Wilshire Boulevard is impressive for both its length as well as its remarkable collection of notable architecture, much of it pedigreed within L.A.’s historical time line beginning in 1895. Wilshire was also made for the automobile. Over the decades it has evolved into a mélange of typologies and styles, to be viewed by most Angelenos through the rearview mirror of their car rather than by the lone flaneur pounding the pavement. To attract attention in the parade of largely unremarkable architecture that makes up the majority of building stock along the boulevard, only the brash and bold will do.
The newly redesigned Petersen Automotive Museum by architects Kohn Petersen Fox stimulates the senses. Brash and bold it most certainly is, with an undulating steel facade wrapped in slick red and silver ribbons of LED-lined steel panels. The ribbons project from the eclipsed shell of Welton Becket’s Seibu Department Store supported on tubular struts. Produced in Kansas City and brought to L.A. by semi-truck, each ribbon was computationally designed to fit together in the field, thereby reducing on-site coordination. Expertly engineered, flawlessly fabricated, and installed on time and on budget by Matt Construction and Zahner Inc., this energetic renovation of the original Petersen is KPF’s romance with the visual image of aerodynamics of a racecar in a wind tunnel. But this flirtation reads as an excuse to produce visual exuberance, and what we’re left with is an articulated billboard, nostalgically hawking the cosmetics of a familiar, and more primitive digital age.
However, no one can debate that the Petersen now visually owns the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire. A monster truck previously blasted out of the old museum’s facade in an attempt to communicate the contemporary program within. A sleek wrapper has replaced those marketing gimmicks, but programmatic ambiguity remains the architectural imperative of the new Petersen. Becket’s big box is still formally present, but now clad in KPF’s red and silver skin, it’s got “bling” in surplus. Behind the stainless-steel ribbons is a utilitarian rain screen of red corrugated steel, completing a textbook example of Venturi’s decorated shed, but one that offers no clever cues toward its program, nor its larger cultural purpose.
Herein lies the true problem for the Petersen Automotive Museum: The building’s dominating opacity doesn’t work for a block of Wilshire soon to be subway adjacent, and it is assumed, will host more pedestrians as a result. The few sections of glazing at the ground floor are certainly welcome, but the contemporary flaneur needs continuous storefronts stocked with spectacle in order to turn their gaze away from their smart phone. Becket’s original design was certainly no more transparent, but can be excused given its time and program—a postwar department store whose patrons entered from the rear through the parking garage. The contemporary museum visitor may often arrive on foot.
To their credit, the design team at KPF did challenge the client’s brief, which ruled out a curtain wall for both its cost and environmental impact on the collection. They developed the entry as a concourse, or sectional promenade through the building that includes visual connections to the ground floor galleries and restaurant from the interior of the building. This nod to the changing urbanism along Wilshire allows the public to filter into the lobby from both the sidewalk and the parking garage at the rear, either to visit the museum, grab a meal at the restaurant inside the Petersen lobby, or journey onward to LACMA nearby.
The Petersen board championed opaque galleries as an obvious way to mitigate environmental and acoustic issues facing the design. Local architects House Robertson gave the windowless, showroom-like galleries a cosmetic update, but the interiors could have used a more aggressive spatial upgrade in order to push for a stronger urban interface. It is not unusual for another firm to handle the interior of a project this large, but House Robertson ought to have taken more cues from KPF’s facade. Save for a large, open spiral stair—spatially promising at first glance, it reads upon closer inspection as an uninspired cousin to the escalators that once traversed the original department store.
Contemporary architectural discourse has already moved passed the computationally driven exercise of simply wrapping buildings as a means of expression. The really hot projects in the academy right now embrace a kind of complex geometry that migrates from exterior to interior in ambiguous ways, challenging how a building interconnects with both its external context and its users. There’s an opportunity for that moment in the concourse, and where the ribbons wrap to form a shallow brise-soleil on the roof deck, but without a material link from interior to exterior, the projected facade never gains spatial muscle, despite being cantilevered several feet off the primary volume of the museum.
“It makes better sense, of course, to acquire an existing disused building and impose your commercial personality on it with symbolic garnishes,” remarked Reyner Banham on the topic of iconic roadside architecture in Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. But Banham was referring to a burger stand, not a museum. The Petersen board has a track record of searching for an iconic personality for their building by adding such “garnishes” to Welton Becket’s original structure, and the newest offering does little to improve the museum’s connection to the city beyond. While the Petersen’s founding mission may revel in the grand days of car culture, L.A.’s moved on to bike lanes and rapid buses, and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Purple Line Subway extension. Looking east down Wilshire Boulevard, one imagines subway riders emerging from below and skipping the Petersen Automotive Museum entirely beyond perhaps the quick selfie; it’s architecture and collection the vestige an urban idea that Los Angeles just doesn’t need anymore.