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A CRITIC'S VIEW / ART : A Classic Exhibit in a Contemporary Setting : In Bruce Goff's Pavilion for Japanese Art, a Rotating Collection of Traditional Works

September 25, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

The jewel is in the crown.

For months now, browsers by the La Brea Tar Pits have watched a fantastic $13 million edifice arise from the County Museum of Art's northeast sculpture garden. Today it opens to the public, the permanent Pavilion for Japanese Art and Joe D. Price's splendid bravura scroll and screen paintings known as the Shin'enkan collection.

In Hancock Park did Rusty Powell a stately pleasure dome decree.

It's a curious affair. Two cylindrical towers encrusted in pale green stone rise like donjon sentinels acting as hubs for spokes fanning out to a concrete span. The imagination hallucinates on images of Samurai guards in black lobster shell armor pacing the battlements.

Between the towers hover prow-shaped roofs, parting the air while below pleated walls look for all the world like Japanese shoji screens. Imagination drifts off to sampans or the roof of Le Corbusier's Ronchamp church while the practical lobe wonders how those delicate, paper-thin uprights can support that massive roof. Well, they aren't paper, they are a plastic Industrial-Age equivalent called Kalwall and they don't hold up the roof. That job is accomplished by cables suspended from gold, scimitar-shaped supports criss-crossed above.

It is a startling spectacle and everybody is going to love it.

If, that is, they can get over the feeling it looks like a 1950s coffee shop. One hot java and two egg rolls, over easy.

It was one of those insights that winds up saying more to the credit of '50s coffee-shop design than to the debit of this building.

One watched the structure materialize with itching anxiety through seasons of dry leaves and hopeful blossoms. Gradually it was clear that this is no exercise in perverse eccentricity but a logical and beautifully balanced architectural solution--not rational T-square logic but romantic logic on the order of that exercised by Antonio Gaudi, Paolo Soleri or Simon Rodia.

It is a work of the highest order of imaginative independence, utterly practical in the realization of its aims, unfettered in inventive impulse. Far from clanging with existing LACMA buildings, it somehow focuses and integrates the agreeable exoticism of the Anderson Building and the shady central court into the feeling of a place that is at once welcoming and off life's beaten track.

LACMA's decision-makers suffered a stroke of genius approving a building that may well be itself a work of genius.

What genius?

The late Bruce Goff designed the building for Price in Oklahoma. It was translated into working drawings for LACMA by his former associate, Bart Prince. Goff was something of an architect's architect, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. He practiced in the Midwest until he died at 78 in 1982.

Despite a productive career and influence on other architects, including Los Angeles' Frank Gehry, Goff remained little known hereabouts, so it is a lucky thing an exhibition devoted to his career was planned to coincide with the opening of the pavilion.

The exhibition, called (unfortunately) "Toward Absolute Architecture" and on view to Nov. 27, reveals Goff as a historical eclectic whose influences ranged from Viennese Jugendstil to Indian stupas integrated by organic visionary forms that look like everything from metaphysical conch-curves to fly's-eye facets to Bucky Fuller domes.

Buildings range from rocky medieval introversion to flying fancies a la Taliesen. Looking at the exhibition confirms a suspicion that, if anything, the Japanese Pavilion is not too outrageous but too austere.

Goff worked surfaces with everything from feathers to leaves to mosaics of his own design. The ice-cream-green pavilion, by contrast, is relatively plain-surfaced except for the odd touch of gold, rock and black mosaic. Sure enough, it turns out that more elaboration was planned, but it was suppressed to save on an already-pricey project and perhaps, quite rightly, to avoid distracting from the art. All the same, one misses the encrustations implied by Goff's sensibility.

The new curator of Japanese art, Robert T. Singer, says that the pavilion has nothing to do with traditional Japanese architecture, and he should know, having lived there for 14 years. Nonetheless the fun of the building and the measure of Goff's sensibility is in his ability to evoke the whole palette of characteristics linked to Japan and its art without copying their forms. Poetry is a lot more pungent than reproduction.

Japanese reverence for nature seeps from a structure that meanders, innocent of right angles and straight lines. Approach across a suspended ramp that evokes Shogun castles and enter a temple-like precinct only to find yourself in a round lobby glassed to let in Japanese nature with its gingkoes and omnipresent evergreens.

If you can't get over the new idea that Japan is about high-tech refinement, you can get to the galleries on a lift so slick the museum gang calls it the beam-me-up-Scotty elevator.

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