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County museum's expansion reflects two clashing visions

The new building is Eli Broad's realm, while LACMA's director applies his influence elsewhere.

February 07, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

You know that well-worn architectural saying: A great building requires a great client.

In the case of Renzo Piano's extension of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opens Feb. 16, the equation isn't quite so straightforward.

To begin with, LACMA has added substantially more than a single building. Though the 60,000-square-foot Broad Contemporary Art Museum, or BCAM, is getting most of the attention, Piano's changes to the sprawling museum campus also include a new entry pavilion and covered pedestrian walkway set back from Wilshire Boulevard, along with a reconfiguration of the ground floor of the 1965 Ahmanson Building to the east.

More to the point, it's a little hard to tell exactly who Piano's client is.

Is it Eli Broad, the billionaire LACMA trustee and donor who flew to Europe to recruit Piano personally after a bolder, more expensive expansion plan by Rem Koolhaas fell through?

Or is it Michael Govan, who took over as LACMA director two years ago, assuming responsibility for a design by an architect he likely would never have chosen himself?

The answer, of course, is both: Each man has a legitimate interest in even the most minor details of the expansion plan. Last month, after Broad made the surprise announcement that he wouldn't be donating his extensive collection to the museum, there was plenty of speculation about when and why his discussions with Govan over the fate of the artworks might have turned sour. But so far we've paid virtually no attention to the delicate back-and-forth between Govan and Broad over the details of Piano's design.

What a visit to the new LACMA makes clear is the extent to which the western half of its campus has become contested space, straining to hold two very different ideas of how a museum in Los Angeles should look and operate. One view belongs to Broad, 74, and the other to Govan, who is three decades younger. Much of the fun of making sense of the expanded museum, in fact, lies in figuring out whose influence and sensibility can be glimpsed in which parts of the new construction.

Broad has operated here as a patron in the classic sense of the word, working with his handpicked architect to produce a handsome, well-made container for his extensive collection.

Govan, though he would never say so publicly, seems to see that vision as largely out of date, or least inappropriate for a place as young, dynamic and distrustful of institutional wisdom as Los Angeles. He clearly would prefer that the museum's new architecture represent a highly informal, ever-changing city where art is produced and redefined on a daily basis and not just bought, sold, duly cataloged and hung on walls.

Each one has found a separate sphere of influence in the first phase of the Piano extension. (A new free-standing gallery by Piano to the north of BCAM, along with a renovation of the old May Co. building by the Culver City firm SPF:a, will follow in the next few years.) BCAM itself, not surprisingly, is Broad's territory, a building for which he footed the entire $56-million bill and where Govan has held comparatively little sway. To hold Broad's art, Piano has produced a crisp travertine-clad box with galleries on three levels. Its dramatic, high-ceilinged top floor bathes works by Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and others in natural light that is very clear and nearly colorless, if a bit thin.

Piano's attempts to add color and a sense of energy to the exterior of the box with a scaffold of escalators and stairs, which he collectively calls "the spider," suggest that he is looking back to his professional youth, specifically to the Pompidou Center in Paris. Designed with Richard Rogers, that exuberant, deeply optimistic museum helped make Piano's name when it opened in 1977.

The spider succeeds in lending some playfulness to a building that is otherwise rather formally dressed. Framed in steel beams painted a bright shade of red, the spider's various cantilevered platforms offer broad views toward the Hollywood Hills. On the other side of BCAM, facing Wilshire, John Baldessari's twin, oversize banners -- each one measuring roughly 52 by 55 feet -- work to essentially the same effect. So does the building's saw-tooth roof line, created by a high-tech collection of fins and screens designed to keep harsh southern light from hitting the top-floor art.

But that exterior flair can't entirely disguise the fact that, at least inside, the building is well-behaved to a fault, with gallery spaces that are hushed and relentlessly rectilinear. In the rather banal ground-floor galleries, where two new pieces by Richard Serra hold court, the low ceiling is crisscrossed with lighting tracks that distract from the monolithic visual power of the massive works.

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