THAT PIT THAT FORMED in your stomach as you saw the shocking photographs of bulldozers crushing LACMA’s Bing Theater three weeks ago was probably produced by the unchewable lie being crammed down your throat: that the misbegotten design by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor chosen to replace the buildings on the museum’s East Campus is better than what exists and better than other schemes that could have been developed.
You may not want it. Twelve thousand signers of a public petition do not want it. Many of the curators do not want it. But director Michael Govan, County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, entertainment mogul David Geffen, as well as Las Vegas casino billionaire Elaine Wynn (co-chair of LACMA) and other billionaire trustees want it. The deck is stacked, and also packed with movie stars. Google “Michael Govan” and “red carpet,” and you’ll see him beside Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, George Lucas, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Diane Keaton — art “connoisseurs” delivering movie-star mega-wattage to the project. The power and entertainment elites have dictated the outcome of this sorry, sordid affair straight out of a film noir.
Govan has brilliantly manipulated this landscape of power in Los Angeles. The all-concrete Zumthor building, portrayed in headshots swanning across Wilshire, symbolizes the pivotal moment that culture in Los Angeles was definitively Hollywoodized. The Zumthor building is a celebrity structure, the Kim Kardashian of buildings, famous for being famous, all glamour with little content, all camera angles with no square footage. This is a vanity project that offers Los Angeles a billboard building by a marquee architect that makes Brad Pitt happy. And the worst part is that the building sacrifices the art.
If the new design is built, LACMA can no longer be associated with other encyclopedic museums in the United States that shaped their collections in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. Zumthor’s diminished plan would force it to shed the encyclopedic collections that are the very soul of the museum. It commits the original architectural sin of narcissism, of architecture for the sake of architecture.
This let-the-public-chew-concrete moment is all the more shameful because LACMA has gone ahead with demolition just as COVID-19 has taken over the country, state, county, and city, closing down all but essential activities. The administrations of two other museums under construction in Los Angeles — the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park — have had the common decency to stop construction, admitting they are non-essential projects, and, hence, not worth risking the health of construction workers. Under the phony pretense that it suddenly cares for the public after having ignored public opinion for over a decade, LACMA claims its intent is to infuse (mostly public) money into the local economy, as though suddenly this deeply selfish boondoggle had an altruistic purpose: job creation.
The director is shamelessly leveraging our national catastrophe into strategy, turning the pandemic into an opportunity. Under cover of COVID, with the government in disarray and the public in seclusion and unable to demonstrate, Govan is plowing under the East Campus to create a point of no return, a fait accompli. If the county doesn’t comply with his plans, it will be left with a hole in the ground and no museum.
The recklessness and irresponsibility of the project is epic, given the fact that the county, city, and LACMA itself are facing the certainty of a deep and long recession, if not a depression. There will be no public money to bail out a hard-up museum losing income at the gate and suffering loss of membership and reduced patronage, along with decreased income from all sources, including investments. The museum does not now have sufficient money to start construction on what will probably be a $1 billion project with any hope of completing it. LACMA already has one of the highest debt loads of all American museums.
To add dishonesty to recklessness, the museum has covered up its own failure in the last financial crisis, the recession of 2008, and risks repeating itself, this time even more catastrophically. Back then, the museum was financially overextended as it embarked on building the Resnick Pavilion (against the cautionary advice of trustee Eli Broad), and when the recession hit and deepened, the museum had to unload the 360,000-square-foot May Company building for literally pennies per square foot to salvage its already low credit rating. A lower rating would have triggered a cascading default.
LACMA is now at the same spot: seriously overextended with debt, it is plunging into a construction project vastly more expensive than the Resnick. Piling museological irresponsibility on top of financial irresponsibility, Govan wants to deepen the spatial deficit caused by the loss of the May Company by building a museum that will lose yet more square footage. According to the only drawings available, the existing total of 117 galleries will shrink to 27, for a total reduction of 62 percent in net gallery space.
Last time Angelenos stood by helplessly in the face of a cultural disaster of this magnitude was during the Los Angeles Central Library fire in 1986, in which 400,000 books were destroyed and another 700,000 damaged. This is an equivalent civic tragedy, but instead of access to books, the public is losing its access to art. Perfectly salvageable, expandable buildings are being intentionally replaced with one so small that LACMA’s collections are never going to be seen together again as collections. They are the spirit of the museum. Indeed, an encyclopedic museum of art is not so different from a library. Of course the public goes there for pleasure and edification, but artists also consult the works. A painter wants to see how John Singer Sargent captured the shimmer of silk in a brushstroke. It’s an invaluable source of reference, a wellspring of new art.
Govan, the director who says he wants to devolve LACMA’s Eurocentrism, has in fact relentlessly promoted it with shows and commissions of 1970s Minimalists and earth artists like Robert Irwin, Richard Serra, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Michael Heizer. It’s really no surprise that he chose his architect from the same Minimalist checklist. Rather than democratically opening the “canon” of old dead white guys to include works by artists of different backgrounds and preferences, he is merely letting in old white guys who are still alive. He is relegating history — old paintings, Classical sculptures, Asian scrolls, pre-Columbian art, and even Egyptian antiquities that he thinks no one wants to see any more — to the dustbin of storage or, he claims, dispersed “satellites,” which will likely never be built. Among the renowned collections that distinguish LACMA in the museum world is its very un-Eurocentric collection of Indian and Southeast Asian art, which will disappear from sight. Cynically and dictatorially, Govan is dumping history.
Patrons of historic collections are packing up because they are no longer listening to Govan’s Orwellian doublespeak. He has tried to hoodwink the Ahmanson Foundation, a major donor for over six decades, into thinking the museum will show some of its masterpieces, some of the time, somewhere in the new museum. But the Foundation refuses to be duped, and no collector in her right mind is ever going to donate serious works to a museum that has no space dedicated to exhibit them. Aside from select enthusiasts of contemporary art, collectors are fleeing from LACMA; the Zumthor plan simply eliminates the space necessary for their gifts. Govan is presiding over the biggest loss of museum square footage in the history of the United States, while maintaining that he is in fact adding space.
In the best of times, the Zumthor design was a dysfunctional, spendthrift building that Govan passed off as art. But architecture practiced as an art is more than a series of concrete curves zooming around space: architecture as art has to resolve all the practical and institutional needs of a commission. Architecture is not the whim of two guys who think that borrowing swooping architectural curves from 1950s Brazil is cool, damn the cost, and that the whole thing can be PR’d like a movie trailer until the public swallows it whole.
But the best of times are now clearly over, and if there is any opportunity presented by this somber moment, it’s the chance to take a time-out, to pause this project and to reflect on a way forward that will save the museum from institutional self-destruction. If there is anything left of the campus in this rampage-by-bulldozer, we can seriously consider adapting what remains to build something we want and can afford. But even if Govan succeeds in his underhanded total demolition during this very dark time, that in no way obligates the citizens of Los Angeles to build an overpriced, undersized structure the public, in scores of letters to the editor and numerous petitions, clearly rejects. The pandemic actually presents us with the opportunity to start over again.
Fortunately we only have to look to LACMA’s next-door neighbor to see how we could start over with sanity, efficiency, and goodwill. Taking only a year, the Page Museum set a stellar example of how to develop plans for a new building. It wrote a comprehensive program, ran a transparent competition, kept the public informed, welcomed comment, and chose an architect by selecting one of several well-thought-out proposals. The Page got it right, and emerged with an outstanding design.
LACMA, with the right leadership and attitude, can get it right too. A time-out year would yield a larger, more functional, inspirational building that could cost much less per square foot and waste no land. Angelenos have everything to gain and nothing to lose by pressing pause and rethinking the way forward. We now have the unfortunate luxury of time, and instead of rushing into failure, why not invoke competence and common sense while we still have the chance?
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.