishing across the park into a running jump across Wilshire is iconic, beware icons: they can be rigid.
Govan believes that the flatness of a one-story museum is a virtue, delivering visitors into a continuous, uninterrupted promenade. He is basically right, even though there are many exceptions to this rule. But there are several ways of providing the one-story museum solution besides Wright’s precedent of the ramp at the Gugg, and Goff’s in LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion. New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes created the same pathfinding trajectory through the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1971 with floors that spiral in half-level terraces, leading visitors on spilling steps in a continuous loop around the core of the multistory museum. The Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, by London architect Zaha Hadid, offers a swelling and dipping topography inside that rises and falls in ways that define space. Other architects have experimented with adaptations of the Mobius strip as a way of achieving a continuous path through multiple levels.
The brilliant Vuitton Foundation for Creation, a contemporary art space by Frank Gehry in Paris, to open this fall, is technically a story-and-a-half tall, but behind a facade of billowing glass sails, the Los Angeles architect orchestrates a fascinating interior of highly differentiated galleries, some open to the sky, organized along a shifting and episodic trail that leads up and down as though through a landscape. Rooftop terraces upstairs, even more evocative of a landscape, are to be used for events and for sculpture. Gehry captures inside the spatiality of the surrounding park, translating all the events of a walk through a landscape within a building that offers a path of discoveries. The underbelly lifts up as a cascading pool flows down wide sloping steps, transforming what is basically a basement into a privileged spatial event and environment. Gehry designs complexity not for the sake of complexity but for enriching the experience: in what is an accordion of space that seems to breathe in and out, up and down, the Vuitton building offers a spatially sensuous experience, even though the word “phenomenology” would never pass Gehry’s lips. The unusualness of the design outside — all sails, some of them spinnakers — heightens expectations for the encounter to come inside.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo © Iwan Baan, 2014
No such luck back at LACMA. The plans Zumthor presented offer very little hope for a comparable richness, not only because he gives scant suggestion for how to navigate the nearly ten-acre floor plate, but also because there is no play in the vertical Z dimension, no expansion and contraction, just pancake. Looking for a way to describe the design, observers have cited the amoeba-like shape; and in the context of California and its ink-drop swimming pools, and in the more immediate context of the tar pits, the metaphor of an ink drop or a pool of oil suggesting the shape of the museum is superficially attractive, or at least easily understandable and accessible. It introduces the project with an easy-to-grasp image that can be read into the proposal. But the metaphor is finally diminishing, deceptive, and unhelpful, since a drop of ink or a slick of oil has no vertical dimension: each is a surface; each is flat. The metaphor, though cute, limits the architectural potential of its development spatially. It doesn’t give an architect much to design with. Some metaphors don’t push a design.
Although the video claims that this undulating, free-form structure is new and innovative, any first-year architecture student has seen that undulating glass tower proposed by Mies van der Rohe nearly 100 years old, with its wavy edge of glass extruded many stories into the air. However, Zumthor hasn’t corrected for Mies’s own failure to design in the third dimension: Mies indeed “broke the box” in De Stijl floor plans where planes slip past each other. But he didn’t pierce the pancake within which his wall planes slide: his planes never move up or down. More recently, in 2010, the Japanese firm SANAA did the minimalist, undulating Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland, but unlike Zumthor’s proposal, its single-story plan engages and activates the ground plane and roof, so that the building rises and falls like the curves of a saddle. Besides its debt to Mies, Zumthor’s plan for LACMA also owes a debt of gratitude to SANAA’s work in general, including the single-story Hiroshi Senju Museum Karuizawa, whose undulating plan features glass cylinders that scallop the interiors, bringing the outside in. His proposal is hardly original.
Critics tend to appreciate Zumthor’s quiet, understated designs as a reaction to more “sculptural” work, without understanding that Zumthor’s work is itself highly formalistic in its iconic, totem-pole shapes and organizational rigidity: at Kolumba, a museum that Zumthor wove into and through a destroyed Gothic cathedral in Cologne, visitors are directed through the museum as though forced along the paths. The plan is authoritarian. The critics’ (and his) comparison of Zumthor’s LACMA design to the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is inaccurate: Niemeyer in his prime would never have done anything as simplistic or two-dimensional. Critics and patrons tend to swoon at Zumthor’s mystic use of light and the craftsmanship of his materials, failing to realize how restrictive his spatiality is. His scheme is not really an improvement over the campus that LACMA would be replacing. It’s just different, another kind of box. More suave, perhaps, and curvy, but just as spatially dumb.
The elephant in the room in all this, or rather the mastodon looming over Wilshire, is of course Frank Gehry. The architect who shattered all architectural expectations for what a museum and even a building might be has been conspicuously overlooked. Does Govan have an oedipal complex vis-à-vis his old boss and mentor, Tom Krens, and so understandably wants to set his own path? Does one major building — Disney Hall — by the master suffice in his home city? Does Govan fear that anything Gehry would do would simply repeat Disney? Was Gehry too obvious a choice? Is he just putting his foot down about complexity, taking a stand on principle?
Gehry, who has designed many exhibitions over the decades at LACMA, is surprisingly good-natured, or at least diplomatic, offering supportive comments about the Zumthor design. But the praise is faint enough to actually be damning. Besides, Gehry should be seething, and not just because of the insult of being, once again, the prophet without honor at home, as he was many years before Disney. The design that is now on the table is puerile by comparison to Vuitton, or even the Guggenheim Bilbao or Disney Hall, both of which have been superseded in sophistication by Vuitton.
That LACMA chose to go to a rather self-isolated figure in the Alps to import a conceptually regressive scheme, rather than just drive down the Santa Monica freeway to Gehry’s office escapes common sense. Certainly the choice of Zumthor was unexpected, and perhaps he deserves a nice show. Maybe Govan should commission Zumthor to design his own private house if he personally feels that strongly about the architect. Zumthor was apparently commissioned by Tobey Maguire to do his house, and we certainly all await its publication.
One doubts Zumthor’s ability to rise to the occasion because he is working with a limited tool kit: none of his work has ever questioned the box or closed form, and he amputated his own spatial reach by eliminating complexity, or even simplicity, in the third dimension. LACMA is forced to bridge Wilshire because he is simply not equipped to break the pancake of his own devising and design spatial continuities on several levels: there is plenty of available space in the park. Building up, expanding in the third dimension, would allow him to gain the space he lost to the Page Museum on the north side of Wilshire, on the original site, without the expense of a bridge. Zumthor’s own conceptual limitations have caused the problem that he is trying to solve with a bridge that isn’t necessary. He also wastes a valuable site across Wilshire by landing the pod there, with its large footprint: the strategy is a spendthrift extravagance that kills a large property for other buildings (including buildings for LACMA, which apparently owns the land). All Zumthor has to do is build up, but going up in a single gestural sweep is not in his spatial repertoire, not in his skill set, not in his monolithic idea of a single-story museum that is flat. He is not what architects call a sectional architect. His flow is only horizontal, not vertical. He connects any stack of pancakes with staircases.
The flaw in Zumthor’s architectural DNA is all the more inexplicable because all he has to do is look outside his office and home to understand how a town or village in the Alps negotiates its many vertical levels with climbing paths and roadways. The Alps is all Z dimension. Perhaps his spatial underdevelopment is the result of an architect who grew up in a stone building culture where space was not deeply liberated by the steel frame.
The beauty and spatial sophistication of Gehry’s Vuitton Foundation, not to mention its skill in execution, is soon to cause another major architectural sensation, similar to Bilbao in 1997. If there are no second acts in public life, there is nonetheless a second Bilbao in Gehry’s career. This is again Frank Gehry’s moment. The design is a tour de force of space, form, and engineering, yielding a building that will enhance the museum visit by its ability to condition the viewer, mystify the experience, and heighten the anticipation of the visit. Why isn’t Vuitton, or its equivalent by Gehry, happening in Los Angeles? Even the staid Philadelphia Museum of Art has hired Gehry to expand its august, classicized structure.
Cost is no excuse. There is no guarantee that Zumthor’s Swiss perfectionism won’t be less expensive than Gehry’s gestural, spatially billowing work. And there is even question whether Zumthor’s famously precise architectural detailing and exquisite materiality, made possible by the Swiss construction industry (in the context of the country’s watchmaker mentality), can be realized in Los Angeles. Perfectionist Japanese architects are famously defeated by the level of craftsmanship available in the United States. Yoshio Taniguchi said he needed a budget that would allow his architecture to disappear when he designed the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York: instead Taniguchi disappeared. He was so disappointed in its detailing and craftsmanship that he had to be coaxed to come to his own opening.
Gehry wasn’t born an architectural genius. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, he didn’t have a mother who decorated his bedroom walls with images of Gothic cathedrals. He didn’t grow up, as Wright did, playing with Froebel blocks. Gehry worked at it, and he worked at in Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s, when he palled around with the Light and Space artists of Venice and Santa Monica. Absorbing their lessons, experiments, example, and spirit, he left the drafting table and all the instruments that straightened space and straight-jacketed thought in favor of a hands-on design approach, one that liberated him from the strictures that then typified the corporate architectural offices along Wilshire Boulevard. At great professional risk, he found a way out of conventional design, learning his way into a self-confidence that allowed him eventually to follow his own instincts, to identify an intriguing idea and develop it.
By not choosing Gehry, LACMA is also turning its back on one of the most important art movements ever generated in the Southland — a movement that includes artists like Bob Irwin, Ed Moses, Doug Wheeler, Jim Turrell, Tony Berlant, Larry Bell, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston. LACMA is ignoring Los Angeles’s own artistic culture, one of the most important in the United States, one that Govan himself professes to admire.
At the 11th hour, Govan appears to be opening the project to Gehry through a back door. Having proposed bridging Wilshire, he is now calling for a tower to be built jointly by LACMA and Los Angeles’s transit agency, Metro, to be designed by Gehry. Perhaps. But the proposal, far from sure, does not correct the basic mistake: Gehry is the obvious and legitimate heir to the LACMA commission, not only because he has been next in line for decades, but also because his talents and track record have earned him the job, and his talents are in LACMA’s best interests. Well into his 80s, he remains at the height of his powers. Gehry is at his best in institutional projects; he should design the tower, yes (although without the unnecessary, expensive bridge), but he should also do the museum, as part of a larger, integrated complex on a campus that otherwise risks becoming a Noah’s ark of architects and architectural specimens. Why not commission Gehry to do his Ninth?
The flawed design by Zumthor remains stubbornly on the table, more or less unchallenged. Govan’s suggestion that the tower include a design museum may add another programmatic department to LACMA, but it aggravates LACMA’s basic problem, which is that the museum needs to consolidate itself more cohesively on its own campus, or risk centrifugal fragmentation. Its center will not hold leaping across Wilshire.
The really brilliant program latent in the LACMA commission would be to have Gehry design an expanded museum that would include a generous wing for the Light and Space artists who influenced him so deeply, along with other artists of his generation he met later on the East Coast. Oldenburg, Serra, and Rauschenberg also inspired him once he started taking the red-eye. Arguably his work is an outgrowth of everything he saw, which is the very subject matter of what LACMA exhibits in its own contemporary collections. Add to the wings that would show the Light and Space artists — who are underrepresented in the LACMA collection — another wing for a Gehry archive, which is looking for a home. Gehry’s oeuvre filled the Guggenheim for a retrospective in 2001, but LACMA has not spoken for the collection of one of the most innovative and influential architects of our time.
An expanded, holistically conceived commission could open a very interesting and unprecedented dialogue between the one architect in the United States who was most directly influenced by movements in contemporary art and the artists themselves. The curatorial leap between their art and his architecture is direct and natural: Gehry, no less than Zumthor, is an architect of Light: in both Bilbao and in Paris, he channels light in chimneys of space, illuminating lower floors from above. But Gehry is also much more than a single-issue architect: he adds Space to Light. Choosing Gehry would also tap into the huge reservoir of goodwill the architect already enjoys in Los Angeles, and the United States. He is now conspicuous by his absence at LACMA on Wilshire. Particularly intriguing is the possibility that Gehry could cut up, join, reassemble, and expand the existing Pereira and HHP pavilions in the way in which he transformed his own Dutch Colonial house in Santa Monica: no one, not even Gehry, has developed that paradigm in a large project, and an exploration of the idea is in the very least extremely appetizing, and it might be an appropriate, if unexpected, way of transforming and using buildings that no one wants to save.
LACMA, a museum that bills itself as encyclopedic, is in fact missing much of Los Angeles’s, and the nation’s, own most interesting history. Changing course now, and changing course radically, offers Los Angeles’s flagship museum the opportunity of an institutional lifetime. Isn’t Los Angeles sure enough of itself to accept its own, rather than banishing them to New York, and in Gehry’s case, to Paris, Bilbao, Philadelphia, and Abu Dhabi, or to a quarantined exile across the street?
A U-turn on Wilshire could mean a museum of, by, and for Los Angeles. LACMA is now missing Los Angeles’s own story — a local story, perhaps, but one of international importance and compelling, interdisciplinary scope.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC and SCI-Arc.