Finally, plans for LA’s most anticipated new piece of architecture in more than a generation are starting to move beyond the realm of speculation. This week, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) director Michael Govan sat down in front of an audience to discuss new designs for the museum, while at the same time the exhibition The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA opened for previews.
The plans are far from complete, but at this point Govan and Zumthor are hoping to replace most of the museum’s 1960s and 1980s structures with a two-story, amoeba-like building that curves its way around the east side of the LACMA campus. A six-ton (yes, six-ton) model of the design is now the centerpiece of The Presence of the Past.
After more than three years of relatively fruitless investigations with Govan, Zumthor admitted that he came up with the sinuous shape "out of pure desperation," jotting the sketch down in haste. "The only way to relate to everything was to be its own thing," noted Govan of Zumthor's inspiration, which despite its shapelessness is still very much informed by the site, curving around existing buildings (including Bruce Goff’s Japanese Pavilion, which will be preserved) and landscape features. And from this point the two went about remaking what a museum can be.
From the sky, pointed out Zumthor, the jet black building will take the form of a lake, relating to the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits, which he calls the most remarkable element of LACMA's site. The building will have no primary facade, and no backside. Those wishing to enter can do so in any number of entries on the first floor. The structure, though, will not be an uninterrupted mass. Inside it will be divided into six cores, replacing the traditional museum composition of a singular structure lined with large hallways with adjoining galleries. Instead of following a strict hierarchy of time and place, the plan, said Govan, will not privilege any one part of the museum more than another. Informal galleries and congregation spaces will dominate the bottom floor, with formal galleries above.
Visitors will be able to travel around the building, wrapped on both levels in floor-to-ceiling glass, via a meandering veranda, entering wherever they wish. Zumthor called this overlooking space the building's "Ring Road," and compared walking around it to "looking for a clearing in the forest." Glass zones near the exterior will allow for congregation and will be able to act as galleries on display to the outside 24 hours a day. "Transparency rules," said Govan, who proposed "eradicating the idea of storage," putting as much as possible of the collection on display. The naturally ventilated building, topped by a massive solar array, will seek net-zero status. The Resnick Pavilion, BCAM, and the Asian Pavilion will host exhibitions during construction.
Govan's rationale for tearing down the majority of the LACMA campus—including the original Ahmanson, Hammer, and Bing buildings by William Pereira and the later, mostly-derided 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer—is multi-pronged. Aside from the goal of moving LACMA into the 21st century, he argued, the cost of renovating the complex would be the same as building something new. “If we’re going to restore these buildings it has to be worthwhile,” said Govan. “It’s not.”
He added that restoration of the museum’s original building would be impossible because the addition essentially ripped it apart. At that, Zumthor jumped in, summing up his feeling about the current complex. "When I saw this I thought it had to go." Zumthor told AN that he hoped the museum could be completed in seven years.
The new plan’s cost has been reported at upwards of $650 million, a major obstacle in any economy. Other barriers include approval of the scheme by the museum’s board, which has yet to vote on the plan, approval by Los Angeles County, which owns the land, and, of course, the support of citizens and museumgoers.
Already some opposition has emerged in the preservation community. A Facebook page called “Save and Restore the Original LACMA Buildings” has compiled more than 300 likes on Facebook since being founded on June 1. “This is nothing more than a vanity project for Michael Govan,” wrote another opponent, blogger Mark Berman. “He wants to leave his mark on LACMA and Los Angeles, and he thinks destroying the past is a great place to start.” On the other side of the spectrum, local curator Nicholas Olsberg called the new museum’s unveiling “the biggest day in the history of Los Angeles architecture.”
In 2002, Rem Koolhaas won a competition to tear down and start over at LACMA, but the museum's board went sour on his scheme. Govan argued that things are different now, with a new museum board, a new plan, more transitional space, and more public support. Govan pointed out yet another challenge to Zumthor: “Your last museum took 12 years to build!”