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LACMA's future unfurls in Peter Zumthor's design

Critic's notebook: The architect's preliminary design, an undulating building dubbed 'the Black Flower,' marks an ambitious step for director Michael Govan and L.A. architecture.

June 02, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Imagine you are heading east on Wilshire Boulevard, in a car or on foot. As you approach Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue, you see the rounded, gilded corner of the former May Co. building and Renzo Piano's travertine-wrapped Broad Contemporary Art Museum, with its wide shoulders and careful posture.

Then, just past the huddled lampposts that make up Chris Burden's "Urban Light" installation, something entirely different heaves into view: an undulating building of glass and dark-gray concrete, its single story lifted more than 30 feet into the air atop seven separate legs, each containing a staircase. At its eastern end, the building extends out over one edge of the La Brea Tar Pits.

This is the architectural future awaiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, if Museum Director Michael Govan and the 70-year-old Swiss architect Peter Zumthor have their way: A powerfully unorthodox new building stretching more than 700 feet along Wilshire.

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The design — which the museum will unveil in an exhibition opening June 9 called "The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA" — arrives at a crucial time for the city. Los Angeles has produced so few important buildings in the last seven or eight years that it is in real danger of losing its reputation as a center for innovative architecture.

And L.A. has never been known, in any case, for experimental civic architecture. With the exception of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall and a handful of other projects, most of our architectural breakthroughs have been private houses.

Bracingly forward-looking, Zumthor's design for LACMA would give the city a much-needed jolt of architectural energy.

Quite a bit of work remains to turn his vision into built form. Although Govan and Zumthor have spent nearly five years on the project, the design is still conceptual, likely several years away from breaking ground.

Govan will have to win support for knocking down LACMA's original campus by William Pereira, completed in 1965, and a 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates to make room for Zumthor's building. The Natural History Museum, which oversees the tar pits, will have to agree to let LACMA cantilever its new galleries out over the black pools.

And Govan will need to raise $650 million — at least $450 million to build the new structure, with the rest earmarked for a contingency fund and other uses. He argues that the aging Pereira and Hardy buildings will soon need as much as $300 million in upgrades and restoration work if the museum keeps them.

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The new structure would also be more efficient than the existing ones; Govan estimates it could cost $5 million less per year to operate.

However the financial math comes out, there is no mistaking the allure of Zumthor's preliminary design for the building. At once fluid and dense, it has drawn from the architect an ease and expressiveness new — or at least rare — in his work.

Most of Zumthor's buildings are lean, vertical and compact, hewn from rich and tactile materials and careful not to waste any space or motion. The horizontal LACMA design spreads freely across its broad site.

Seen from above, the design, which the architect has nicknamed "the Black Flower," has a liquid, flowing appeal that seems closer in spirit to a building by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer or a collage by the modern artist Jean Arp than to Zumthor's existing architecture.

This overhead view, powerfully simple and graphic, suggests a black droplet on the Miracle Mile landscape. Given that dark, inkblot form, it is also hard not to think of the project as a kind of Rorschach test for LACMA donors and the museum's board — a way to test their enthusiasm for costly but stirringly ambitious new architecture.

Perhaps the strongest element of the design is the extent to which it reflects contemporary Los Angeles, a city that Zumthor, on repeated visits to meet with Govan over the last several years, has carefully studied. Like L.A., the proposed building is open and tolerant. It has no single main entrance or front staircase.

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The opposite of doctrinaire, the design, mysterious without being aloof, invites multiple readings; visitors will be able to move through it in dozens of different ways, taking a new route each time.

Zumthor gave me a detailed look at the proposal last month when I visited his studio in a small Swiss mountain town called Haldenstein.

The studio is located in a restored two-story wooden building. Thanks to the LACMA commission, along with some other new projects, his work has spilled over into his house next door, a low-slung concrete box of Zumthor's own design.

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