Top: Two benches caught in the warm embrace of a freeway underpass.
SHARON JOHNSTON AND MARK LEE defeat their own cliché-stuffed, generality-soaked PR release by concluding that Peter Zumthor’s design for LACMA is a work in progress, and that you’ll just have to trust him for now with a billion-dollar architectural investment because of his past work: after all he has a good relationship with textures. “The architect’s portfolio of work must stand for something,” they offer: their faint praise is the last bulwark of a failed argument.
But how about examining the evidence now on the table as if we were in a court of architecture? There was that embarrassing rat’s maze interior displayed in the 2013 LACMA show, which introduced the underwhelming, amoeba-shaped design. That labyrinthine interior was recently updated into a set of trapezoidal gallery zones that, according to the authors, allow visitors to look out windows to the landscape as motorists zip by and spy Gauguin’s brushwork at 35 mph. Right. Or for trenchant critical insight, how can you possibly top: “the scheme’s decidedly horizontal form echoes the wide horizon of the sky”? I suppose also that we’re all too uncool to have noticed that Beverly Center is a cultural cathedral of the city?
How can we believe the best is yet to come when Zumthor hasn’t earned our trust by solving the fundamentals of the project, such as where the curators work, how the art moves, how busloads of schoolchildren arrive and disperse, and most critically, how the design supports the museum’s curatorial approach to displaying art. For that matter, what IS the museum’s curatorial attitude? Does it even have one? So far the design and its rollout and even the museum’s own intentions for displaying art are a collective masterpiece of evasion.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am the unnamed “inflammatory” critic who suggested that Zumthor lacks adequate experience in buildings of this scale: after all, the bigger of his two medium-sized museums to date is less than 1/10th the square footage of the proposed LACMA. There is no shred of evidence either in the past or on the table now that this architect is capable of handling a project of this scope. He runs a boutique operation doing precious, boutique projects, and he takes a huge amount of time, expensively, doing so. As for the inference that I believe that “quality architecture does not belong in Los Angeles,” I have always admired the Minimalist work of Johnston Marklee, the firm these writers founded in 1998, so do they think I am wrong to believe they do “quality” work? Am I wrong to think that their admirable work belongs in Los Angeles?
If their critical lens appears to be smeared with rose-tinted Vaseline, they do LARB readers the service of providing some useful information about Zumthor’s background, which explains the strength and weakness of his work. He apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, worked as a surveyor, and has practiced in the small Swiss town of Haldenstein since 1979. So by background he has a sense of detail and precision, which also explains why he thinks flat and why he designs boxy. He does not think spatially, but as the closed forms in the images in Johnston and Lee’s article show, he piles boxes onto each other or next to each other, opening up some floors and walls between them when he needs to expand space. He remains a prisoner of the right angle at a time when architects have discovered that all angles are divine. As a high priest of what many European architects derisively call “the Swiss box,” he basically remains an interior and exterior decorator, good with materials. He likes thin Roman brick. He establishes atmospheres. According to a New York Times profile of the new co-chair of LACMA, Elaine Wynn, the design is friendly because it doesn’t have lots of intimidating marble columns. How can the leader of this major museum be so out of touch with museum design over the last three generations? Unlike the marble- and column-festooned phantasmagoria she helped build in Las Vegas, no museum in many decades has had marble columns.
Atmospherics are just not enough. And certainly not enough for a building of LACMA’s complexities. Zumthor is a good architect, but limited; there is no need to succumb to breathless paroxysms over how hidden sources of light rake rippled surfaces: Bernini showed the way centuries ago. LACMA should learn from MoMA’s mistake when it hired a detail-obsessed architect high on the effects of light but short on the big picture. MoMA devoted about the same budget to Yoshio Taniguchi’s expansion a decade ago, and already the museum is planning to spend scores of millions to correct serious mistakes that should never have been made and approved in the first place: it will still emerge as a museum compromised by its architecture. LACMA is heading down the same unfortunate path.
More importantly, Zumthor or not-Zumthor is not the question. It’s not an issue of style but of the organizational diagram and infrastructure. Fixated on the image of an ancient tar lagoon adjacent to LACMA until (oops) he realized that it is actually a leftover 19th-century asphalt quarry, Zumthor has neglected the infrastructure of the museum — how it actually works, how it fits the demands of the site and institution, how its parts fit into a whole. The building has to be planted strategically, to build the institution as a museum and to optimize the use of the remaining land on the campus. The site is a chessboard, with places you can go and places you can’t go without huge consequences. The current profligate scheme squanders all the museum’s remaining land. This is as much the client’s fault as the architect’s, since LACMA director Michael Govan stubbornly insists on a “single story” museum. The pancake solution makes the design a selfish project, a space hog that gorges on the site without accommodating future expansion or anticipating the income-producing potential of the large Spaulding site on the other side of Wilshire.
The proposed LACMA bridge over Wilshire will sacrifice palm trees for that overpass feeling.
Big and crushing, it’s a Robert Moses project, tantamount to plowing a freeway through a neighborhood. The design will surely invite a Jane Jacobs response, with local residents — the overlooked constituency here — picketing in their tennies: it’s just a matter of time, it seems to me, until the citizens of Wilshire unite in opposition.
The Johnston Lee article pains me for a couple of other reasons, not least because it reads like a job application. The condescension to Los Angeles is outrageous. That the authors should think that “quality architecture” is at last coming to a needy LA, descending from an isolated valley via a monk genius armed with “sublime asceticism” overrates Zumthor’s regressive vision and underestimates Los Angeles’s consistently progressive architectural history. Paleeze.
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.