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Museum Facade and Art Function: New Babylon Meets Wilshire Boulevard

November 15, 1987|Allan Temko | Allan Temko, architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, this fall visited new Southern California arts facilties.

Whether the big new wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is seen as a wild Art Deco put-on or an improvement that at last allows LACMA to function as a decent museum--and it's possible to see this mixed-up building both ways--there's no question that the Los Angeles cultural Establishment blew a $35-million chance to transform its worst mistake of the 1960s into an exalted work of architectural art.

Why LACMA should get such poor results on Wilshire Boulevard while the Museum of Contemporary Art was doing far better downtown is anyone's guess. MOCA may not be a museum of the future but LACMA is turning out to be yesterday's museum of tomorrow--today.

For everything about the Robert O. Anderson Building, as the new wing is called after the beneficent former head of ARCO, harks back half a century and more to a mythic L.A. of the movies' palmy days when buildings could be tricked out as stage sets. Like a '30s hangover, here is a tremendous piece of scenery, 300 feet across and stepping up like a bland, asymmetrical ziggurat to its full height of 100 feet.

The materials carry a nostalgic aura. Broad horizontal bands of tawny Minnesota limestone and bluish-green glass blocks, Moderne-era favorites, are laced through by thin emerald lines of glazed terra cotta, another nearly extinct material that has been lately revied by post-modern historicists. And cut out of the predominantly yellow wall, as if it were butter, is a mock-imperial portal--as high as a five-story building and 50 feet wide--that could have been cribbed from an extravaganza by Cecil B. DeMille.

This stroke of drama, through which horsemen might gallop in Roman armor, is obviously meant to upstage older parts of the museum, which are partly screened from Wilshire but not wholly eclipsed by the new wing. It's a pity that they couldn't be altogether erased (although eventually they will be disguised by new masonry shells) because the original scheme by the late William L. Pereira was hopelessly out of date when it opened in 1964.

Indeed, the aim of the present architects, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York and Los Angeles, with Norman Pfeiffer in charge of the design, can't be understood except as a riposte to Pereira's triad of pompous pavilions, set back deeply from Wilshire in a U-shaped pattern without the slightest respect for the street, like a suburban mortuary.

Of all the pseudo-cultural American monuments from the 1960s, when Mussolini's notions of architecture were resurrected at Lincoln Center and exported westward from New York, LACMA was probably the most bogus. Although the buildings were straightforwardly framed in steel, to lighten their loads on the squishy terrain near the La Brea tar pits, the spindly uprights, coated with concrete, had about as much structural vitality as congealed toothpaste. The banality of the exteriors was exceeded by the nouveau-riche fussiness of the galleries and the intractable layout, hampering all the operations run from a once-dingy netherworld of basement offices.

The final embarrassment occurred after primordial tar seeped into the museum's outer circuit of shallow moats and fountains, which were filled in the '70s and turned into a sculpture garden. By the end of the decade--before serious planning got under way for MOCA--the powers at LACMA knew that a drastic overhaul and major expansion were needed for the museum to accommodate growing and vastly improved collections.

What LACMA could have used at that point was dynamite. But donors of the Ahmanson, Hammer and Bing pavilions were very much on the scene; and out of tact or terror the museum and Pfeiffer hit on a strategy that would convert the U-plan into a square by adding a new wing on Wilshire, leaving the existing buildings to be put right as time and money permitted.

The concept made economic sense and included the dividend of a spectacular enclosed space, which has ended up as the Times Mirror Central Court--twice the area, at 40,000 square feet, of the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Such a court, done properly, would provide the clear focus--a grand place of arrival--that LACMA had always lacked. At the same time, if the court were properly entered from Wilshire, the problem of a missing main entrance would be solved in a museum which hitherto confronted the visitor with a bewildering choice of trivial access-ways.

Then the Anderson Building, with 115,000 square feet of exhibition, storage and administrative space, would be a sizable museum in itself, slightly larger than MOCA where the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was faced with the difficulty of placing most of a 100,000-foot museum underground.

Quite apart from the theatrical facade on Wilshire, basically a slickly manipulated blank wall making no overtures to passers-by, the Anderson Building starts to fall apart as a concept upon entry to the grandiose portal.

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