UNTIL ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, announcements by Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, were always reassuring: don’t worry, the new structure replacing the four existing gallery buildings on the East Campus would equal their total square footage, though the gallery space might be a wee bit smaller.
Then the bombshell exploded: the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) released in late March slapped Angelenos to attention when they learned they would be paying $650 million to get a building that would be 105,108 square feet smaller than the originals, with 53,000 square feet less gallery space.
Using a strategy of self-protective denial, Govan cheerfully wrote an open “Dear Friend” letter declaring that from an environmental point of view, the shrinking museum was the best of news, because the ever-smaller structure bridging Wilshire would lessen the environmental impact, the point of the EIR process.
For Angelenos, however, that was like learning someone was taking away half your house even as you were paying full market price to construct its replacement. Govan failed to admit the obvious, that in the case of a shrinking museum, all else being equal the environmental impact and the cultural impact have an inverse relationship: the smaller the museum, the greater the damage to the institution.
And things are far from equal: I have written about the spectacular and irresponsible folly of this design before (including here, here, and here), and that was before it had become clear that, even while squandering the museum’s real estate resources on the Wilshire campus, even while saddling the museum with unprecedented and unconscionable debt, and even while the collections continued to burst the museum’s seams, the result was going to be a rebuild that, for the first time in American history, drastically reduced the size of the museum it replaced.
It was time to withdraw the project, and to apologize for a mistake that was 10 years coming and cost well over $10 million in architects’ fees. The museum had spent years pulling the shades down on a design process in which the only transparency was in the all-glass facade. Unbelievably the floor plan of the one and only floor was never released, and it is still secret. But well before the EIR, it was obvious to the trained eye that the figures the museum was advertising didn’t compute. Collating the outlines and square footage of the proposed one-story building with those of the existing multi-story buildings showed that the totals weren’t anywhere near equivalent.
As in Washington these days, we had entered a realm of alternative facts, the transplanted L.A. version of the claim that the Trump Inauguration was greater in size than Obama’s.
When I informed Govan in an interview in early February that I was doing a spatial audit of the old and new structures for an article I was then writing for the Los Angeles Times, he clearly was not amused. He later told LACMA colleagues that the article would never be published: he knew people; he would stop it. And indeed the Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief killed the piece.
The results of the audit were worse than I initially suspected. On a flimsy pretext, LACMA deceptively counted, for example, half of the entire outdoor space under the belly of the elevated structure, all unfenced and unprotected for sculpture, as part of the building’s square footage, inflating the total by 69,000 square feet. In addition, the audit of the new schematic drawing in the EIR revealed that the interior square footage lost to the Zumthor design is actually 143,500 square feet, not the 105,308 to which the EIR in its latest revision admitted. The museum also failed to report that the linear footage of wall space in the proposed museum was 7,500 linear feet shorter than that in the existing museum buildings — about one and a half miles shorter. That meant roughly 1,500 works couldn’t be hung. There were many other serious discrepancies discovered during the course of my audit and interviews. Despite some corrections, not all actually correct, the EIR still conveyed false, flawed, and seriously misleading information. The County Board of Supervisors is now scheduled to vote on April 9 to approve funds based on a deceptive document without having seen a fully documented project or accurate square footage numbers.
“What we are witnessing is the systematic destruction of an institution whose history has been chaotic, whose architecture has been less than perfect, but that was at the same time on the verge of greatness, had a proper director been chosen to lead its rebirth,” said one prominent Los Angeles museum figure, who like virtually everyone I interviewed asked for anonymity.
The following is a long discussion of how Los Angeles got to this sorry place. The story isn’t pretty.
The Shrinking Museum
If you think disastrous shutdowns occur only in Washington, just drive over to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see another. Michael Govan, with the approval of LACMA’s Board of Trustees, has packed up and closed nearly all the galleries in the Hammer, Ahmanson, and Art of the Americas buildings in anticipation of their demolition, turning the arts complex into an eerie ghost town.
The Govan Shutdown means more than just four and a half years of construction. The replacement structure will shrink LACMA and demote the largest encyclopedic museum west of the Mississippi into a one-story exhibition hall floating on pylons 20 to 30 feet above ground. With far fewer galleries and a drastic reduction of both square footage and wall space for hanging art, the new structure on the East Campus commits the museum to contraction rather than expansion, contrary to all other museum projects across the United States over the last generation — and perhaps ever.
The shrunken capacity means that the museum is now confronting a crisis of space, shedding critical mass and institutional presence when, for the city’s premier museum, size actually does matter. The self-inflicted deficit is also forcing much of the collection off campus, not just into dispersed neighborhood satellite museums, but into storage. Satellite museums in a city the size of Los Angeles have obvious value, especially when they can draw on objects that are not otherwise being seen. But satellite museums are largely neighborhood based, far less accessible than the main campus, especially since, in four years, the Purple Line subway extension will be delivering thousands of Angelenos from many parts of the city to its doorstep on Wilshire.
A planned satellite in South Los Angeles at the Wetlands Park, supposedly integral to the flagship Wilshire building, remains a largely local outpost, 1.2 miles from the Slauson stop of the Harbor Transitway.
And the Govan Shutdown is aggravated by a second kind of closure. In a radical change of the museum’s long-standing official mission, Govan and the LACMA Board are effectively shuttering one of the United States’s largest encyclopedic museums, with collections of international stature, by transforming it into a gallery for themed exhibitions that scramble the collections in generalized rather than dedicated spaces. Independent collections will flow into a fondue pot from which curators will pick and choose specimens for thematic shows. It would be like wiping out the wings of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in favor of creating a warehouse in which the art will be continuously rearranged like furniture.
Forget blowing a kiss to your favorite Matisse or that Rembrandt you love, or parking yourself in front of a scorching Gauguin. You won’t know where it is or even if it’s up in the new ever-changing configuration of shows. It could be across town somewhere, or in storage. Do you want to immerse yourself in a collection and time-travel to the ancient classical world or to Oceania? Forget that, too: the collections will be mixed, matched, and merged in the blending operation. Collections like the pre-Columbian and South and Southeast Asian, which deserve large amounts of dedicated, specially designed space, will be lost in the shuffle.
Govan, an affable, youthful 56-year-old museum director straight from central casting, gives the impression that he has just leapt off a white steed to rescue someone, and that we’re lucky to have him. Beyond the smiles and his appealing earnestness, however, he has guilefully amassed near czarist cultural power in Los Angeles, and for fear of reprisals in Los Angeles’s tight art circles, no one I interviewed for this article, including billionaires, captains of industry, artists, and architects, wanted to be named: “Too hot for us to be quoted,” said one eminent L.A. architect.
“Leaning into the future,” as Govan likes to say, he is selling his new museum as a bridge into the 21st century, orienting the museum increasingly toward Los Angeles’s southern neighbors in Latin America and to the Asian Pacific. But this optimistic spin and museological reorientation really hides a deep conflict of ideologies ultimately pitting the Enlightenment notion of the museum as a cultural encyclopedia against what Govan promotes impressionistically, without much evidence, as new patterns of digital thinking surging from the internet in unexpected, barely controlled, fertile combinations.
In many ways, Govan has been a positive and transformative LACMA leader, injecting energy like an indefatigable camp counselor, or a gentil animateur at a Club Med, extroverting an introverted institution. He has dusted off the musty museum with craft cocktails, a storefront bar and restaurant, and red-carpet galas that laminate the entry court with activity, glamour, and celebrities. His shows, more often about Modern and contemporary art than historical periods, are often buzzy, unusual, and intelligent, like the recent optics show “3D: Double Vision,” the epic “Rauschenberg: The ¼ Mile,” and last year’s focused and intimate “Decoding Mimbres Painting.”
His programs and the heightened cultural allure, aided and abetted by his considerable charm, have brought formerly museum-shy figures from the entertainment community into the fold and onto the board, raising the profile and the income of the museum. By Wikipedia’s count, Govan has added some 27,000 works to the permanent collection during his 13 years as director, including Chris Burden’s crowd-pleasing cathedral of street lamps, Urban Lights on Wilshire, and Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass at the back of the campus. Urban Light has triggered an avalanche of selfies. He has staged acquisition coups, including entire collections purchased with funds donated by Camilla Frost (Dorothy Chandler’s daughter), and more recently a promised gift of Chinese art and a partnership with a Shanghai museum.
Govan arrived in 2006 on a messianic mission to change its culture, to save the institution from boredom and obsolescence, and to gin up the gate. Like many agents of institutional change, he enlisted architecture as an instrument of the imported vision.
Reinvigorated by Andrea Rich, the previous director, with an increased endowment and a campus plan, LACMA had been basically thriving before Govan, and had reached an inflection point in its history, sitting atop a swelling iceberg of artworks well on its way to the approximately 130,000-object collection it owns today. If there was a driving need for change, it was actually for more space in order to float the hidden part of the iceberg into higher visibility for larger audiences in a bigger, perhaps more welcoming structure.
That is not what is happening.
As reported in a 2013 Wall Street Journal profile, even before his arrival in Los Angeles, Govan had his eye trained on developing the architectural potential of LACMA’s alluring 20 acres, and he contacted Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a 2009 Pritzker Prize Laureate known for small, precious buildings that cast an uncanny spell. Govan ambitiously wanted to change no less than the way museums work and the way art is seen in the 21st century: “Architecture is destiny,” he pronounced.
In a sleight of hand that still has serious consequences for LACMA and Los Angeles, Govan introduced Zumthor, the architect who presumably could achieve this world-class building, to his Board of Trustees. There was no competition, no public review or discussion, no transparency, just a shoo-in of the architect who had arrived in Los Angeles in Govan’s back pocket. “It won’t be the seventh Renzo Piano building in the country,” Govan explained to me in an interview. “We’ll have the only Zumthor.”
But just who was this reclusive architect who practiced in a remote Swiss village?
Brilliant at designing architectural installations, especially small art pavilions unencumbered by electricity or plumbing, Zumthor’s great talent is as a miniaturist who designs intimate, atmospheric structures in tactile materials that obey simple, usually right-angled geometries. At the Venice Architecture Biennale last summer, his sprawling exhibition pointedly featured primitive models hand-fashioned in beeswax, rocks, and wood, all at the service of designs that were, when you peered through the aura, rudimentary boxes or pancakes of no particular interest or invention. They had aura but did not address architecture’s fundamental subjects, space and structure. His break-out building, an Alpine spa in Vals, Switzerland, features textured surfaces raked by natural light in a play of boxes, a composition of cubic solids and voids. In Bregenz, Austria, he designed a translucent, glass-wrapped, box-of-a-museum that glows at night like a lantern, and in Cologne, Germany, he adapted the ruins of a Romanesque church into an architecturally exquisite medium-sized museum, the new structure mingled with the old.
But the architect had no experience handling projects as large and as complex as LACMA. Had he even made it into a normal architect selection process, the jury might have concluded that he was mismatched and dangerously underequipped for the commission. With a diploma from a crafts college where he studied design, he had very little formal architectural education. There was another big red flag: after construction had started on his design of the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin, Zumthor was dismissed in 2004, and the already imposing half-completed concrete structure was actually torn down. Cost overruns for the project climbed way over the original 19-million-Euro budget, and were well on the way to exceed even a revised budget of 38 million Euros, at which point the authorities pulled the plug and chose another architect. Many blamed the demanding Zumthor. The Berlin project was less than one-eighth the size of his LACMA proposal.
But Zumthor’s architecture came with seductive adjectives: atmospheric, tranquil, silent, auratic, mystic. He belonged to a tribe of artists of a certain sensibility that Govan favored. Zumthor brought a special point of view, the idea of delivering through a building “felt” experience rather than the anomie of vacant space and sheet rock. In a lecture in Israel, Zumthor spoke about a young boy running through a field on a hill into the wind. The boy didn’t need theory or philosophy for the rush of life. For Zumthor, architecture would be the agent that would deliver viewers directly into artworks without the interference of explanations that distanced viewers from the experience. A viewer could experience the rush of a painting — its sense of light, its texture — without the curatorial over-explanation of labels, without contextualizing a work in theory or history. The anti-intellectual architect espoused experience over ideas, as though they were in a zero-sum, competitive relationship.
Govan had his own agenda. He introduced arguments that have been raging in academia since the late 1960s about expanding the accepted canon of great works and questioning the authority of categorical knowledge. LACMA was traditionally organized into geographically based departments typical of encyclopedic museums, which usually had a Eurocentric mindset. But for Govan, as for many of his intellectual generation, art does not know boundaries, and like knowledge, it can’t be confined to the departments that museums have offered since Diderot invented the encyclopedia, and since the English combed the world for collections of beetles and butterflies to exhibit in labeled cabinets. So-called universal museums assumed you had to group specimens in categories as a scientific basis on which to find relationships and build knowledge.
For the idealistic Govan, ideas are cross-cultural and intercultural, traveling across borders and periods and even within a culture. He favored the corresponding strategy of devoting galleries to themed shows that would take art out of intellectual silos and energize the museum with fresh points of view. The Silk Road would be a better theme through which to organize an exhibition than one on China. Which China, after all?
Govan’s attitude, originating in French poststructuralist and deconstructionist philosophy, put him in direct disagreement with some departmental heads at LACMA who had spent scholarly careers growing and grooming collections intended to be seen together. The artworks hanging in the galleries until recently were not only objects of beauty but parts of collections painstakingly assembled with great erudition to tell stories and reveal histories through cross-referential relationships. Collections needed to be seen as collections: they had shapes of their own; they were entities; they spoke.
The curators had carefully structured collections piece by piece into virtual pyramids, and in an anti-historical move, Govan is disassembling the pyramids for use in ever-changing configurations that would never add up to a fixed construction. All is flux; flux is life. The stones would be recycled to generate new shows, to generate new constructions in what was as simple and fluid and ephemeral as a PowerPoint presentation. The pyramids would disappear, and with it, the idea of the encyclopedia’s authority. Free at last.
It was a conflict of ideologies. One side felt the old LACMA was run by rigid, outmoded, crusty, sexist/racist/classist dinosaurs and found in Govan an enlightened modernizer. The other side saw the long history of classification, preservation, analysis, and development coalescing into an evolving historical narrative, one that is then the key basis of museum organization and the understanding of art. For them, Govan and company’s deconstructive, poststructuralist atomization of history destroys the purpose of the museum and challenges the very idea of comprehensive expertise. It was civil war.
The Wrong Museum
Govan came to LACMA wanting to fix an institution that wasn’t actually broken. LACMA’s shortcoming, as in many museums, was a need for a much larger vessel for the collection, not to mention more room for offices, auxiliary spaces for education, storage, and collection study centers.
Part of the solution was actually sitting in plain sight, the empty, much-loved, Streamline Moderne May Company Building, with the tall, golden cylinder staking the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. The museum already owned the 266,000-square-foot landmark structure thanks to the foresighted stewardship of a previous board president, Rob Maguire (now a life trustee). The developer had viewed LACMA’s potential as a function of land, and he collected it brilliantly.
In 2003, three years before Govan came on board, his predecessor Andrea Rich hired Italian architect Renzo Piano to do a master plan, which incorporated the May Company Building and the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) in an expanded LACMA. When Govan arrived in 2006, he grew the master plan, proposing the 45,000-square-foot Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion. Govan told me that philanthropist Eli Broad, the trustee who was giving $50 Million for BCAM, cautioned him against overextending the museum with the Resnick Pavilion, the garage, and other structures, in case of a downturn in the economy. But Piano started work on the project in 2007, and sure enough, when the 2008 recession hit, Govan faced a financial cliff, with insufficient funds to make payments on the $383 million construction bonds that by then had been issued for LACMA’s projects.
Repurposing an old department store was fundamentally uninteresting to a new director who had lofty architectural ambitions. In a desperate 55-year lease, renewable for another 55 years, Govan bailed LACMA and himself out by sacrificing the department store to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures for the shockingly low sum of $36.1 million. Assuming the Academy renews the 55 year lease, the cost per square foot is a pitiful 10 cents per square foot in an area where rents today range between $4 and $4.50 per square foot. Govan used the rent, paid upfront, to pay down the bonds. It was a shotgun deal.
Bottom line: He lost 266,000 square feet of building on acres of land for 110 years.
There are words often associated with people who have a strong urge to build, but architecte manqué and edifice complex do not do justice to Govan’s belief that architecture can define an institution, particularly a museum. While working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim as deputy director under director Thomas Krens, he helped usher Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao into existence. Later, as director of the Dia Art Foundation in Manhattan, he engineered the move of the museum, specialized in Minimalist art, into an abandoned Nabisco factory in the town of Beacon, on the Hudson River. At Beacon, on his own, no longer working under Krens, he revealed his architectural tastes for Space and Light artists by hiring installation artist Robert Irwin to adapt the factory into a museum. Interested in perceptual phenomena, especially in using light as his medium of invention, Irwin used only natural light for the museum, with no supplementary artificial light. He created a moody, atmospheric museum that changed daily and seasonally with whatever was happening in the sky. Govan had entrusted the architecture to an artist, and the artist trusted natural phenomena.
Now at LACMA, Govan turned his attention to the unloved pre-Piano buildings on the East Campus, hoping to build an architectural masterpiece that would transform an institution locked by its buildings into an outdated way of museum thinking. Seizing on a sleeping issue that he exaggerated — the need to seismically upgrade the structures — Govan argued against putting $250 to $300 million into rehabbing the four buildings when for $600 to $650 million, LACMA could have a world-class replacement. This was the opportunity to create a new Bilbao or another Dia:Beacon that would redefine museum culture, as those structures had done earlier. Take it all down. In the meantime, stop upkeep to accelerate the need for their demolition.
But Govan’s strategy involved more than tearing down the buildings. The overlapping agendas of Zumthor’s phenomenology and Govan’s own affinities to phenomenology and poststructuralism (though neither would use those terms) are woven into a design that is now serving as an instrument for dismantling LACMA as it had long been organized. Govan weaponized architecture. The new architectural proposal was basically a Trojan horse that secreted a plan into the heart of the museum that would diminish the departmental structure on which the museum has been built, painting by painting, print by print, sculpture by sculpture, for over a century. Zumthor’s sugar-coated architectural package of curving shapes served as a decoy, drawing attention from radical institutional surgery that was hollowing out the museum by eliminating departmental galleries and eventually departments themselves. Director and architect were taking apart the institution by building a replacement institution the public didn’t ask for and didn’t anticipate. One wonders if the County Board of Supervisors has any grasp of the implications and consequences of the project. They probably just assume Govan knows what he’s doing.
Govan didn’t exactly hide his intentions, but he didn’t advertise them either. He veiled them in other terms. His mantra was the future, and the necessity of change, and with a fluency verging on glibness, he skated through the necessary approvals with surprisingly little resistance, his board acquiescing. The public was kept largely in the dark, and it is still largely unaware of the subversion. The art and architecture critics at the Los Angeles Times were, in my opinion, remarkably passive and permissive, writing timid articles that hardly rose to the level of serious critique. After my rejected piece, basically the piece you are now reading, was circulated by the editor several weeks ago within The Times, critics suddenly acquired a temporary backbone for “hard-hitting” articles that were years late. Govan had been, until then, getting a pass.
The Wrong Design
Like a Russian doll, one issue nests within another and then another in the LACMA saga, and several dolls inside the first doll, one eventually uncovers the rather shocking fact that the imposing design by Zumthor, with swooping curves that dramatically bridge Wilshire, fails its most basic responsibility as architecture: it doesn’t work. As designed, it’s stripped of many functions now housed in the about-to-be-demolished East Campus buildings, or which could have been housed in the May Company Building. It lacks infrastructure basic to the complex operations of any large museum: no offices, no research library, no collection library, no study storage, no designated event space, no parking, no general storage, no gathering space for tours and school children, no back of house, no classrooms, no security desk, not even a coat check where you can hang your skateboard. No clear provision has been made for entire collections — prints, drawings, costumes, textiles — that are by nature study collections normally accommodated in separate study centers within a museum.
Many functions currently housed in existing buildings will be off-loaded at huge and perpetual expense to sites off campus. According to board meeting notes, LACMA has signed a 15-year renewable lease for 75,000 square feet in the high-rise opposite its campus, at a little more than $4 per square foot per month, for about $3,625,000 a year (one third of the May Company Building space at 10 times the rent). Two theaters will be replaced by a single 300-seat theater for a net loss of 400 seats.
Govan needed to contain construction price and he did it by capping overall size and shedding functions, putting LACMA on a radical diet of space to shoehorn the museum into the budget. But the diet also drastically reduced the building’s capacity for showing art, virtually making the collections homeless. With less wall space and gallery space, this geometrically self-involved fantasy swanning over Wilshire fails to accommodate collections that have vastly expanded since the Ahmanson, Hammer, and Americas Building were opened in 1965 and 1986. In the old museum, the European department alone had 35 galleries and could have comfortably used 45 or 50 given its depth and breadth. According to one museum source, there are only about 30 galleries for 13 departments and 22 curatorial areas in the Zumthor building. Collections like the European and the Islamic — or the Chinese and pre-Columbian collections acquired by Govan — will not have the dedicated wings or floors they deserve, disappearing into the blender of a much smaller space, or into storage.
The Zumthor building shrinks even more when you subtract the 59,000 square feet of the 25-foot-wide, half-mile-long, glass-walled perimeter corridor that circumnavigates the galleries. Billed as the “Meander Gallery,” it is really a promenade deck affording middling mid-Wilshire views through its floor-to-ceiling windows, with light levels too high for much of the collection — Greek vases, textiles, furniture, Oceanic and African art, Indian paintings, all works on paper (including photography), and even some oil and acrylic paintings. Light-soaked corridors deceivingly called galleries compromise everything but light-resistant artworks and sculpture: a similar glass-walled corridor at the Hirshhorn has worked only for bronzes, and never for paintings, which have had to be hung deeply in adjacent galleries away from the light. The overlit promenade deck, along with an additional dozen space-consuming corridors transecting the floor side to side, plus fire stairs, elevators, bathrooms, wall thicknesses and service areas, together account for 60 percent of the total floor space. These faux-galleries leave only 40 percent for pure, usable gallery space. The waste is profligate.
Gallery, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner
And because this chopped-up ambulatory space, designed, we were told, to replace dead stories with live ones, is not conducive to storytelling at all, Govan is defeating his own narrative.
Faced with a diminished museum, and functions relegated to other sites, the director breezily told me in our recent interview that quality is more important than quantity, as if they were mutually exclusive. Govan defended his museum-building strategy, saying that what he wants to offer visitors is “experience — the luxury of pure space and light and transparency.”
Govan was basically transporting Robert Irwin’s design logic and phenomenological goals from Dia:Beacon to LACMA, treating the museum more as a vessel of light than as a container for art. Irwin’s and Zumthor’s phenomenology of experience was gospel to Govan, which he wielded with an evangelical imperative driven by a sense of superior artistic mission. He was reshaping a historically oriented museum based in departmental collections in the image of a contemporary museum of Minimalist art. Turning LACMA into Dia:Beacon West, he was basically directing the wrong museum.
The Bridge Too Far
The most striking feature of Zumthor’s design is that it bridges Wilshire. Two facts supposedly necessitate the bridge. Govan claims that museums lose half their visitors with each staircase, and therefore he required Zumthor to design a museum with galleries on a single floor. The director’s insistence is disingenuous, since he knows firsthand from the seven-story Guggenheim in New York that fall-off in attendance on upper floors can be solved by design. The museum’s famous continuous ramp works like a street and makes it a one-story building. In Minneapolis, the helical plan of the terraced Walker Art Center flows up several stories like a river of space within a spiral of squared galleries. (Then of course there are the grand and inviting staircases at the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and the MET in New York luring perfectly happy campers up to the upper floors.)
Building footprint spanning Wilshire Blvd., Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / LACMA
Geometry is the solution if you’re looking for vertical spatial continuity in a museum. And if you’re saying the computer is reshaping how we think, and think about museums, then the non-Euclidean geometries now made more accessible through digital modeling fit the new paradigm. (Zumthor, however, doesn’t use the computer for design.)
Govan’s position on single-story museums is one of his major pieces of misinformation. Another he’s repeated so many times that it qualifies as a campaign of disinformation, is that the new building needs to bridge Wilshire, because there isn’t enough land north of the boulevard. But Zumthor’s 146,000-square-foot floating structure can easily fit within the 263,000-square-foot boundaries allowed for building on the East Campus, and can even adapt to the smaller 155,000-square-foot footprint of the existing buildings and their front gardens — perhaps not in quite its current configuration, but it would fit.
Of course, building up even a second story completely demolishes the argument for bridging Wilshire.
Govan told me he never tested either a “single story” scheme or a multi-story building within the boundaries of the site north of Wilshire, an irresponsible failing. The Environmental Impact Report follows suit, never exploring those alternatives or, for that matter, any other reasonable solutions. In self-contradictory arguments, it egregiously concludes that the Zumthor scheme is the best of the alternatives presented because it simply did not consider any of the several better alternatives.
The whole strategy of bridging Wilshire is predicated on a deception smothered by showmanship: the bridge is pure Cecil B. DeMille, a show-stopping cinematic extravaganza sure to appear in high-speed movie chases and TV car commercials.
The sensationalism distracts from more basic issues, such as sensible land management. The scheme turns out to be a spendthrift, land-gobbling project. Because one end of the Zumthor bridge floats over Wilshire and lands on the Spaulding Avenue corner opposite, it devours every last square foot of buildable museum land. The footprint cannibalizes the site and eliminates the possibility of further museum expansion in this Miracle Mile location or any real estate development that would add to the museum’s bottom line — which was why Maguire acquired it in the first place.
The voracious design therefore wipes out raw land value on a whim, along with its estimated potential net cash flow of $8 million per year were the prime mixed-use site developed to its potential, according to a prominent Los Angeles developer (who, again, spoke on the condition of anonymity). Govan’s bridge represents a major, self-inflicted lost-income opportunity that could otherwise support LACMA’s own programs and eventual, inevitable future plans for spatial expansion. “I believe the LACMA site on Spaulding is one of the best available properties on the city’s grandest boulevard,” observed the developer, who pointedly added: “If I were a LACMA board member, I would describe the proposed expansion as a profligate use of land. A parcel of land now potentially worth $50 million is being consumed by the expansion when there appears to be ample land available north of the boulevard.”
Beyond issues of gallery space and land use, Zumthor’s curving proposal fails LACMA as architectural design by cold-shouldering the existing Broad and Resnick pavilions. Self-contained curves swing away from Piano’s West Campus, severing west and east in an abrupt amputation. As urban design, the project also fails Wilshire by imposing a looming freeway overpass over Los Angeles’s most ceremonial boulevard, taking the Miracle out of the Miracle Mile.
New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson has already mocked the bridge, comparing it to one of those freeway rest stops bridging highways in Italy. It looks cheap.
Govan’s bridge over Wilshire inevitably conjures comparisons to Trump’s Wall: it’s a single-issue cause and an unforced error that Govan won’t give up. Govan is betting the farm and his career on a bridge that is a non-solution to a non-problem. Like the Wall, the bridge comes with inflated promises, flawed logic, sketchy construction figures, shallow thinking, fumes of celebrity, generalized narcissism, headstrong stubbornness, fringe megalomania, and an aggressive I-know-better arrogance.
The Politics, and the Questions Before Us
Now, as the Final Environmental Impact Report lands on the desks of the County Supervisors (and later the City Council), the project is entering a critical yes-no moment. The Supervisors, who have the right of approval over capital improvements, will decide whether or not to release a $125 million construction grant by accepting, or not, the EIR.
The County Board of Supervisors, the body with financial leverage over Govan and Museum Associates, has largely just rubber-stamped the project so far. No Nancy Pelosi with equivalent cultural power has emerged in Los Angeles to challenge this specious idea based on provably deceptive facts and figures. Even the new County Supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, seems to have drunk from the goblet of Kool-Aid passed to her by her predecessor in the 3rd District, Zev Yaroslavsky, without publicly, at least, asking serious questions: a strange passivity for an activist Supervisor.
Instead of understanding and questioning what Govan’s “improvements” would actually mean for LACMA, the Supervisors have acquiesced and become his enablers. At an infamous meeting of the Board with Govan in 2014, Mark Ridley-Thomas asked only, “Is this Michael Govan Day in L.A. or what?” and Govan, no doubt pinching himself, left the meeting with an outright gift of the $125 million that awaits only the approval of this final EIR. He was also promised that, if Museum Associates raised $175 million in cash for the building, as the current pledges seem to indicate they have, the County would issue a $300 million bond, which would augment LACMA’s debt load to a staggering $643 million, among the highest if not the highest in the United States. (MOCA, by comparison, has zero debt.)
The annoying little thing about bonds is that they eventually have to be repaid, and even at three percent, the interest adds about $19 million per year to the expected $3.6 million rents needed for off-site offices. Together the interest and rent erase $23 million from the $40 million income LACMA typically earns from donations and membership dues. The financial stress will put LACMA at long-term financial risk, mortgaging LACMA’s future.
Meanwhile, during a decade that the unrushed Zumthor has spent perfecting a fundamentally weak idea in his Swiss village, construction costs in Los Angeles have risen about 35 percent, according to a prominent Los Angeles architectural office. So if the purported costs remained magically constant at $600 or $650 million, the building has lost $225 million in construction value and space as Zumthor has kept LACMA waiting. The project has been shedding footage even as Zumthor has earned huge fees, with compromises in quality: the building is beginning to look thin and cheap.
“The real bills come in after construction, with increased operating costs and interest,” cautioned a second Los Angeles developer, one with considerable civic experience. “Govan will leave Los Angeles with a huge amount of debt, especially with interest rates increasing and projected off-site expenses.”
Many architects and developers believe total costs of construction (including “soft” costs) may well exceed the estimated $650 million and even top $1 billion because of the structural cost of the bridge, fussy concrete finishes, and the impossibly long, possibly fictitious cantilevers illustrated in the renderings. But assuming it only costs $800 million, the capitalized costs of supporting additional bond and rental payments, along with construction costs for one or two satellites, plus the loss of income on the Spaulding property, amounts to approximately $1.5 billion. Even Bob Iger, head of Disney and chair of the campaign for the financially hard-pressed Academy Museum next door, isn’t going to ride in on a palomino to rescue LACMA. You’d have to sell the Rembrandts.
Surprisingly only a few major donors — David Geffen ($150 million), Elaine Wynn ($50 million), Jerry Perenchio ($25 million), and Eric and Susan Smidt ($25 million) — are supporting what many quietly and correctly suspect is a flawed, even reckless, project with many malodorous questions. Two Southland billionaires told me, confidentially, that they objected to the project.
What the Supervisors won’t easily be able to discern from the voluminous 577-page Final Environmental Impact Report is that the company that drafted the report, Los Angeles–based Eyestone Environmental, incorporated LACMA’s deceptions. Govan apparently arrived in Los Angeles believing that the city’s glass-walled lifestyle could be applied to museums, and against all museum logic, he pushed for an indoor-outdoor museum, convincing his Board that a museum as “accessible as a public plaza” is the right way to display art, heedless of the inescapable issues about light sensitivity. Besides the glass-walled perimeter, the design includes plazas and gardens beneath the massive belly of the floating 3.3-acre concrete building, most of which will be in perpetual shade. These acres of new public outdoor space are redundant and misguided, given the usually near-empty Hancock Park directly behind the museum, with its large lawns, tar pits, and viewing areas. These additional new concrete-shaded spaces shouldn’t be a yardstick in the EIR for approving the Zumthor plan. Govan’s mandate is to build a museum, not to expand an underused park or add to the already underused open spaces of the existing LACMA campus.
Over nearly a decade that Govan has worked to sell the project, he has stacked up so many alternative facts that he has undercut his own arguments and now lacks credibility to any but his hard-core base. His bromide, “a decentered museum for a decentered metropolis,” sounds good, but the advent of the Wilshire Purple Line extension at a time of crippling traffic is precisely the moment to urbanize and densify the LACMA site, not suburbanize it with a building sprawling like a ranch house.
Govan also instructed Zumthor to design a building that could not be added onto. “There’s never been a building that’s been added onto that has been made better [because of that addition],” as he said in The Architect’s Newspaper. Govan ignored Versailles and the Louvre.
In a discussion at Occidental College in 2016, he even dismissed the possibility of adding onto the existing East Campus structures because, he said, “going up is not that practical.” Huh? He ignored another obvious and practical solution: filling in the gaps between the existing pavilions to make a continuous multi-story ring around a focal atrium. In this previously unseen test scheme, the square footage of the structures built in the gaps between the existing structures exceeds all the square footage within Zumthor’s floating galleries, and its total square footage doubles the total square footage of the entire Zumthor proposal.
Yet another item in his shaky box of false justifications is his rejection of a facade-oriented building, because it would, he says, necessarily privilege one period or region over others by creating a front and back of house, with nose-bleed sections in the upper reaches. But nobody these days is advocating stone-walled Beaux Arts buildings like the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Chicago Art Institute, with hierarchical spaces behind imposing facades that favor European collections in the first floor or piano nobile galleries. The piano nobile went out with the elevator. There are many ways to design a non-hierarchical museum without requiring a land-hogging single floor. At MAXXI, a contemporary art museum in Rome, the British architect Zaha Hadid built a delta of flowing stairways and landings that stream visitors equally to the several wings on several floors.
The Wrong Reason
But perhaps Govan’s most deceptive and self-serving alternative fact was stating in an interview that LACMA was “hitting the limit for space on Wilshire Boulevard,” and would need to look at other sites for potential future expansions. In fact, Govan has unilaterally backed LACMA into a crisis of space, and then doubled down on his error: “I can envision a future where we double the size of LACMA over time, but it’s in other communities and in other parts of L.A. during my next 10 years.”
But the numbers tell the tale: Govan himself is driving the museum off its own campus. If Govan gained 45,000-square-foot building with the Resnick, he relinquished the May Company Building for a net deficit of 221,000 square feet. With the anticipated loss of another 143,500 square feet in the new Zumthor, the total square footage lost at LACMA under Govan’s watch is 320,000 square feet, far greater than the entire square footage of Disney Hall. This is administrative failure on an epic scale, and if the County Supervisors vote to approve the project, the failure poses the likelihood of irrecoverable institutional setback. (In characteristic self-protective denial, Govan claimed in a staff memo this Thursday that between the Broad, Resnick, and Zumthor, he will have added a total 220,000 square feet of gallery space to the campus over the decade, up from 130,000 square feet, but his accounting is creative. No matter how he manipulates the figures, the loss of gallery square footage in the Zumthor nearly equals all the gallery square footage of the Broad, and the loss of overall square footage in the Zumthor is twice the overall square footage of the Broad, with no space allotted for offices and other uses. After 10 years, Govan should release the drawings so the public can see the facts.)
Govan, despite the many improvements he has made to LACMA in outreach, spirit, and acquisitions, is presiding not only over a shrinking museum but also over what may be the most counterproductive museum development project undertaken in the United States over the last generation. He is now proposing to solve the problem he has created by building as many as six satellite museums throughout the Los Angeles basin.
When Rob Maguire pieced together the expanded LACMA campus, acquiring the May Company Building and the Spaulding site, he understood the campus as a developer, and in doing so, he was building and developing the institution because even for a museum, land is destiny.
Govan is virtually reversing Maguire’s huge accomplishment. The 20 acres that brought Govan to Los Angeles is now considerably reduced.
Faced with a huge deficit of space, and the need to find space off campus, Govan is again portraying a mistake as an opportunity by claiming that the way to go about growth, now that he is exhausting what’s left of his site, is to launch satellite museums in underserved communities. If he overextended LACMA by building the Resnick and the garage, and losing the May Company Building, he is again overextending LACMA by embarking on a perpetual building and fundraising campaign to construct satellites.
Underserved communities could indeed benefit by more LACMA outreach, but it is untrue to claim that the satellites necessarily result from a shrinking LACMA campus. Satellites are an independent project worthy of consideration, but they should be uncoupled from the fact that the Zumthor project is exhausting LACMA’s available land. Leveraging underserved, often minority communities to justify support for the new building is opportunistic and cynical. Satellites could be built whether or not LACMA contracts on its campus. Shrinking the mother ship does not cause satellites. And diminishing LACMA on Wilshire in favor of the satellites is like dimming the sun. The vitality of the entire solar system depends on its radiance.
Likewise the status of the collection as a collection depends on remaining intact and not being dispersed. Of course, displaying objects that would otherwise be in storage is sensible and productive, but the value of a collection is that it constitutes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Well-curated collections are organic, the works of art speaking to each other in conversations that do not happen if you have to drive an hour to hear what one says to another.
Overexpansion has been the downfall of many companies, and Govan, a director no doubt seeing more Nabisco factories in his future, risks overextending LACMA by embarking on a pyramid scheme, the space lost on Wilshire demanding more space elsewhere in an ever-expanding, open-ended cycle craving more growth. Besides construction costs, each satellite requires insurance, administrative services, guards, drivers, trucks, and other operating expenses that are multiplied in what could easily become a vertiginous downward financial spiral.
Of course, the irony of promoting satellite museums in Los Angeles’s underserved neighborhoods is that the director who believes 50 percent of museum visitors drop out when faced by a staircase wants visitors to slog through thick L.A. traffic or negotiate multiple transit changes to visit galleries in scattered, mostly low-density areas.
The Wrong Architect and the Wrong Plan
Govan’s satellite museums, as desirable as they may be for deserving local audiences, are really a fig leaf. They do not represent an opportunity: they are masking a mistake. There are so many problems with the Zumthor project that the wise course of action would be to table the project, reassess the goals, take out the calculator, hire a land-use planner and an independent financial advisor, consult with the County CFO, and open up a new selection process to talented professionals experienced at projects with this scope, scale, and complexity. It is not that Zumthor is a bad architect. He is in fact a fine architect at the scale of pavilions and small buildings, perhaps even at medium scale. But for a building of vastly larger size, he is being unfairly asked to perform outside his expertise and very particular talent. At LACMA, he has not been able to make the difficult leap of scale. Many architects can’t.
The irony of Govan challenging the encyclopedic museum with a new building type “that reframes the museum experience,” as he says, is that the experimental director chose a conservative architect whose adherence to simplicity and basics makes him an ayatollah of fundamentalism. Though Zumthor designs warm, immersive space rather than cold Newtonian environments, he eschews the flux of change that Govan seeks, the very spatial ambiguities and complexities that would allow curators and visitors to hang and interpret art differently.
With a cabinetmaker father and a life spent in a country known for what architects call the “Swiss box,” Zumthor grew up in a culture of the box. What Zumthor produced for LACMA is a box shaped like an amoeba, a closed form of curvy edges all encased in a glass facade. Structured mostly in concrete, it is as fixed, unchangeable, and timeless as a pharaonic temple, even if the concrete is as fuzzy and warm as corduroy. Zumthor proposes a single vision in a universal space with a uniform treatment for all art. It’s a one-liner that does only one thing inside. The galleries do not offer the diversified experiences of a big, capacious, differentiated structure of many moving parts and many moods that would make it a small city of options that encourages high visitation. LACMA’s collection needs to be released into the richness of a capaciously three-dimensional space that offers a complexity in which collections can grow, thrive, and mix.
Zumthor’s design comes down squarely on Govan’s side of the civil war between the encyclopedists and the deconstructors, but perhaps that war needn’t be fought: LACMA itself over the last several months unwittingly resolved the issue. Drawing artworks on Rome’s Counter-Reformation from several of the museum’s collections, the exhibition “To Rome and Back” in the Resnick was what Govan called a model for the idea of themed shows, and it ran while much of the European collection was still up in the Ahmanson. The concurrent exhibitions inadvertently showed that there is actually no reason that theme shows have to take over the whole new museum, or that departmental collections need be the only format. When Poincaré challenged Euclidean geometry in the late 19th century, he did not disprove Euclid: he was maintaining that Euclid was only one system: there were others.
The Resnick and even the Broad offer plenty of space for themed shows without rebuilding the East Campus, which can continue in its present or a future form according to some version of a departmental structure. Tellingly visitors voted with their feet on the days I attended: the gate at the Rome show was sparse, and in the European rooms, robust. People like departmental collections. The themed show, in this case at least, not so much.
But over and above the issue of the museum as a cultural encyclopedia, beyond the notion of warm, textured spaces offering pure experience, and beyond debates about expanding the canon, it is necessary to focus on one glaring and incontrovertible fact: the proposal about to come before the Board of Supervisors this coming week (and after that before City Council) is a bad deal. The project is too small, profligate with land, disproportionately expensive, shortsighted, inappropriate for the site, and organizationally rigid because of its concrete construction. Its construction would mean losing large quantities of needed gallery space that already exist, and saddling LACMA with perpetual off-campus operational costs and incapacitating debt. No matter how dreamy and atmospheric, its totalizing design admits no worldview other than its own crepuscular mystique. A closed world, it doesn’t look like a box but acts like one. Zumthor has designed a horizontal silo.
LACMA has to get it right because the consequences of getting it wrong are culturally catastrophic for Los Angeles. The museum as an institution risks irreversible damage if this building is built. The Supervisors should put on their reading glasses and suspend financing until LACMA produces a better solution. Los Angeles has nothing to lose and everything to gain with another round. Until then, it is better to live with and adapt the buildings we already have.
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.