Can a Museum Curate Itself?

by Richard Risemberg

July 2013–The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently announced yet another winner in its seemingly accursed search for a new campus—a search that has been going on for too long now—or perhaps not long enough.

The museum’s original buildings, a gathering of stately if terminally banal colonnaded cubes just west of the famed La Brea Tar Pits, are more reminiscent of 1960s savings & loan branches than a major cultural institution. However, the procession of failed plans to better them has shown that bold vision in and of itself has not sufficed to realize their replacement—especially as, incomprehensible though it seems to many of us, the old marble doilies have their fans.

Over the years, the campus lost its reflective pools to tar intrusions, which provided a handy excuse to add the Anderson building, soon renamed the Arts of the Americas, a strangely eclectic edifice whose cladding alternates a vigorous mingling of marble and glass brick with puzzling iterations of textured white bulges, which rather resemble a towering display of toilet paper in some bigbox store. Nevertheless, a grand Wilshire entrance topped by a glass-and-steel canopy made for a dramatic transition to the courtyard—until LACMA acquired the celebrated Chris Burden “Urban Light” lammpost array and moved the entrance half a block west.

The first attempt at wholesale renovation came in 2001, when Rem Koolhaus declared that the best thing to do was to tear down all the buildings and put the museum underground, with a framed translucent simulacrum of a tent undulating over it all to keep out the rain. Sort of a postmodern version of Queen Victoria’s Crystal Palace. This design was widely hated and went nowhere.

The next starchitect to enter the fray was Renzo Piano, commissioned to “transform” LACMA. What he came up with looked rather like an anorexic aircraft carrier, which sailed into oblivion unmourned. Piano did, however, draw up the very effective and quite handsome Broad and Resnick buildings that now show contemporary art in the west end of the campus. He also closed a street that bisected the campus and replaced it with a pavilion between the old and new buildings, as well as moving the parking underground to make room for the Resnick. Along the way architect Bruce Goff shaped the wonderful Pavilion for Japanese Art.

But now we have Peter Zumthor, who again proposes tearing down the old buildings (which sentiment I share), but, in opposition to Koolhas, putting the new museum in the air….

Zumthor's design for LACMA, view of model from above
The “Black Flower” in context; architectural model on display at LAMCA

His proposed replacement could be problematical. Referred to as the “Black Flower,” and alleged to have been inspired by a blob of petroleum oozing from the adjacent Tar Pits, it is perhaps more reminiscent of a freeform 1960’s coffeetable, or perhaps a deranged pirate amoeba. It spreads an undulating black sprawl of pseudopods in all directions around the Tar Pits and the existing keeper buildings, and would stand on eight ovoid glass nacelles through which patrons would enter, and which would hold art, or perhaps snack bars, variously. All vertical surfaces would be dark glass. And yes, in the renderings and models it generates very much the street-level sensation of a cluster of corporate towers, or—worse yet—an airport. While the vast expanse of the building would allow for plenty of solar cells up top, it also would overwhelm park and patrons alike—and its tribute to the region’s “horizontality,” as stated by Zumthor, celebrates LA’s most shameful characteristic, the sprawl that has made our region unsustainable.

Close-up of Black Flower from a pedestrian's eye level
How it would look as you walk up to it

Furthermore, the shapes of the nacelles and the spaces they create underneath the great black blob almost ensure a venturi effect that could generate blasting winds when the daily seabreeze kicks in. The widely-separated square buildings on Wilshire already create a milder version of this, as anyone who has walked along the boulevard any time after eleven AM already knows. This would kill pedestrian life under the amoeba—which I suppose makes it very LA, in the wrongest way possible.

Dark corridors of the Black Flower
Wind could be a problem here; it certainly is on adjacent Wilshire Boulevard between the tall buildings

In short, let’s hope that third time’s NOT the charm here, and that reflection, reconsideration, and yet another architect come up with something better. LAMCA’s collection grows and improves year by year, and it deserves a home that will complement, not compete, with it. And certainly one that embraces, rather than crushes, its park, its neighborhood, and its patrons’ souls.

Text by Richard Risemberg, photos by Gina Morey Risembereg

About Rick Risemberg

Rick was born in Argentina but grew up in Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in Hollywood. He also spent several months living in Montmartre, in Paris, France, one of the most delightful as well as effective human scale communities anywhere, and now resides in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, a high-density and eminently walkable neighborhood where nearly his every need is within a twenty-minute stroll of the apartment. He maintains the Bicycle Fixation Webzine and Urban Ecology Forum; you may see them atwww.bicyclefixation.com. You may visit portfolios of his writing, photography, and web design work at www.rickrise.com.