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LACMA Raze Met With Praise

There is wide consensus that Rem Koolhaas' build-over plan will benefit city's cultural legacy.

December 10, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC and LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tear down LACMA? Is that any way to treat Los Angeles' primary art museum? The one that occupies a prime piece of property on mid-Wilshire Boulevard, houses a 100,000-piece art collection and offers the public everything from blockbuster shows to scholarly lectures, film series, jazz nights and family days?

A lot of folks seem to think so.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's trustees' unanimous endorsement last week of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' plan to raze the museum's four main buildings--Ahmanson, Anderson, Bing and Hammer--and replace them with a huge structure on stilts topped by a billowing tent of a roof has been greeted with mostly amazed applause.

Behind the scenes, some LACMA staff members--who say they have no money to buy art and are constantly being told to tighten their belts--privately ask why the museum's leadership is putting so much effort into a new building, particularly when the country is at war and the economy is shaky. Even Andrea L. Rich, the museum's president and director, acknowledges that this is a tough time to launch a fund-raising campaign, but a chorus of praise is all but drowning out dissent and doubt.

"It's a bold and stunning plan," said Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "They are determined to create an architectural monument for Los Angeles that will join buildings on the level of Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, [Jose] Rafael Moneo's cathedral and Richard Meier's Getty Center. "What's so striking is that they have chosen to address their needs in a particularly decisive fashion."

Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum, got the news while she was in New York and e-mailed her response: "I am thrilled that they chose Koolhaas. It's so exciting for L.A. While it is often painful and traumatic for communities to raze buildings, it is the right thing to do in this case and will serve LACMA well in the long term."

Curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith, who organized several architecture exhibitions during her tenure at MOCA and is now chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, also lauded LACMA's adventurous spirit. "I'm exhilarated that they took the leap to energize and transform the museum so dramatically and profoundly," she said.

Civic leaders also expressed strong approval of the new architectural scheme.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called LACMA's commitment to build a revolutionary museum from scratch "a bold and courageous move." He believes the proposed museum will be a state-of-the-art model and particularly likes the way the plan offers educational and chronological contexts for artworks through "horizontal and vertical" exhibition design. In one direction, the works would be arranged chronologically, in the other, by continent of origin. "It's unique and customer-friendly," he said. "I think it's spectacular and exciting."

But not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

"Who gets served by this new building?" asked a prominent artist who declined to be named. "Suppose the museum is completely torn up and it isn't really functional for several years. What is the museum for? Is it so that everybody can have a really fancy building? Two-hundred million dollars is a lot of money to put into a building. You could buy an awful lot of art with that."

Diana Palmer, a manager of nonprofit organizations, expressed even stronger objections. "Didn't they just build a building?" she asked in an e-mail to The Times, referring to the Anderson building that fronts Wilshire Boulevard and was added in 1986. "What the heck are they doing this for in a recession, with thousands of people out of work and social service agencies facing drastically reduced contributions. I'm amazed, disgusted and rather offended.

"The new plan is probably fine," she wrote. "I like Koolhaas' work--but not now. Maybe in 30 years. I also think the existing buildings deserve preservation, even though they are not the latest thing. It is as if LACMA has to compete with the Disney Concert Hall for a trend-setting architect."

But much of the excitement about essentially starting anew at the site reflects long-standing dissatisfaction with the cluster of disparate buildings that has grown up over the past 36 years. Henry T. Hopkins, retired director of the UCLA Hammer Museum who began his career as LACMA's chief of educational services, recalled that the museum's architecture has been the brunt of jokes since its earliest days.

"About two weeks after the museum opened in 1965, Jim Elliott, who was the chief curator at that time, put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Do you know what we have done? We have built the first tract house museum,'" Hopkins said.

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