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Sam Hall Kaplan

Museum Facades: Hint of Quality

September 07, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The construction and expansion of art museums continues to dominate the architectural scene here and abroad, having become, for the cities, the cathedrals of the 1980s, and for architects, a most coveted commission.

Certainly, the prime architectural event of the fall in Los Angeles will be the openings--within a few weeks of each other--of the expanded and recast County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the new Museum of Contemporary Art.

The architectural impact of the LACMA expansion already can be experienced on Wilshire Boulevard. now that the scaffolding has been taken down from the expansive, 300-foot-long facade of the new wing and grand front entry.

How well the ambitious expansion, combined with the delicate weaving of the museum's disparate elements, will serve, specifically, the art, and, generally, the viewers, of course, must await the project's opening in late November.

But, meanwhile, the facade hints at an imaginative architecture that augurs well for the entire project and for a struggling Wilshire Boulevard.

Designed by the New York- based firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the facade of horizontal bands of buff-colored limestone, green terra cotta and glass block makes an engaging original statement.

Yet its coloring, styling and massing acknowledges the eclectic Modern and Moderne motif of Wilshire Boulevard, in addition to masking quite well the faded facade of the original museum complex designed by Pereira & Associates and opened in 1964.

What we are seeing is the transformation of a suburban-styled art center in the Monumental-Modern style that was very much in vogue in the 1960s into an urban and urbane form. It is a sophisticated Post-Modernism that Wilshire Boulevard needs if the revitalization taking root there is to have any distinction.

The imaginative form of the facade also makes one anticipate with some confidence of experiencing the function that will go on behind it: The function being the bottom line of this complicated architectural formula.

Hinting also that it will serve art, the viewer and the surrounding California Plaza and downtown community well is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which is scheduled to open its doors Dec. 10.

The finishing touches are now being put on the cluster of geometric shapes that form what amounts to a multileveled village of galleries and administrative and service spaces, the total of which is the museum.

The mix of shapes, colors and materials, in particular its predominate red sandstone cladding, already has attracted much attention and respectful comments in architectural circles for its designer, Arata Isozaki of Tokyo. The museum is his first free-standing project in the United States.

Like the expansion of LACMA, MOCA's style can be loosely classified as Post-Modern. Certainly, it is singular and, in a downtown with little architectural distinction, welcome.

And also, like the LACMA expansion, how successful the architecture is must await the opening of the museum and its functioning. Until that time, one remains cautiously optimistic.

The caution here is prompted by the rampant facadism in architecture today. While a project might look good, that does not necessarily mean it is good. Architecture is an art that is more than surface.

For example, for years I had been fascinated with the work of Ricardo Bofill and his Barcelona-based office, the Taller de Arquitectura, pouring over the photographs of his projects and reading with sympathy articles about him.

Here was an architect and office that declared their basic concern was "to create places for human life," and that architectural space should be organized to promote intimacy, security and identity. It was an engaging view of which I am quite sympathetic.

But if the words were engaging, more so were the photographs of Bofill's individualistic projects: earlier futuristic, multi-use, colorful creations rising on the coast of Spain and, more recently, monumental exercises in concrete classicism lending style and wit to housing developments in and around Paris.

Experiencing them was another matter, and disappointing.

Though looking different from the typically bland housing projects, they did not seem to work any better. The settings were formal and bare and the massing anonymous and overbearing.

In addition, the ground floors did not lend themselves well to stores and services and they discouraged activity. One had the feeling of being on a grand stage set of a totalitarian farce, not unlike in the film "Brazil."

In Barcelona, where the city anticipates being awarded the 1992 Olympics, I got to examine the plans Bofill had submitted for a sports facility. Like the Paris housing projects, it too had an engaging neo-classical facade of symmetrical windows and other studied detailing.

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