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DOUBLE FEATURE : All of a Sudden, Los Angeles Has Two New Showplaces for Art

November 09, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic.

The opening of a major museum of art is a momentous event in the life of any city, a time to sound the trumpets. In the last decade, new and recast museums have opened in a flurry of civic pride in Washington, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, London, Paris, Frankfurt and Cologne. Indeed, art appreciation has taken on the form of a religion in this acquisitive, secular age, and museums have become a measure of municipal worth, as cathedrals were in centuries past.

Now it is Los Angeles' turn for the international pursuit of cultural glory. But in this land of double features, of Rams and Raiders, Dodgers and Angels, USC and UCLA, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, the city is about to get not merely one but what amounts to two new museums. And true to the city's reputation for dazzling premieres, they will be dedicated within three weeks of each other. Representatives of both museums insist that this is pure coincidence caused by the caprice of construction and exhibit schedules.

Opening first, on Nov. 23, will be the expanded Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring a substantial new building--the Robert O. Anderson--to serve special exhibitions and to house the museum's permanent collection of 20th-Century art. The slick but subdued Post-Modern Anderson Building and a spacious central courtyard will unite the museum's original trio of scattered, stylized buildings into a single streamlined complex. The $35-million project in the mid-Wilshire district is the work of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, a New York-based firm known for its innovative museum designs.

Seventeen days later, on Dec. 10, the new Museum of Contemporary Art will open as the glistening centerpiece in the planned California Plaza, the massive redevelopment effort reshaping Bunker Hill and the downtown skyline. The $23-million museum, dedicated to displaying art produced within the last half-century, is a striking collection of cylindrical, cubic, vaulted and pyramidal forms in a variety of construction materials and lush finishes. The emphatically contemporary complex is the first major U.S. design by renowned Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and is expected to generate international attention. Isozaki was assisted by the Los Angeles firm of Gruen Associates.

The practical Post-Modernism of the county museum addition and the mannered minimalism of the Museum of Contemporary Art are inventive architectural responses to a host of demanding requirements and sharp physical constraints. Both the architects also had to contend with heavy doses of museum politics.

At the county museum, there were the curators, each seeking the maximum and best space for their collections. Also to be dealt with were the benefactors. And, of course, there were the administrators and trustees. None of these groups is known to be shy. As a result, the process of allocating space was, as museum director Earl (Rusty) Powell III puts it, "delicate." Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer has a reputation for finessing just such balancing acts.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Isozaki did not have to contend with curators--there weren't any at the time--but instead with a strong-willed trustee: philanthropist Max Palevsky, who was then one of the museum's principal benefactors.

The Tokyo-based Isozaki won the museum commission in 1981 on the basis of his striking designs in Japan. But a year later, at a heavily publicized press conference, he unveiled a surprisingly bland scheme for MOCA. It quickly became apparent that even Isozaki was not pleased with the plan and instead preferred three more interesting designs he just happened to have with him. Under lively questioning, he acknowledged that the selected "final" scheme had been done only at the insistence of the trustees' building committee, headed by Palevsky. Pressed further, Isozaki said he was considering resigning.

In the controversy that followed, the museum's then-director, Pontus Hulten, and his deputy, Richard Koshalek (the present MOCA director), announced that they would also resign if Isozaki was not given a freer hand. In the end, Palevsky was elbowed out of the process and eventually sued the museum to recoup $500,000 he had donated to the project and to avoid paying another $500,000 that he had pledged. Isozaki was allowed to go back to the drafting board.

WHILE THE MUSEUM OFCONTEMPORARY Art was to be designed from scratch, the county museum was an aging, confused conglomeration. More and better space was needed to display the museum's collection and traveling exhibits, and for services, staff and storage. The three original buildings--the Ahmanson, Hammer and Bing--were designed by the late William Pereira and constructed in 1964 in the then-popular neoclassical, cultural-campus style. They had not aged well.

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