Michael Govan on Reconsidering LACMA with Peter Zumthor

This week may turn out to be a historic moment for LACMA and Los Angeles County if indeed we proceed with the new museum plan that we have sketched out with Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, and that we are exhibiting in The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA—opening to members on Thursday and to the public on Sunday, and presented under the auspices of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents series of architecture exhibitions. To complement the other, more historical shows that are part of that initiative, ours is a glimpse of a potential future for architecture in Los Angeles.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

The plan is as thoughtful as it is bold: from its state-of-the-art energy systems that will produce more energy than they use, to its design to have twice as many artworks available and accommodate more visitors while at the same time lowering operating costs, to its futuristic shape that would become an architecture icon for LA. And most importantly, the building is intended to have some of the most beautiful and diverse galleries ever envisioned for exhibiting artworks.

The fundamental idea of rebuilding the east side of LACMA’s campus is one that has gestated for many years, and in fact predates either my own or Zumthor’s involvement. I was inspired when, in 2001, LACMA’s Board of Trustees voted to pursue Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s competition entry, also shown in the exhibition. Rejecting an expansion brief, the plan instead proposed replacing all the museum’s 1965 and 1986 buildings with an entirely new model for organizing and viewing works of art in an encyclopedic museum. (The architecturally significant Pavilion for Japanese Art would be preserved.) LACMA’s original buildings were aging and had numerous functional and building-code challenges; and, since the early 1970s, they also bore no resemblance to William Pereira’s original and elegant vision. They have only become more compromised with each addition. Likewise the 1986 building (now known as the Art of the Americas Building) also had difficulties from its beginnings. Its circulation system connecting all the galleries and buildings was never completed.

Koolhaas and his team argued convincingly that it would be far more efficient to replace them with a new structure than to try to renovate them in the future. LACMA, they asserted, was the only large encyclopedic museum in the world that had an opportunity to reconsider itself completely rather than grow, like others, by the accretion of new spaces grafted onto old ones. LACMA was the only one that could be entirely reimagined for the twenty-first century.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

That big idea was largely what enticed me to move to Los Angeles in 2006 to begin a long-term effort to develop this museum, which had, thanks to the foresight of its trustees, already acquired the adjacent block occupied by the historic May Company building. Plans were already under way to consolidate it into one large campus under the guidance of the architect Renzo Piano with lead philanthropic contributions by Eli and Edythe Broad and Lynda and Stewart Resnick. An expanded Hancock Park on Wilshire Boulevard (inclusive of LACMA and the La Brea Tar Pits at the Page Museum) with planned mass transit could, I thought, become the cultural center of what likely will become the largest, most diverse, and most important metropolis in the nation. As LACMA’s facilities grew, so too did its already impressive collection. In the last six years alone, the museum’s exceptional curators have pursued an incredible number of transformative acquisitions—from individual masterworks by Jacques-Louis David, Thomas Eakins, and Henri Matisse to game-changing collections like the Lazarof Collection of modern art; the Vernon Collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photography; and collections of ancient American art, objects from the Pacific Islands, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European fashions. All of this only enhanced a vast collection that already boasted iconic works like Rene Magritte’s Treachery of Images, the 16th-century Ardabil Carpet, and much more. Given their high quality and scope, LACMA’s extensive art collections—which speak to many times, places, and people—are the obvious core of a multicultural center for Los Angeles.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Working first to expand Piano’s plan to include the Resnick Pavilion, an open-air plaza, and a number of large-scale public artworks, I then began to consider even more ambitious possibilities. What if, instead of being hidden, a museum’s collections were visible even when they were in storage? What if art objects could be methodically rotated to describe many cultural stories and not just one chronological and geographic historical narrative? What if there could be a comfortable and seamless transition from the casual space of an outdoor plaza to the inner sanctum of a meditative gallery? Could a museum have lots of windows to see outside, could kids be accommodated as easily as art historians, and could an arrangement of coincident spaces be suited to contemplation, education, or just hanging out? And instead of being a notorious energy hog, could a public museum building collect the energy of the sun to give back to its environment? Could the art museum’s architecture be reconsidered from scratch? These were some of my questions.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Art museums in the United States have been established and developed over the last 150 years, during which time art, art history, and the world have changed dramatically. Certainly museums have evolved, especially over the last few decades—consider, for example, the invention of blockbuster exhibitions, new conservation methodologies, or vastly expanded educational initiatives, community outreach, and diversification of collections.

Yet the general organization and practice of art museums have not been fundamentally reconsidered since before the development of media like photography and film, the advent of modernism in art and design, or the invention of the airplane, which has altered the initial premise of presenting artworks from places people couldn’t likely visit. The centrality of the direct experience with art demands a new paradigm.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

With the aim to develop LACMA into one of the most inventive and forward-thinking art museums in the world, I called architect Peter Zumthor nearly the day I decided to accept the position of director seven years ago. Having already worked with him and visited all his buildings (including two museums), I was convinced that he had the skills, the experience, and the sensitivity to reconsider LACMA. Peter Zumthor’s architecture has no signature style; rather, it is always a specific response to a particular circumstance and location. Our museum occupies a very special site: the Miracle Mile corridor of Wilshire Boulevard, one of L.A.’s key arteries. Surrounded by a stylistically diverse cluster of buildings from different eras, LACMA is within Hancock Park, which was founded around the incomparable, otherworldly La Brea Tar Pits, with their links to a primordial Pleistocene Los Angeles.

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

Installation view, The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA

With support from LACMA’s trustees and the County of Los Angeles, we have worked carefully over the last six years to develop this preliminary plan. Our goal is to create a new LACMA that would be responsive to its existing environment and have the potential to inspire its future. This exhibition is intended to give the public a sense of this process in its early stages within the context of the history of this unique and significant site.

Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director

7 Responses to Michael Govan on Reconsidering LACMA with Peter Zumthor

  1. Russ says:

    Looks like Pee-wee Herman riding his bike in the 5th photo. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I can’t wait to see the exhibit tomorrow. I live in the area and this will be a welcomed addition to our community.

  3. Mattia Nuzzo says:

    It was a great pleasure seeing the exhibit this past weekend. LACMA as place was deftly explored in a beautiful format. The site’s rich history is an opportunity that up until this point has been largely ignored, and it was incredibly exciting to see these initial plans take it into account in such an intelligent and sensitive way. I can only hope that this exhibition inspires other vistors as much as it did for me. Should it succeed, the expansion would create a space for art unlike any other in the world, inexorably tied to the dynamic metropolis of Los Angeles that surrounds it. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

  4. Michael Bobrow, FAIA says:

    When visiting the exhibit today I was struck by the wonderful juxtaposition of the Richter exhibit with Zumthor’s concepts.

    The strength of the Richter exhibit is that it puts in place the broad range of artists works within the evolution of twentieth century art, film making and design.

    It also gives us a way to see Zumthors work in its place within the evolution of Los Angeles and the LACMA campus. Much rich architectural thought has been given over time to the development of the campus and is wonderfully shown in the exhibit.

    The major gift of these earlier studies is that they show that a campus is never complete and that master planning strategies must allow for following projects to be developed. The current project is not the last work to be built on this campus and the strength of the last few projects individual solutions demonstrates how a flexible strategy can allow for unique projects.

    The strength of Zumthor’s work has been in creating wonderful poetic spaces. The exhibit’s smaller scale models show this gift. He also shows his sensitivity with the elegant flip of the public circulation to the periphery while allowing the exhibit spaces be in light enclosed environments. And with this reversal of position it remarkably links the building to its context- a major urbanistic gesture that future buildings can learn from.

    The plan doesn’t yet explain why this specific shape- its design, its footprint is the way it is. Much like the water lilies in a paintings’ field this form has to be refined to find a balance with the issues of the the site, the entry sequence, the outdoor public spaces and the links to the existing buildings. It’s form will be adjusted to show the design of the spaces in between and within the larger surround. And it’s in that resolution with its context where the design will be most importantly measured by the public.

    Michael Bobrow, FAIA

  5. GED says:

    Today, I spent quite a bit of time at the LACMA Museum’s rebuilding exhibit, looking at the models, watching the several videos related to Zumthor and the new plan. While I found the Zumthor buildings (both built and unbuilt) to be arresting, I have to say that I did not like what I saw of the plans for the east end of the LACMA campus. The black biomorphically shaped building seemed to be some kind of elaboration on the tar pits (a bad joke maybe?) and an oppositional response to the very white Getty Museum. It also reminded me a bit of the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. (from ground level only) where one can look through the ground floor of the building to the other side.

    But mostly what it seemed was completely out of context. This is interesting considering that one of Zumthor’s most striking buildings was (don’t recall the name) a museum that blended new concrete walls with the old historical walls of a church in Cologne, Germany. So how did the person who strived so hard to contextualize the Cologne building come up with something so antithetical to the surrounding terrain in Los Angeles?

    It reminded me of that awful idea of having Jeff Koons hang a $25 million railroad engine overhead along Wilshire Boulevard, which was fortuitously replaced (hopefully into eternity) by the wonderful Chris Burden street lights piece.

    And so how does this very successful Burden artwork that refers to in a very strong way to L.A.’s past seem when placed next to the model of Zumthor’s new version of LACMA? Answer: very, very out of place. Kind of stuck in because they had to leave the street lights there. Importantly, Mr. Govan, you should consider this to be a warning shot that the Zumthor building isn’t right as a companion piece to the street lights, but also for the city and shouldn’t be built.

    Instead, why don’t you try to buy the Pieter Bruegel away from the LACMA’s old director, Graham Beal, who is now at the Detroit Institute of Art. Now that would be something worth adding to the Los Angeles neighborhood in which LACMA resides. Museum Director and Architect need to go visit (probably re-visit) the Menil building in Houston which has the difficult task of blending into a very residential neighborhood. Take a look and think on it!

  6. RG says:

    Fussing about the architectural unity of the existing campus seems like expensive intellectual posturing. LACMA is a gaggle of diverse and interesting spaces – indoors and out – like the city it serves. The Zumthor design is a large tar blob floating over a desert, and while that may reference the site’s past it’s a lousy way to spend 100’s of millions of dollars which could be better spent on the museum’s collection.

    This project appears to be an extension of the sideshow that brought a boulder to LACMA costing $10,000,000. Moving it was the only interesting thing about it. We don’t know how the Picts moved their stones to the Salisbury plain but what they created is art. Our “Levitated Mass” is a boulder stuck in a culvert.

    A Museum is about what’s inside it; the building needn’t be an “icon”.

  7. Denise says:

    Try as I might, I cannot imagine the Guggenheim without it’s older buildings–so to with LACMA. I love the fact of “heritage in LA” when so many of the old (funky & classic) building are raised. Recently I saw the classic 50’s grocery store transformed into something even stronger– keeping the outside shell, but building a new interior from scraped dirt. The massing and presence with respected and that “memory” of the place remains intact. So I am pleading to have the privilege of some day walking with my grandkids and telling them how in the 50’s my folks took me to LACMA. How those buildings transformed my mind and life. How that place, theater, surrounding gardens, each building filled with artworks all transformed so very many individuals. How I met Frank Gehry at the crossing signal, Tracey Ullman at the fountain throwing coins, how we saw Bob Newhart & his baseball uniform son viewing the Impressionists, how sitting at the Bing Theater behind Chuck Jones & Friz Freleng, introduced me to Chuck and began my work with him…not to mention the memories of a lifetime of exhibits, which all involve the memory of the space of the displays. Years of hearing concerts of Concerts on the Roof, classic movies, friends’ lectures and openings…LACMA is our home for the arts. We really love those buildings and no offense I love the new, weird, unfamiliar, but keep the Guggenheim in mind. I would love to keep my cake and eat it too.

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