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Architecture review: Renzo Piano's Resnick Pavilion a reserved LACMA presence

The $54-million building may not be among Piano's finest work, but graceful details and a sensibility to let the artwork take the spotlight make it a fine achievement.

May 23, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne | Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Has there ever been a piece of major, blue-chip architecture in Los Angeles as easily overlooked as Renzo Piano's new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

Maybe it's a continuing bout of Piano fatigue: The Italian architect has completed five American museum wings in as many years, with several more on the way. Maybe we've all been distracted by Eli Broad, whose search for his own museum site has been dominating the headlines lately. Or maybe it's simply that Piano's first effort at LACMA, the 2-year-old Broad Contemporary Art Museum, didn't exactly set the architecture world on fire.

Whatever the reason, the 45,000-square-foot, $54-million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion -- "the baby Piano," as bloggers have dubbed it -- has been rising toward completion in recent months, on a site directly north of BCAM, like something of a stealth icon.

After visiting the finished building twice in the last couple of weeks, I can tell you that for a range of reasons it deserves a higher profile. Though it doesn't come close to the level of Piano's finest museum work, which is savvy, ethereal and beautifully crafted all at the same time, the pavilion is surer of itself -- of its aesthetic and programmatic goals -- than BCAM. In a range of ways it is more precise and refined and less visually cluttered. Even a quick glance up at its ceiling, with its recessed lighting system carefully hidden from view, or down at the floor, with its rows of air vents set ever so exactly into an expanse of gray concrete, makes that clear.

At the same time, it is more reticent than the earlier building: less gregarious and somewhat more willing to hold the public at arm's length. The natural light flowing down from its north-facing skylights, while purer than the light produced by a similar system on the top floor of BCAM, is also a bit chillier.

Though the Resnick won't open until the first week of October, work on the building wrapped up a few weeks ago, at which point the museum pulled down the construction fencing that had been hiding it from public view. The effect was startling: Visitors to LACMA can now see the new pavilion in full as an architectural object and from certain angles peer straight through it. The landscape design for its perimeter, a diverse collection of palm trees selected with obsessive enthusiasm by artist Robert Irwin and set into Cor-Ten steel planters, is also now accessible to the public along the new building's southern edge.

(For all these reasons, we decided an early review made sense, though I'll certainly revisit the building in the fall. Times Art Critic Christopher Knight also will weigh in at that time.)

Along with an open-air entry hall set back from Wilshire Boulevard and adjacent covered walkway, BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion make up the heart of Piano's master plan, unveiled in 2004, to remake the western side of the LACMA's sprawling campus. And outwardly the two buildings have enough in common -- with their matching travertine exteriors and white saw-tooth roofs, with their cheeky splashes of red enlivening otherwise sober facades -- that they might have been first sketched with the same pencil, if not on the same sheet of paper.

Inside, though, the buildings have noticeably distinct architectural personalities. And that makes sense, since Piano worked with a different primary client for each.

Broad, as we all know by now, and as the name of the structure makes plain, was the driving force behind BCAM: He pledged the money to pay for the building and flew to Europe to recruit Piano personally after a more ambitious and expensive master plan by Rem Koolhaas fell through. He worked with Piano to refine the design for what both men have referred to as a "warehouse" for showing art, holding the architect to a relatively lean budget of $56 million for the three-story building. The finished product suggests little of the brilliance of Piano's standout museum designs, notably the Menil Collection (1987) in Houston, the Beyeler Foundation galleries (1997) near Basel, Switzerland, and, more recently, the Nasher Sculpture Center (2003) in Dallas.

Piano's primary client on the Resnick Pavilion, particularly in the project's latter phases, has been Michael Govan, who arrived as LACMA's director in 2006. (The building is named for donors Lynda Resnick, a serial entrepreneur and longtime LACMA trustee whose most recent success is a line of pomegranate juice called Pom Wonderful, and her husband Stewart.) Piano and Govan developed a flexible single-story space that can be sectioned off into areas for showing several types of art as well as holding parties or musical events -- or in rare cases opened up for a major show on a single artist or theme.

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