In Praise of LACMA’s Vulgar Architecture

Demolishing Much of the Existing Museum Is a Big Mistake. It’s More Like a Mall Than the Met—Which Is Why It’s Perfect for L.A.

When Renzo Piano was first approached about designing an addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Italian architect hesitated. “As I already told you,” he wrote in a letter to Eli Broad, whose donation was funding the building, “it’s very frustrating to play a good piece by a string quartet in the middle of three badly played rock concerts.”

Thinking LA-logo-smaller

“Three rock concerts” was a reference to the existing architecture of LACMA, which had grown in fits and starts over the years. The original museum, which opened in 1965, was local architect William Pereira’s Southern Californian version of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center—three temples on a raised plaza. The second stage was a partial makeover by the New York firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, which in 1986 inserted a postmodern wing and roofed over part of the plaza. The third stage (1988) was a freestanding pavilion designed by the Oklahoma maverick Bruce Goff and completed after his death by Bart Prince.

Blogger Mark Berman calls Pereira’s original buildings “mid-century classics.” Typical maybe, but classics? The architecture is pretty banal, even by Lincoln Center’s low standards. Stage two is not much better—L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight called it “Hollywood Egyptian.” And stage three, with its two stone towers and fossil-like objects on the roof is, well, goofy by any standard.

Despite his hesitation, Piano relented and the first phase of his addition opened in 2008, the second phase two years later. The Piano addition struck me as heavy-handed, not his best work, and hardly the “good piece by a string quartet” he had promised. As for the “rock concert,” my first impression of the original museum was that it resembled an undistinguished shopping mall that had been enlarged over the years and then awkwardly converted into a cultural facility. But after sitting for a time at Ray’s and Stark Bar, the outdoor café on LACMA’s shaded plaza, I changed my mind.

Most art museums today resemble either palaces (if they are old), or upscale automobile showrooms (if they are new). This was neither. Groups of excited children played on the plaza, and clusters of teenagers wandered in off Wilshire Boulevard. The familiar mall-like atmosphere made this an unintimidating space; it was definitely not the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it struck me that this vulgar (in the literal sense of the word) solution to an art museum succeeded in one important way. Because of its lack of pretension, this was a cheerful place in which people appeared decidedly at home.

A sense of place is an elusive quality, difficult to achieve, and not easy to maintain. It is the result not only of architectural forms but also of behavior, habit, and time. Learning to use what you have is as important as having the perfect building. That’s why it’s a shame to hear that LACMA has decided to wipe the slate clean and demolish all its older buildings, except the Goff pavilion. Why does Los Angeles, which has little enough history, feel the need to keep reinventing its surroundings?

It would be better to reconsider this wholesale demolition. Especially as the proposed replacement, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, leaves much to be desired. It is a spreading building raised up on stilts; instead of a friendly plaza there is a dark and gloomy undercroft. The kidney shape is supposed to have something to do with the nearby La Brea Tar Pits, but it reminds me of a 1950s coffee table. Finished all in black, the proposed museum will be a somber presence among the palm trees on Wilshire Boulevard, as anomalous as a Calvinist preacher on a sunny Malibu beach. Or maybe it’s the quintessential Angeleno building? After all, replacing an aging faithful spouse with a younger more stylish trophy wife is an established Hollywood custom.

  • Noel Park

    I could not agree more. I have lived in L.A. for most of my 70 years, and one theme which has never changed is that L.A. has no sense of its heritage and constantly destroys historic buildings to replace them with the latest and the greatest gee-whiz thing.
    This is just another classic example of same. As my woman friend said, “People are living in cardboard boxes on Skid Row and we are going to spend $100s of millions on THIS?”
    Amen Mr. Rybczynski. Please, oh please, LACMA, rethink this wrongheaded plan.

  • Don Marshall

    I agree with Rybczynski. The Pereira pavilions were graceful and elegant without being intimidating. They provided openness and light after the charming jumble of a collection jammed into the old museum in Exposition Park. The Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer building is a disaster–an ugly wall on Wilshire, a depressing tunnel leading to the plaza, and a repellently overscale building. But the plaza area itself is still very pleasant, once you get to it (or approach it more enjoyably from the park behind the museum). Piano’s new pavilions are really feeble, and the proposed building for the film museum is appalling–it looks like the Goodyear dirigible crashed on Wilshire. Zumthor’s proposal is just bizarre. It’s featureless, depressing, and surprisingly heavy for a low structure–like something was smashed onto the site and splashed across the boulevard. Probably the campus is irredeemable, and I understand the argument that renovation would be unproductively expensive. But having spent many years in Chicago before returning to LA, I can’t understand why we permit even eminent architects to unload these ill-conceived buildings on my battered city.

  • GSD

    The proposed new building is a disaster. A black, spreading amoeba-like blog raised on stilts (repeating the Getty’s elitist message that art is something “above” the people) and obliterating much of the open space that makes LACMA so great. In a city of wonderful light, why not something that allows light in? In a city of great weather, why not something that respects, references and allows access to the outdoors? Museums think “statement architecture” gives credibility even if it alienates. But a true “statement” is making great architecture AND something that people actually want to use.

  • Robert Diaz

    I would like to see the buildings from the 1960s preserved; I actually find them understated and elegant. But the “Hollywood Egyptian” thing should go, and maybe that’s where a smaller blob by Zumthor can rise (as it were). Mr. Rybczinski is a smart writer, but his little remark about trophy wives at the end is kind of… dare I say vulgar?

  • battlepriest

    The original Pereira buildings were designs of their time and place, and even with the ostentatious ego-laden clumps thrown up on and around it, they retain the simple grace that well-designed civic architecture of the day aimed for.

    I have heard critics of the original campus since it opened. I’ve never quite understood why they hated the design; while the comparison to his literal shopping mall designs are apt, so was the application of the shopping mall concept to the enjoyment of and access to art. Remember what this museum replaced: the building that now houses the Natural History Museum ALSO used to be the County Art Museum. The new campus thus became our first “real” art museum, and the public experience of art in LA was suddenly new and different. LACMA, particularly under its curator Maurice Tuchman, made the appreciation of art more a part of the life of Los Angeles – a life that in the 60s was lived in the sunshine, on the beaches – and in shopping malls.