LACMA draws up ambitious plans for a $650-million new look

Director Michael Govan turns to Swiss architect Peter Zumthor for a dramatic new building that would involve demolishing the main museum campus.

May 01, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • The Ahmanson would be one of the LACMA structures up for demolition under a $650-million plan for a new building by Pritzker winner Peter Zumthor.
The Ahmanson would be one of the LACMA structures up for demolition under… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an acclaimed Swiss architect is hoping to pull off what an acclaimed Dutch one could not.

Next month LACMA will publicly unveil a $650-million plan by Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor for a dramatic new museum building along Wilshire Boulevard.

If completed it would rank as one of the most significant works of architecture to rise in Los Angeles since Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall opened 10 years ago. It would also require demolishing the core of the museum's campus, including the original 1965 buildings by William L. Pereira and a 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York.

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In scope and ambition, the Zumthor plan is reminiscent of a proposal by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas that would have razed the main museum campus and replaced it with a collection of low-slung gallery buildings under a giant, tent-like translucent roof. The LACMA board approved that project in 2001, but after fundraising struggles museum officials dropped the effort less than two years later.

Museum Director Michael Govan is convinced he can help the latest design avoid a similar fate. He has worked since his arrival at LACMA in 2006 to groom a new generation of donors and enlarge the museum's board, which he believes is now ready to launch a $650-million capital campaign to finance the new building. The construction cost is estimated to be at least $450 million, with the remaining $200 million earmarked for expenses including contingencies and operations.

Govan has overseen the completion of several major additions to the museum after the collapse of the Koolhaas plan — including two buildings on the west side of the LACMA campus by architect Renzo Piano, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion. Those buildings and their 100,000 square feet of gallery space will allow the museum to stay open during construction of the Zumthor building.

Zumthor's proposal would leave those new buildings and Bruce Goff's 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art untouched. It would not affect the former May Co. building, an Art Deco landmark where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is planning a $300-million film museum.

Instead it calls for a horizontal building along Wilshire Boulevard, east of "Urban Light," Chris Burden's installation of vintage street lamps. It would be wrapped in glass on all sides, and its main galleries would be lifted one floor into the air. The wide roof would be covered with solar panels.

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From above, the structure would resemble an inkblot or a drop of water. Zumthor says the design has been inspired more by the oozing, fluid forms of the La Brea Tar Pits just east of the museum than the existing architecture at LACMA.

The new plan presents obvious pitfalls. Though very costly, it will essentially replace the square footage of the Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer buildings rather than giving the museum any additional gallery space.

It will require Zumthor, who turned 70 last week, to adapt his highly precise and deliberate style to a crowded site in the heart of Los Angeles. The architect, who in 2009 was awarded the Pritzker, his profession's highest honor, has rarely worked outside central Europe, though he did spend time in 1988 teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. With the exception of the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Germany, which opened in 2007, nearly all of his important buildings are located near his office in the small Swiss mountain town of Haldenstein, population 1,000.

By developing a design first and raising money second, Govan is turning typical museum-building protocol on its head. He will be asking trustees and other donors to help pay for an architectural vision that they have played little or no role in crafting.

The fundraising push for the Zumthor building will also come on the heels of Govan's attempt, so far unsuccessful, to have LACMA acquire the embattled Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. That effort has drained time and energy from other LACMA projects, including work on the Zumthor proposal.

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In the new project Govan and Zumthor will also have to face down the ghosts of failed plans at LACMA's campus. Indeed, one constant of the museum's history is that its Wilshire Boulevard site seems in equal measure to invite and frustrate grand architectural thinking.

In the early 1960s, as planning for the move to Wilshire from the museum's old site in Exposition Park gained speed, Director Richard Fargo Brown hoped to hire the German Modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — then among the most prominent architects in the world. Howard Ahmanson, the major donor, favored the American Edward Durell Stone. Pereira, based in Los Angeles, emerged as a compromise solution.

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