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A new design with a spine

Rem Koolhaas wanted to raze it and start over. Now LACMA has approved a more tolerant scheme by Renzo Piano, one that unites past and future.

May 02, 2004|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board met in April to approve a proposal for a major expansion of its Wilshire Boulevard complex, its members certainly breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Until now, the museum's physical development has been an architectural horror story. Soon after it opened in 1965, its reflecting pools were famously paved over when oil began seeping into them from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. A clumsy addition was built in the mid-1980s. And as recently as 2001, the museum announced an ambitious plan to tear down all of LACMA's major buildings and rebuild the museum from scratch, only to kill the proposal when donors refused to put up the cash.

The aim of the current design, by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is to salvage what it can of this muddled complex, while somehow fusing it into a cohesive architectural experience. It accomplishes this and more.

The proposed expansion plan, which has not yet been released to the public, will include the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum -- named after its sole donor, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad -- as well as a new 20,000-square-foot entry pavilion set along what is now Ogden Drive. A roughly 800-foot-long pedestrian spine will cut across the entire site, linking the new structures to LACMA West, the former May Co. building at Fairfax and Wilshire, and the existing complex to the east. To give the design visual unity, the buildings will be wrapped in a series of lightweight fabric screens -- a more refined high-art version of the boulevard's commercial billboards.

Although the design is in its earliest stages, its strength stems from its remarkable clarity. Piano neither seeks to obliterate the past nor conform to it. Rather, he reimagines LACMA as a potent blend of new and old buildings, each reflecting the values of its age. To unite them, he carves through the site with the ruthless precision of a surgeon. The result will be a carefully measured sequence of architectural spaces, a procession through the museum's collections and the city's cultural memory. The plan could also make LACMA a wonderful place to view art.

The success of Piano's approach is all the more striking given a selection process that was often as convoluted as the museum itself. Museum officials began their search for an architect three years ago, when they invited five architectural teams to compete to redesign the complex. All of the teams were well-regarded talents: the French avant-gardist Jean Nouvel; Santa Monica-based Thom Mayne; New York's Steven Holl; Daniel Libeskind, designer of the ground zero master plan; and the radical Dutch thinker Rem Koolhaas. Of these, Koolhaas' design was by far the boldest. Unveiled to the public in December 2001, it would have replaced the museum's existing campus with an undulating tent-like structure propped up on columns above a gargantuan public plaza.

But museum officials were unable to raise the $200 million to $300 million needed to build the scheme, so it was abandoned early last year. In June, Broad flew to Europe to offer Piano the commission. By then, Broad had committed $50 million to create his own museum on the site; LACMA expects to raise an additional $50 million through private bonds. Museum officials hope to complete the schematic design phase by October. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for December 2005, with completion by spring 2007.

FLEXIBLE APPROACH

In an age when philanthropists have become particularly adept at leveraging their gifts, the advantage of Piano's scheme centers mainly on economics. The resistance to the Koolhaas design had less to do with architecture than with naming rights. Many donors scoffed at the idea of signing a $50-million check to pay for a piece of a single, monolithic museum building when they can often get their name on a free-standing building for much less. What is more, board members who had already spent millions on earlier additions were reluctant to see those buildings fall to the wrecking ball.

By comparison, Piano's design can be conveniently paid for in stages. In an unusual arrangement for a public institution, the Broad museum is conceived as a separate institution with an independent board. Control of that board will revert to LACMA after Broad's death. The advantage of this arrangement, according to LACMA, is that it allows the museum to focus its fundraising efforts on other aspects, such as the entry pavilion and the renovation of existing structures. Anything it can't pay for now, it can leave for a later building phase.

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