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Fall Arts Preview: Architecture

Times critic Christopher Hawthorne offers his picks.

September 07, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • An overview of Los Angeles' new Grand Park from on top of City Hall.
An overview of Los Angeles' new Grand Park from on top of City Hall. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Fifteen years ago this October, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened to rapturous reviews and almost single-handedly changed the course of contemporary architectural culture.

Suddenly, every regional capital began to wonder why it too couldn't have a bold new museum to capture magazine covers and draw tourists. Los Angeles got its own taste of the power of museum architecture when the Getty Center by Richard Meier and Partners opened with massive fanfare on its Brentwood hilltop two months later, in December 1997.

In the decade and a half since, the notion that a splashy new piece of architecture can in and of itself be an engine for economic growth or civic reinvention — the so-called Bilbao Effect — has fallen dramatically out of favor. Even before the 2008 economic collapse, it became clear that clients and critics alike had begun to expect too much from individual buildings, no matter how exuberant their forms.


The Basque city of Bilbao, after all, had carefully plotted its revival not only by supporting bold new architecture like the Guggenheim's but also by investing carefully in infrastructure and mass transit. Museums could help draw attention, but they were no civic cure-all, no urban panacea.

But even in the wake of that reassessment, the museum as building type has managed not just to survive but to thrive. The boom years of 2000 to '07 produced a staggering collection of new museum facilities, in cities including Akron and Toledo, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Seattle; and Denver. And though the last four years of economic uncertainty have been a dark period for architecture firms around the world, somehow the bold and innovative new museums — big and small, in the U.S. and Europe, in Asia and Latin America — have not only kept coming but have kept a flame of invention and innovation flickering within the profession.

This fall will provide three more high-profile examples. On Sept. 23 the dramatically reimagined and expanded Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which houses one of the finest collections of modern and postwar art in the world, will reopen after a closure of more than eight years. The Dutch firm Benthem Crouwel has not only freshened up the galleries in the Stedelijk's original 1895 building but added a sleek and seamless white addition — extending the museum out toward Amsterdam's Museumplein plaza — that locals have already nicknamed "the bathtub."

Come November, the U.S. will see a pair of innovative museum buildings open on back-to-back days. At Michigan State University, Zaha Hadid's Broad Art Museum, a small building clad in pleated metal panels and named for MSU graduate Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, will make its debut on Nov. 9, followed on Nov. 10 by the opening of Herzog & de Meuron's long, narrow and shed-like new building for the Parrish Art Museum on the eastern end of New York's Long Island.

Outside of the art world, the struggling economy will make this fall — like last year's — a muted one when it comes to architectural debuts. But at least one — and a posthumous one at that — has had architecture aficionados buzzing for months: Louis Kahn's three-acre Four Freedoms Park on the tip of Roosevelt Island in New York, designed as a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt shortly before Kahn's death in 1974 but shelved for three decades, will finally open to the public on Oct. 24. It will be the first completed Kahn project in New York City.

In Los Angeles, Grand Park, by the local firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios, will see its final and perhaps most dramatic phase, directly across Spring Street from City Hall, open on Oct. 7 to coincide with the next edition of the CicLAvia bike festival and street closure. That section of the park includes a wide event lawn flanked by a small pavilion on one side and a dog park on the other.

Finally, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, long a hothouse for experimentation and settling now into middle age, will be spending most of the fall celebrating its 40th anniversary with lectures, exhibitions and other events. Highlights include lectures by the young Chicago architect Jimenez Lai (Nov. 14) and L.A.'s Neil Denari (Nov. 28).

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