LACMA director Michael Govan’s impact on the Los Angeles cultural community since joining the museum in 2006 (he was formerly director of the Dia Art Foundation and deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum) has been—like much of the art he likes—outsized. But his impact on the architecture scene has been even larger. Besides commissioning several architecture-sized installations, Govan hired Renzo Piano to design the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the Resnick Pavilion, and the plaza and restaurants in between. Now he’s embarking on his biggest project—a complete recreation of the museum by Peter Zumthor. AN West editor Sam Lubell sat down with Govan recently to discuss the plan, its prospects, and why he has such a fascination with architecture and urban design.
AN: Why do you want to demolish the existing LACMA complex?
There are all kinds of design problems with it: circulation, size of galleries, the plazas, and how they function. The bigger issue is that they were not built extremely well, and that they’re now in need of massive repair. So you have to decide whether you’re going to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a renovation. That’s the question. Would you want to put the money into repairing them? And the answer is not at all. So that was the analysis that Rem [Koolhaas] did, and that’s the analysis that still holds today, that it makes no sense to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into those old buildings. And so the alternative is to go new. And so then you have a second question: If you’re going to go new, what will you build? So this is the proposal.
If this new project for whatever reason gets stopped, what is plan B? Do you then rehab these buildings?
I don’t know, where would you get the money? I don’t have a plan B. I have tested this out. I have not sensed that there is enough interest to raise the kind of money that the museum would need to restore those old buildings. You’d have to find somebody.
Maybe some William Pereira fans would differ?
The Pereira fans don’t usually like the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition. So then what do you do? You can only restore aspects of the Pereira. And if you tore down the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer building, which several people have suggested to me, then you don’t have any exhibition space. So then you’re not a museum. There are not a lot of alternatives. And I don’t know any Pereira fans who have that kind of resources and wherewithal to restore those buildings. And I don’t know that they would have the guts or interest given that you really couldn’t remove the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition. So then you have to find somebody who’s willing to love those.
Rem Koolhaas wasn’t able to get his plan for LACMA through. What is the difference between now and then?
A lot of difference. One is that one of the practical objections, that nobody wanted to close the museum for four years, is now taken care of. We have 100,000 new square feet between the new buildings by Renzo. You’d have offices across the street. The original buildings were only 160,000 square feet, so you’d have about two-thirds the space as the original museum. Second was that people objected to the Rem design. They objected to the roof, to how it was laid out, to whether our collections really fit that grid. I think this new building works perfectly, so that would solve the design questions. This building has easy light control, a diversity of spaces, room for the collections. It’s all worked out. So I’m hopeful that people like the design. And the third was public money. The largest amount of money for Rem’s scheme was requested from a bond issue with a public vote. We are not proposing that. We’ve already raised $350 million for our newest buildings and sculptures. So I’m proposing that the largest portion of the money be private money. If the public contributes through a bond issue it would be only a small segment. Instead of asking for 50 percent of the money from the public, you would be asking for about one-tenth of the money.
But it’s a very daunting fundraising task.
In both cases it’s a daunting fundraising task. What’s changed? There’s a different board of trustees here. They’ve given a lot more money. They’re bigger, more engaged. The city’s older. I’m not saying that that’s solved. The problem left to solve is to raise the money. But my perspective is other cities in America are raising a lot more private money for culture than LA. Is LA a lesser city? Is LA less generous? Is LA less arts focused? And my answer to all of those questions is no they aren’t. We just have to figure out how to communicate. My view is it’s a great city and it has the potential to do this. Obviously it’s mine and the board’s job to communicate the potential. You need big projects to change infrastructure. And I don’t just mean of buildings. I mean infrastructure of boards and infrastructure of generosity.
Is the board behind this project now?
The board is 100-percent behind my exploration of this idea and using all my experience and the experience of Peter Zumthor to present the proposal. We haven’t taken a vote yet. Now the idea is to absorb. We’re waiting, and we’re presenting this to the public. Obviously, if everybody hates this it’s going to be harder. If everybody loves it, it will be easier. There were letters to the editor saying we should spend more money on education or art and not on buildings, but that’s not an option. Number one, we don’t have the money, and two, the first priority is if you don’t have your house in order—if you literally don’t have a roof and an earthquake-stable structure with accessibility to art—you have no museum. We have to raise the money.
What are the other steps?
The county has to support it. It’s their land.
Are there other major hurdles?
How will this change the idea of what a museum can be?
A lot of museums are studying how to get art out of dark rooms where you can’t get to them. This museum is built on that premise. So there are examples of open storage and accessible storage all around, in departments and smaller areas. That’s the premise on which this museum is built. Second, most east coast museums are built in a Beaux Arts tradition with stairs and a temple facade and wings, so there’s a stated hierarchy of center, left, right, upstairs. This is a building that does not privilege any particular side, so that no culture is better than any other culture, and no time is more important than any other time.
Do you think it could get confusing trying to organize the building?
No, because if you want to lay out a section in chronology you can, or not. It provides for multiple stories. Order is confusing. The order that says European cultures are in the center and Asia is on the periphery, that’s confusing.
Some people like that LACMA now is quite urban. That you walk from one building to another. And here it’s more contained in one unified space. Do you think it will still have urbanity to it?
We’re not changing the urban central plaza and the space between Renzo’s buildings. I think what people like about LACMA is that it’s both. I think that people like that you have the urban square and that tightness on Wilshire Boulevard and the park. I think that’s the combination. I think people like the open space of the park and the urban quality, and I think this design has both. The first thing I did to Renzo’s scheme was to add to it to make it more urban. The concept for the next piece is to have both.
I think you more than any museum director other than maybe Thomas Krens have a fascination with urban design and with architecture. Where does that come from?
By the way, Thomas Krens and I worked together for twelve years. I can tell you I figured out over time why I’m so obsessed with architecture. I grew up outside of Washington D.C. Every weekend we would be in the city looking at museums, buildings, driving. I thought this city is laid out with a sense of meaning and purpose. L’Enfant had site lines, memorials, and everything was laid out to have order and meaning. And I went to study in Rome and I became fascinated with the order of space.
Do you think you have more interest in architecture than in art?
No. It’s the same thing for me. My interests have been consistent throughout my career: the relationship between art and architecture. From ancient to present, whether it’s land art or St. Peters or the Roman Forum or the temples in Korea. And landscape. I think what happened in the 19th century was a segmentation. If you go back in time, it’s hard to find an example of when art and architecture were not thought of in an integral way. It’s only recently that we have come to segment these topics. My view is you gain something in specialization, but you lose a lot. So what I’ve tried to do is remarry art, architecture, and landscape in a sense that has meaning. Not with a spine and a symmetry, which is not relevant to modern Los Angeles. As long as you have the grid, the idea is to twist and turn that. It’s a lot of yin-yang. Renzo’s building and Peter’s building is yin-yang.
Did you consider hiring a Los Angeles architect? Some have complained that local architects were left out?
Peter seemed an ideal candidate to study the possibilities for LACMA's future. I have known and worked with him for more than a decade. He is an exceptionally site-specific architect--and our site is very specific. He is one of the finest architects in the world, and already built two exceptionally beautiful museums.
Did you consider employing an open competition to choose an architect. What made you forego that type of process?
No decisions have been made by the Board and the County except to support this study and proposal created in collaboration with Peter Zumthor. In the plan there are many innovative ideas about what is possible for LACMA and for what a 21st century art museum can be. I believe it is a very exciting possible future for LACMA.