LACMA Town: The Museum as Urban Catalyst, Not Urban Desert

By Joseph GiovanniniJuly 11, 2020

LACMA Town: The Museum as Urban Catalyst, Not Urban Desert
THE RECENT PROTESTS across the country may have had nothing directly to do with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but unexpectedly the American street revealed in a single month what 12 years of designing the replacement building for the museum’s East Campus completely missed.

The current design — a stack of two amoeba-shaped concrete slabs, proposed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor — floats 20-plus feet above the ground, bridging Wilshire Boulevard. In its antiseptic relationship to the ground, it ignores the street, leaving the same windswept, sun-baked, lifeless modernist plazas that the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs decried 60 years ago in her groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By Jacobs’s measure, the Zumthor design not only arrives DOA but also kills the street.

The view of the Zumthor plaza from Wilshire: Museum as sun-baked Sahara.

Conceived mostly from an architecture-as-art point of view, Zumthor’s design is so self-absorbed in its pristine aesthetic isolation and self-contained in its monofunctional use that it takes itself out of the city, hovering like a helicopter. The empty plazas are tellingly landscaped with drought-resistant grasses and succulents, like a desert.

This jewel-box architecture barks up the wrong paradigm — and just at the wrong time. No one in command at LACMA ever thought of the design’s potential and even responsibility to serve as an urban catalyst for the city around it. But over the last month we learned that public space can stoke and empower a community in all its diversity, that a city can and should be seen through a lens of equity and inclusiveness. If buildings define their institutions, they also shape the city. LACMA’s Michael Govan, a director focused on supposedly new ways of displaying art, and Zumthor, an architect from a remote village in the Swiss Alps, completely ignored the socially constructive, city-building potential of a project in the heart of mid-Wilshire at its intersection with Fairfax, just as the Metro’s Purple Line is arriving at its doorstep.

Instead of immersing the museum in the public life of an active townscape, the design occupies a socially hostile vacuum of its own creation. The words “urban design” and “city planning” never appeared in the avalanche of PR propagated by the museum. Glossy shots revealed an aloof, hermetically closed building ignoring the context over which it sails. The placeless design fails to leverage the museum’s presence to shape the city around it, simply hiking up its skirts as it wades across Wilshire in order to avoid getting soaked in the urban toxins.

What the times and our new civic consciousness now demand is not a building that could be anywhere but one that steps down from its pedestals to knead the museum’s campus and its block at Spaulding into a town within the city: a LACMA Town. Zumthor’s architectural icon is a self-indulgent, self-defeating urban killer that turns the LACMA campus into a Sahara. You either go into the museum (or its café), or you don’t go there at all because there is nothing else to do.

The design should aim instead to become the core of a lively district, perhaps an arts district that capitalizes on all the nearby museums and brings a robust residential population into the mix. The buildings should shape a cityscape of streets, paseos, and public spaces that create a pedestrian life to surround and stimulate LACMA and link it to the other museums on the block. The museum needs an urbanizing vision, not a suburbanizing throwback centered on a haughty, socially detached monument.

Frank Gehry’s The Grand, a mixed-use complex now under construction opposite Disney Hall, on Grand Avenue. Red Leaf, courtesy of Related/CORE

COVID-19, unfortunately, has given the nation pause, but for LACMA it may be a blessing, a reason to apply the brakes: the pandemic has opened up time, offering the museum board, the LA County supervisors, and the public the chance to reconsider what everyone already knows is a mistake. According to a recent survey (conducted by a group with which I am involved), only a shocking five percent of 2,750 people polled want the Zumthor design. LACMA’s stubbornly entrenched board of directors steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that this is the most unpopular public project ever to have been proposed for a major cultural institution in Los Angeles.

According to a leading art-world figure (who has asked for anonymity given her sensitive professional interconnections), no less than the co-chair of the museum board, Elaine Wynn, said at a recent reception in Las Vegas that no amount of articles — and no possible argument — will dissuade the board from proceeding with the project. “Michael [Govan] has a vision,” she asserted, unmoved by the cascade of fact-based arguments against the new design. Known as the “Queen of Las Vegas,” where she specialized in developing the deeply shallow entertainment architecture that made her a billionaire, Wynn was transposing her regal prerogative to Wilshire, as though LACMA were one of her glitzy casinos, where art is a sideshow she runs: the facts evidently flew right over her hairdo.

Her recent online comments to Angelenos questioning the project were dismissive, condescending, and off topic. To an informed Los Angeles resident, Chris Teuber, Wynn wrote: “Generalities, inaccuracies, and insults do not belong in civil discourse.” To which Teuber replied: “To accuse others of uncivil discourse when none was made is a false accusation. By not addressing the issues, but instead attacking the messengers, you show that you do not wish to engage in civil discourse.”

Heads stuck in the sand, arrogant board members cannot hear the roar from the street and refuse to heed the will of the people. Like the design itself, they are disconnected from the public. Appointed by Govan, the unelected board members are arguing Govan’s case on Govan’s say-so. Their minds are cemented.

We have known for years now that the museum is too small. The astounding 62 percent reduction in gallery size, a fact suppressed by LACMA and completely overlooked by the Los Angeles Times, requires garaging the bulk of its 130,000 artworks in storage and/or dispersing them to so-called “satellites” located in Los Angeles’s sprawling suburbs (unicorns of Govan’s imagination that will never find funding). But current events now make us see that the design stirs no urban energy; it contributes nothing to the city. It is not an urban catalyst that precipitates a lively district, perhaps with a mix of galleries and experimental theaters, all embedded in a 24-hour community of offices, condos, and apartments that include a significant proportion of affordable housing.

Museum campus as urban vacuum: too much space, no program, no shade, no people.

Yet the concept is so blindingly simple: to achieve a thrumming, self-sustaining town-within-the-city with its own critical mass — a pedestrian community with LACMA at its core that makes a real attempt at social integration.

LACMA risks making the same mistake the Getty did when it removed itself from the city to a hilltop to which visitors must drive, park, and then take a tram. Scrooge-like, the Getty hoards its energy behind its gates and olive groves. Govan expressed the same out-of-touch position when he asserted that a decentered project dispersing its collections to satellites suits a decentered city. We might have expected that observation in the 1950s, when freeways were a breeze, the suburban house an attainable goal for the broad population, and you could connect the dots of your day in a spiffy Studebaker. Govan wants to make the suburbs great again. He wants to put more cars on the street, more exhaust into the air.

He can’t. Los Angeles cannot afford self-suburbanization because too much traffic and too little housing will continue to be the city’s major problems, once it returns to some semblance of normal after COVID-19. L.A. needs densification, not doubling down on sprawl, especially sprawl that is financially and racially segregating. Confronting the urgency of urbanizing a city that in its heart still holds on to its grassy yards is a tough fact for Angelenos to face, but one-hour-plus commutes and rampaging homeless encampments are forcing them to realize that Los Angeles can grow and prosper only through densification. Otherwise it will choke as it perpetuates longstanding social inequities. Govan’s “vision” for Wilshire excludes the socially corrective thrust of the movement we saw on the streets last month. His so-called vision is now outdated and irrelevant, a UFO landing from the ’50s.

Symbolically and practically, a helicopter museum is the wrong solution for a time when the country took to the streets, drawing its power from the asphalt. America’s collective strength sprang from public space. The idea is as old as the Greek agora or the Roman forum. The design has to reach out and engage the city.

Other institutions didn’t make Getty’s mistake. At Yale back in the late 1960s, students influenced by Jane Jacobs picketed to protest the Yale Center for British Art, then being designed as a full-block building with a blank wall chilling the sidewalk. Architecture students wanted stores along the street to sustain pedestrian flow between blocks. The university conceded, and even now, a bookstore, café-restaurant, and jewelry shop promote community along this commercial stretch of street at the edge of campus.

Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry has bumped up that simple, half-century-old idea big time in a large, mixed-use project downtown on Grand Avenue, where The Grand is under construction on a full city block opposite Disney Hall. “We’re not building buildings. We’re building places,” he said in a press release. “We are trying to make a place for people not only to live, but also to gather after concerts or performances, and my hope is that it will spawn other growth in the neighborhood.”

Disney Hall and The Grand, designed for a fraternal, interactive relationship. Red Leaf, courtesy of Related/CORE.

At The Grand, Gehry is once again building his usual, people-friendly pile of off-kilter stuff that makes an imperative urban point: the need to build a neighborhood. He stacks two towers — their silhouettes broken and shifted halfway up their shafts — over a multistory outdoor shopping and restaurant complex, all of it bisected by a pedestrian street and centered on a multistory plaza. The public spaces will be populated with public art and hundreds of people shopping and dining, with thousands lodged in a 20-story hotel and a 39-story apartment building (a full 20 percent of it affordable housing). Developed by a public-private partnership, the 24/7 complex will permanently factor pedestrians into this otherwise over-institutionalized block of inward-focused cultural organizations. The design delivers urban pleasures without apologizing for itself with suburban landscaping. The design gardens people, cultivates community, and fills the urban void.

Residential densification puts people on the street in a pedestrian urban neighborhood. Red Leaf, courtesy of Related/CORE.

The Grand is a template idea for urban nodes along transportation corridors throughout the city, and in a less dense version and with a large museum at its base, the idea could easily be transplanted and adapted to LACMA’s corner at Spaulding and Wilshire (a huge, prime site zoned for high-rise density),which enjoys the same across-the-street relationship to LACMA’s East Campus as The Grand does to Disney Hall. It would help transition the car-oriented boulevard into a linear city of urban nodes oriented to the subway.

Designing spaces to collect people into a lively community has a long and successful history. Nearly 60 years ago, Jacobs, a housewife-turned-urbanist, changed urban planning with the book that Govan and Zumthor evidently haven’t read. Ironically, a former head of the LACMA board, developer Rob Maguire, proposed in 1980 a heterogeneous, Jane Jacobs–style project for Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill. Called “A Grand Avenue,” it was a mixed-use, multi-architect proposal that, had it been built, would have restored the intimate scale of the original street grid, filling the smaller blocks with activity. The then-little-known Gehry, who designed a small, inventively chaotic part of the project, is now essentially building a version of Maguire’s vision a block down Grand Avenue, 40 years later.

Los Angeles developers Maguire Partners proposed a street-oriented, mixed-use project, "A Grand Avenue," for Bunker Hill in 1980. Courtesy of The Archive Carlos Diniz / Family of Carlos Diniz, for Maguire Partners.

As head of LACMA, Maguire acquired the mouthwatering Spaulding property on Wilshire a generation ago, assuming that LACMA could, should, and would eventually sponsor a profit-generating, activity-supporting development like Gehry’s. Doing a version of Gehry’s Grand displaced to Wilshire would be what Maguire had originally proposed on Grand and had envisioned for LACMA.

A Grand Avenue was designed to cultivate a people-oriented townscape of spaces that gathered rather than dispersed pedestrians. Courtesy of The Archive Carlos Diniz / Family of Carlos Diniz, for Maguire Partners.

Courtesy of The Archive Carlos Diniz / Family of Carlos Diniz, for Maguire Partners.

Cities and buildings shaking hands amicably does not require a secret sauce for which Gehry alone has the recipe. Architects have thought for decades now about how to humanize architecture with people-oriented programming. They have learned how to bring large buildings down to human scale, wrapping them in an urban life so that they open what are usually hermetically sealed architectural envelopes to the street.

It’s now 10 minutes to midnight at LACMA: the bulldozers have already destroyed the Bing Theater and are poised to take down the Ahmanson, the Hammer, and the Americas Galleries. But COVID-19 has precipitated a recession and opened up an opportunity. At the Las Vegas reception, Wynn said that LACMA is “too pregnant” with the Zumthor scheme to stop now. She didn’t say the project was too good to stop, only that it had reached a point of no return.

This is precisely the moment for smart leadership to cut losses citizens will otherwise have to endure for decades. Any general goes into battle with a retreat plan to save the army. If built, the project — to continue Wynn’s analogy — will be a stillborn billion-dollar failure that will not only destroy the integrity of the collections (not to mention the museum’s balance sheet) but also deaden what should be an urban nerve center, a town on its own, a city within the city, a destination. Wynn and the rest of the board need to save the army.

The recent national protests make us understand something that no one realized a dozen years ago about LACMA and Wilshire, Los Angeles’s great intersection of culture and the street. Just add people.


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 TimesNew York MagazineArchitect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc. For his other articles on LACMA click [here].

LARB Contributor

A Pulitzer nominee in criticism who trained in architecture at Harvard, Joseph Giovannini has led a career that has spanned three decades and two coasts. He has served as the architecture critic for New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and was long a staff writer on design and architecture for The New York Times. On a contractual or freelance basis, he has contributed to many other publications, including The New Yorker, Architectural Record, Architectural Digest, Art in America, Art Forum, Architecture Magazine, Architect Magazine, Industrial Design Magazine, and Interior Design


A prominent figure in American architecture, he has been an activist critic with a record of discovering emerging talent for major mainstream publications and professional journals. He coined the term Deconstructivism during articles he wrote announcing the movement. Giovannini has written literally thousands of articles for periodicals, and he has also authored numerous essays for books and monographs. As a critic, he has won awards, grants and honors, from the Art World Magazine/Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust for distinguished newspaper architectural criticism, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation, the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIA and the California Council of the AIA.


He has put theory into practice in his own architectural practice. Mr. Giovannini heads Giovannini Associates, which has recently completed the conversion of a large trucking warehouse into a community of lofts in Los Angeles, and a 19th-century commercial building, also into lofts. A bicoastal designer, he is currently working on several apartments in New York and lofts in Los Angeles. His lofts, apartments, galleries and additions have appeared in Architectural DigestLos Angeles Times Magazine, A + U, Domus, House and Garden, GA Houses, Architekur und Wohnen, Sites, and Interior Design.


He has taught advanced and graduate design studios at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, and at the University of Innsbruck. He holds a Master in Architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He did his B.A. in English at Yale University, and an M.A in French Language and Literature from Middlebury College for work done at La Sorbonne, Paris.


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