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CRITIQUE : Hammer's Modest Museum : HAMMER: Museum

January 13, 1991|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

The architectural style of the many new art museums built in the United States in the past few decades runs the gamut of expression from the grand to the modest.

While many designers seem eager to create pompous Palaces of Culture, a few are content to build self-effacing structures subservient to the works of art they house and display.

The new $60-million Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood is a rare example of such architectural reticence.

The museum, tucked behind a bland 1960s Wilshire Boulevard building, headquarters of the late Armand Hammer's Occidental Petroleum Corp., is discreet to the point of anonymity.

Designed by New York-based Edward Larrabee Barnes, the Hammer Museum turns a blank, cold face to its surrounding streets. A high wall of horizontally striped Carrara marble screens the museum and its interior courtyard from public view.

The only hint that something interesting may be going on behind the wall is found at the rear of the site, on Lindbrook Drive. Above this secondary entrance is a wide, flat arch--shaped like a semi-circular "eyebrow"--that allows an oblique view from the street into the upper level of the courtyard.

"In turning the building in upon itself, we followed the precedent of the traditional Renaissance palazzo, " Barnes said. "We chose to shut out the street, to shield the interior space from its noisy urban environment and create an arena of tranquility."

Tranquility is not the hallmark of most of the art museums that have been built or planned in the past decade in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

A desire for architectural excitement motivated the design of such new cultural landmarks as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Temporary Contemporary, the Anderson Wing and Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Fine Arts Center in Brentwood, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Jewish American Museum in Sherman Oaks, the Weisman Foundation museum in Beverly Hills and the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

But Barnes is famous for architectural restraint.

Among the several museums he has designed--including the Dallas Museum of Art and the IBM gallery in Manhattan--the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has been praised by many curators as a perfect space for the display of art, a simple modernist white box free of any intrusive architectural ego statement.

The Armand Hammer Museum goes much further than the Walker in its stylistic understatement. From the moment of entry, the building is utterly devoid of architectural excitement.

Whether you approach the central courtyard from the bland, office-building-style lobby off Wilshire Boulevard or from the rear door on Lindbrook Drive, the visitor is unaware of penetrating a cultural precinct.

In fact, the whole way one enters the museum is downbeat and confusing.

Due to the slope of the site from Lindbrook Drive to Wilshire Boulevard, the main courtyard is one floor up from the main Wilshire lobby. From the lobby, which is flanked by a small museum shop, the visitor must mount a wide stair to reach the courtyard level.

This entry sequence is further confused by the fact that, when you reach the courtyard, you find yourself once more out in the open air. And you still are not at the main gallery level, which is situated yet another floor higher, reached by one more flight of stairs.

The courtyard itself, lined by wide arcades and terraces, is an awkward rectangle broken into two off-center sections. Its odd proportions make it seem as if it were a leftover space, an afterthought in the process of design rather than the museum's main feature.

If Barnes had faithfully followed his Renaissance palazzo inspiration, the courtyard would be the museum's true centerpiece. It would have strong and clear proportions and a shape that lifts the spirit, not the nondescript configuration we find.

Having created the courtyard, Barnes does not seem to know what to do with it. An expanse of granite paving and a few disconsolate trees and plant boxes only emphasize the area's lack of focus.

Because of budget restrictions imposed by a court order that challenged the appropriateness of using Occidental's corporate treasury to finance a private museum, many of the finishes seem cut-rate.

For instance, the walls and parapets that line the courtyard are finished in cheap gray stucco, and the proposed ground floor library and 248-seat auditorium still lack the funds to be completed.

Half the budget was swallowed up by the necessity of excavating and constructing a new 5 1/2-story underground garage under the courtyard to replace the original subgrade parking area. Entered off Westwood Boulevard and Glendon Avenue, the garage serves both the museum and the office building beside it.

Despite the general disappointment of the courtyard, the area offers one rather incidental delight.

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