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Museums Grab Design Headlines

Sam Hall Kaplan

November 30, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Museums continue to dominate the design scene in Los Angeles.

Opening last week was the expanded and recast Los Angeles County Museum of Art, fashioned by the ever-inventive Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates.

In a process that is continuing, the firm has transformed an aging and awkward complex into a contemporary, functioning facility, monumental and welcome.

Hopefully, it will not scare people who are more comfortable with the stylized, suburban campus form of the old complex, or who are confused by the emergence of an urban architecture in Los Angeles that actually addresses the street and solves problems.

The facade of buff-colored limestone, glass block and green terra cotta along Wilshire Boulevard works well as an architectural statement for the museum, and should work even better when extended to enclose a sculpture garden to the west at the corner of Ogden Avenue.

It is also nice to finally have a grand entrance to the museum and a central court lending some logic to circulation and tying the complex together with an inviting, sociable space.

But best of all are the galleries in the new Robert O. Anderson Building, particularly those on the fourth level when lit during the day by natural light filtered through skylights and the glass block. It is there, in the flow of galleries and the display of the art, that the design truly triumphs.

That is what art museums are supposed to be all about: providing wall space to hang art and the best light possible to see it in.

Also within the last month there was the ground breaking in Griffith Park of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, designed by Widom Wein Cohen with a respectful tip of a weighty 10-gallon hat to California's fanciful architectural heritage.

Though the galleries and services in plan do not seem to flow as easily as they perhaps could, final judgment will await the opening of the ambitious facility. Then, no doubt, it will be inundated with children, the ultimate test of any design.

In less happy news of museums, there was, within the last month, the unfortunate withdrawal of an imaginative plan by Frederick Weisman to convert the historic Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills into a museum for his impressive modern art collection.

The plan had come under fire from a few local Philistines and the deadly demagogic duo of council members Robert K. Tanenbaum and Charlotte Spadaro. In the discussions of Greystone, as well as the civic center project, they have turned the Beverly Hills City Council into a provincial folly, and an embarrassment.

Upcoming on the museum scene is the opening next week of the much heralded Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art which, like the rededication of the county museum, promises to be a gala international art and architectural event.

The glistening geometric forms of the downtown museum beckon. Designed with a flair by Arata Isozaki, the assemblage should satisfy local appetites for museum architecture for at least a few months.

But just a few, for in the spring Richard Meier is scheduled to reveal his preliminary design concept for the Getty museum and arts complex, which is to eventually rise on an immodest site above Brentwood now known locally as Gettysburg.

Meier has indicated that in deference to the site and its neighbors, his design will not be another white porcelain paneled exercise in monumentality for which he made his reputation. Rather, he said, he will be using wood and stone to create a design more sympathetic with the site.

Whatever Meier produces, whether contextual or anti-contextual, organic or inorganic, open or cloistered, it will be sure to stir debate. That is what happens when you are working with an anticipated construction budget in excess of $100 million.

Also at work on a museum project in Los Angeles is renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta. Though the project involving a master plan and expansion of the Southwest Museum has a relatively modest anticipated cost of $10 million, it promises to be quite exciting.

Though not heralded, the project certainly has to be one of the more challenging, and important, in Los Angeles.

Designed in a Mission style by Sumner Hunt and Silar Burns and built in 1914, the museum has one of the best anthropological collections in the nation of Indian and Hispanic artifacts.

Nevertheless, the museum has long been neglected, in part because of its out-of-the-way (read: not downtown or on the Westside) location on a Mt. Washington hilltop on the edge of unfashionable Highland Park. Brentwood it is not.

I suspect the museum's popularity and ability to attract support also has been hampered by the fact that it deals not with the myths of the West, but its realities, including those of Los Angeles. When it comes to Indians and Latinos, that history does particularly shine.

However, because of these reasons, the expansion and recasting of the Southwest Museum potentially is most provocative. It offers the city and its cultural community a chance to reach out to a growing Latino population, as well to help stabilize a neighborhood. Beverly Hills it is not.

The museum project also should be an interesting local showcase for the estimable talents of Legoretta.

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