On Accountability & the Public Realm

On Accountability & the Public Realm

Architecture, unlike art, is an endeavor that impacts entire communities and requires the approval and consent of the many. But from looking at LACMA’s anointing of Peter Zumthor and Frank Gehry to design its museum replacement and (potentially) an adjacent tower, it would appear that this reality is still being ignored.

First let me be clear that I respect these decisions. Zumthor and Gehry don’t need to prove their credentials to anyone, and the likelihood of two Pritzker Prize winners designing on the same block is an exciting one.


LACMA director Michael Govan is in charge of an institution that receives about forty percent of its funding from the County of Los Angeles, and thus needs to answer to those funders. Yet he chose Zumthor and floated Gehry without even a semblance of public input or awareness. No competition. No public discussion or review. Yes he made the public aware of the Zumthor scheme with an exhibition, a public session with the architect, and in articles in the press, but only after the architect was chosen and the plans were well along. He also announced Gehry’s potential selection without a hint that others could be up for the job or that there might be another public process if that plan—which the museum would undertake with LA’s transit agency, Metro—goes forward.

Outside of the issue of its public funding, a work of such tremendous impact on the community should be both more transparent and inviting with regard to its selection process. In his most recent iteration Zumthor wants his oozing design to curve its way over Wilshire Boulevard, blocking views down this fabled corridor and questionably removing the building from the pedestrian flow around it. Like it or not it’s a bold move. But it needs to be vetted with the public that will be impacted at the stage when the initial design is still in formation. At the point of unveiling it’s too late.

I’m not arguing that the public needs to make the decision over the architect or the design. In my opinion those decisions should be made by experts in the field and by the museum administrators who will use it. (When the public starts to get too involved in the minutia of a project they can stifle creative plans—see the Whitney’s original expansion proposal or the many scuttled plans in the heart of San Francisco.) But they need to share that responsibility with the public, who should oversee what’s happening. To ignore this is not just irresponsible but arrogant.

Richard Koshalek, who led the competition for Disney Hall, the Tate Modern, and for other major buildings around the world, speaks highly of the lessons learned from including public input in various selection processes.

“We learned a hell of a lot from the public about what they wanted,” said Koshalek, of one of these many undertakings. He added: “When it’s a public funded institution the public should have the right to be aware of the process and aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

No other recent building of this cultural import in Los Angeles was developed without public input or at the very least a competition. In addition to Disney’s very public competition, Caltrans hosted a public competition for its downtown building by Morphosis as did MOCA for its structure by Arata Isozaki. Even Eli Broad held a competition for his new museum in Downtown LA, although he never shared the schemes from the runners up, which was way off the mark.

Beyond being the right thing to do, an inclusive strategy can also be the smartest path to getting a project approved. Without it a museum risks alienating the public before it gets a chance to make proper adjustments. This is a strategy that has backfired in other areas. While President Obama’s health care initiative has provided millions with very necessary care, just think how much easier it would have been to pass if he had made his case more clearly to the public early on? Closer to home, SCI-Arc is still facing some bluster for naming Hernan Diaz Alonso as its new director without involving the student body in a more direct way before the decision was made by the school’s selection committee. While I do support Diaz Alonso as a gifted teacher, and acknowledge that most schools don’t follow these rules, I think for a school like SCI-Arc, founded as an “institution without walls,” the selection process should have been more open from the beginning. Finally, LA’s planning department should make its web site much more robust, allowing the public to access in a much more detailed way all the projects and plans that are being put forward.

In a day and age when the public can be included so easily via technology, and when people express their likes and dislikes on social media every second, it is important to incorporate this kind of openness in the built world; particularly in the public realm. We need to embrace that reality.