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LACMA embraces L.A. style

March 28, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

In the last decade or so, we have learned to think of new museum buildings as a form of architectural entertainment -- the more easily understandable, the better. The architecture itself may be elaborate (Libeskind in Denver, Herzog & de Meuron in Minneapolis) or refined (SANAA in New York, Gluckman in San Diego), but the aesthetic statement is almost always straightforward, the authorship of the buildings impossible to miss. Museum directors, as they pursue expansion, have been willing to sell off paintings and even trim their curatorial staffs. But cover up the architectural logo? Never.

That helps explain why the recent changes to Renzo Piano's expansion plans for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art seem so surprising, or at least so resistant to quick analysis. They are likely to make the experience of visiting LACMA richer even as they embrace a pop sensibility and veer close to some New York cliches about California culture. And in bringing art and corporate identity to the foreground, they dim the spotlight on pricey, name-brand architecture.

The first phase of the expansion, budgeted at $156 million, includes a new parking garage, an expanded garden and two buildings by Piano along Wilshire Boulevard: a simple entry pavilion, which the architect originally modeled on L.A.'s Case Study houses, and the travertine-wrapped Broad Contemporary Art Museum, or BCAM.

Orchestrated by Michael Govan, who took over as LACMA director last year, the updates to the extension operate on two tracks. The first has to do with fundraising and programming. With some help from Eli Broad, Govan landed a $25-million gift from BP that will transform the pavilion into an open-air entry hall with solar panels on the roof -- and the British oil company's name on the front. He then persuaded Lynda and Stewart Resnick, whose own $25-million gift was originally earmarked for the pavilion, to direct it instead to the construction of a new single-story gallery building by Piano directly behind BCAM. It will be part of the expansion's second phase, which will also include updates to the former May Co. building at Wilshire and Fairfax, known as LACMA West.

Even while executing that sleight of hand, Govan was recruiting artists to fill in the spaces around and in front of Piano's buildings. Surrounding BCAM like a wreath -- or a playful chokehold -- will be a palm garden by Robert Irwin, who proved with his garden at the Getty Center that he is hardly shy about confronting architectural celebrity. And just in front of the BP structure will be Jeff Koons' "Train," a massive artwork that includes a 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 160-foot crane.

Compared with Piano's earliest plans, the result, at least as Govan sees it, will be a museum more playful, more colorful and more comfortable with the fact that it is located in Southern California. The open-air pavilion will operate not just as a pathway into the galleries but also as a more conspicuous entry to the museum's parkland and sculpture gardens, which Piano's design extends to the north and west.

Govan's LACMA will also reduce the emphasis on the Piano brand. Recruited by Broad to replace Rem Koolhaas, whose aggressive scheme to remake the museum foundered on fundraising shoals, Piano brought his usual focus on clarity and refinement to the LACMA plan. He drew a thick east-west axis connecting LACMA West to the rest of the museum. And he filled out the BCAM design, the heart of his proposal's first phase, with broad, strong gestures. H-shaped in plan, the building will show art on three high-ceilinged, column-free floors.

But Piano had been working to loosen up his architecture for a Los Angeles audience long before Govan arrived here from the Dia Center for the Arts in New York. Early on, he attached a bright red escalator and stairs to the exterior of the blocky BCAM building and endorsed the idea of draping billboard-scale tapestries across its Wilshire facade. He tried to channel Charles and Ray Eames and Pierre Koenig in the entry pavilion. Not since he and Richard Rogers designed the 1977 Pompidou Center in Paris, Piano said last year, had he so fully embraced levity and color in a museum design.

For Govan, clearly, that effort didn't go far enough. Bringing Irwin and Koons on board will add some pop energy, a sense of humor and a touch of irreverence to the new LACMA buildings. Both the Koons train and the Irwin palm garden -- but especially the train -- carry heavy symbolic weight and a sensibility that couldn't be more different from Piano's work. The architect's recent projects stress rationality, the careful manipulation of light and a seamless, elegant marriage of technology and design. The train, which hangs perpendicular to the ground, seems to be hurtling straight at the pavement, ready to smash all those ideas to bits.

In part -- and there is really no getting around this fact -- the new elements also serve to camouflage Piano's architecture.

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