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Core values: Zumthor's design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Swiss architect experiments organic shapes in a museum for the city that fluctuates over the landscape

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, re-energised over the past seven years by its director, Michael Govan, has unveiled an audacious scheme to replace its decrepit and dysfunctional core. An exhibition of models and drawings, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, is on display to 15 September. Taking his cues from the horizontality of LA and the tar pits that adjoin the expansive site, the Swiss architect sketched a biomorphic form comprising a single floor of galleries, wrapped in glass and supported on transparent plinths. The building would hover over landscaped open space like a great black flower, reaching out to Renzo Piano’s axial additions and Bruce Goff’s quirky Japanese Pavilion, as well as to the reticent George Page Museum, which exhibits mastodon bones retrieved from the tar. It’s a design that evolved organically from six years of informal discussions, and it responds to the multi-cultural metropolis, the challenge of the site and the opportunity to present an encyclopaedic collection in an entirely new way.

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Concept sketch of Zumthor’s LACMA proposal

Rem Koolhaas took an equally bold approach when he won the 2001 competition to remodel LACMA with a proposal to tear down everything but the Goff and install the entire collection within a huge translucent hangar. The design was schematic, but it prompted fresh thinking: the old buildings weren’t worth the expense of renewing. In the early ’60s, when LACMA was split off from the LA County Museum of History, Science and Art, its first director argued for a building by Mies. That was too adventurous for the trustees, who picked William Pereira to design a mini-Lincoln Center: three paper-thin pavilions on a podium that seemed to float on water. Tar seeped into the pool, which was quickly drained; the pavilions were submerged in a bombastic 1986 addition that presents a blank wall to Wilshire Boulevard. The complex is a great muddle, aesthetically and in organisation, and the original buildings are seismically deficient. ‘If there were a big earthquake, you’d be safer standing under Michael Heizer’s rock,’ says Govan, referring to the museum’s celebrated example of earth art.

Though the trustees approved the Koolhaas scheme, it quickly floundered for lack of leadership and uncertainty on costs. Instead, they commissioned RPBW to masterplan the site, creating a new entry on an axis from the street, and new galleries astride an east-west axis (AR May 2005). This extends through the core buildings and links them to a former department store that LACMA planned to remodel for itself, but has now leased to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its film museum.

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Govan arrived at LACMA in 2006 with strong opinions on the fusion of art and architecture. At the Guggenheim he had worked with Frank Gehry on Bilbao, and as director of the DIA Art Foundation in New York he created the DIA Beacon gallery from a former factory, and approved Walter de Maria’s choice of Zumthor to design a 5,000 square metre pavilion to house the I Ching, one of his largest installations − a project as yet unrealised. The architect’s mastery of light and space in his Bregenz and Cologne museums made him an ideal choice for LACMA, and the DIA project suggested he could make a leap in scale and complexity.

‘I knew we wanted an architect with a great sensitivity to the site’, says Govan. ‘At first, we never considered what a new building would look like − neither of us thinks that way. I showed him Rem’s plan and we exchanged ideas, using words like transparency, accessibility and non-hierarchical. I wanted a horizontal museum with no primary facade; one that can be approached from any direction with all the galleries on one level.’

The allocation of space had been worked out in 2000; now it was time to consider the ways it could be used to intensify the art-going experience. Too many museums (MoMA is a prime example) behave like sharks, constantly moving forward, adding wings and gobbling up everything in their path. Govan decided to stay within the footprint of the old complex and accept a closed form that cannot be added to. ‘When the envelope grows too large it burdens the site and the budget, while diminishing the quality of the experience,’ he insists. ‘We should consider other sites in the county for future growth.’

Removing staff offices to a new building across the street helps add 7,000 square metres of display space, which should be sufficient for the next 25 years. There is no closed storage; rather, secondary items are tightly clustered and put on public view, in contrast to spare displays of one or two exceptional pieces.

Signature works, such as the huge Tony Smith sculpture, will be installed at points of entry, and visitors will move around the periphery on what Zumthor calls ‘a transparent veranda rather than a Beaux-Arts spine’. Break-out areas punctuate the grid, and a rare Persian carpet surrounded by steps evokes the enclosed garden of the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion. The museum was designed from the inside out and that process generated the shell; now the interior has to be fleshed out and the exhibition can only hint at what that holds in store. The plinths will house ancillary functions and provide multiple points of access.

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What makes this project so extraordinary, besides the originality of its form, is the extended period of gestation. Client and architect rethought every aspect of an encyclopaedic museum, as though the institution was beginning from scratch. Govan wants to increase attendance while providing more opportunities for quiet contemplation. He seeks a configuration that would allow art works to be rotated to tell different stories, dissolving the boundaries of geography and historical chronology.

The linear narrative of Western art doesn’t work for pre-Colombian and Asian cultures, where time may be considered as a circular phenomenon. Walls can also be eliminated or moved inside, to provide a seamless link between the urban landscape and interior spaces, and allow selected objects to be on view, day and night. Most remarkably, the solar panels that cover the roof will generate more energy than the building consumes, greatly reducing the cost of the operation.

If the trustees approve the scheme and are able to raise the funds (currently estimated at $650 million), the new museum could open in 2025. It will take vision and philanthropy of a kind that LA has rarely manifested in the century since swashbuckling pioneers conjured a metropolis from the desert. Govan is convinced it can be done, and the construction of Piano’s Resnick Pavilion and major site-specific art works, as well as a quantum leap in acquisition funds support his case. LACMA’s collections are exemplary; they deserve the finest frame. And a city that routinely settles for second-rate architecture needs a worthy civic hub.

 

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