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BCAM | The Broad Contemporary Art Museum

The dream reinvented

A planned renovation took a stirringly radical twist. Then reality came calling.

February 03, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

WHEN the Los Angeles County Museum of Art set out seven years ago to expand and remodel, it definitely was not looking for an extreme makeover. It nearly got one anyway.

Museum leaders were taken by an innovative architectural design that promised a Cinderella-like transformation in a one-of-a-kind new building. But the romance went only so far, and with the projected price reaching $300 million or more for the Cinderella plan, LACMA's wishes ran up against the complexities of public policy and political decision-making. The much more conservative outcome -- the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and other architectural elements that will open Feb. 16 -- is a case of California dreams yielding to California reality.

What LACMA's leaders wanted, in the beginning, were incremental improvements. The museum was launched in 1965 with three buildings, designed by L.A. architect William Pereira, facing a central plaza on Wilshire Boulevard. Two more were crammed in during a 1980s growth spurt, then a sixth was added in 1994 when LACMA bought the former May Co. department store, a structure that was literally out in left field, a block west of the museum's core. From an architectural standpoint, LACMA had evolved like the homely, humped creature in the saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. Meanwhile, new expectations of daring and beauty had arisen for cultural buildings after the acclaim heaped on Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

LACMA's buildings were not only mismatched but hard to navigate. Confronted with the museum's profusion of structures, many visitors felt lost and confused.

"Nobody knows where they are going at LACMA," its then president and director, Andrea Rich, said in February 2001, the day she announced an intention to do something about it. "At a certain point, you have to stand back and say, 'Wait a minute. Maybe it's our generation's job to sort all of this out.' "

Devising a better layout was no small consideration for the largest "encyclopedic" collection in the West, spanning art-historical developments from cuneiform tablets to digitally tweaked video installations.

The first step, museum leaders decided, would be to add a new building for contemporary art, giving each era or geographical region a building of its own while also creating a new entrance and pathways.

Five leading architects were paid $200,000 each to submit proposals addressing the goals. Four followed directions. The other, Rem Koolhaas, threw them in the trash. Playing the rebel, the Dutch designer -- tall, tieless and clad in black, his cachet certified the previous year when he won architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize -- insisted that LACMA was beyond renovation.

He would raze four of the five plaza buildings and replace them with a single huge structure raised on concrete stilts and topped by a billowing, tent-like roof made of Mylar skin and steel bones. He proposed a novel layout of galleries that experts felt would do for the museum what the Dewey Decimal System had done for libraries: render a vast array of things both intellectually coherent and easy to find. Walk in one direction and you could follow the art of Europe, Asia or the Americas in a progression through time. Take a perpendicular path, and you'd stay in one time zone while sampling the styles and themes cropping up simultaneously on each continent.

LACMA's project committee swooned. Trustee Eli Broad, already committed to making a keystone donation exceeding $20 million, was "so jazzed by this thing that he is considering numbers he never would have thought of when they started this process," one source in county government said at the time.

"Hypercaution and compromise . . . left Los Angeles with a major museum housed in a mishmash of humdrum buildings. . . . Now LACMA's trustees have seen the light," applauded a Los Angeles Times editorial. "The people of Los Angeles have always been daring, eager to embrace change and -- face it -- prone to drama."

Taking a vision to the voters

ELEVEN months later, LACMA leaders were sweating out the quintessential American drama: an election-night cliffhanger. The post-9/11 economy was in a recession, and stocks were in the tank. Broad was still game to give a bundle, but even he couldn't single-handedly float a $300-million project. Other prospective donors held back, wondering whether Koolhaas' roof would allow in enough natural light, or whether LACMA should risk a tear-down and rebuild that could close most of the museum for years.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a big fan of the Koolhaas plan, suggested taking a shot at public financing. He helped devise a $250-million county bond proposal in which LACMA and its sister institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, would get about $100 million each for construction. Several other arts organizations would share the rest.

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