“Here, you might need this.”
I was standing in Peter Zumthor’s sunny, overstuffed studio in the small Swiss town of Haldenstein when the architect’s assistant handed me a large paper bag. I peeked inside. It was filled with strawberries, milk, coffee beans, salami, two kinds of cheese, a baguette, and, naturally, a Swiss chocolate bar: Provisions for my overnight stay in one of the two wood-framed houses Zumthor completed four years ago in Leis, on a site perched atop an Alpine valley about 30 miles southwest of Haldenstein.
The houses represent Zumthor’s restrained, elegant spin on a humble European wooden cottage—the Continental version of our log cabin—except with much bigger windows to frame vistas up and down the valley. (“Walking through the houses means moving from view to view,” Zumthor writes in the latest edition of his book Thinking Architecture.) The small houses, sparely furnished with pedigreed modern furniture, contain all the qualities that Zumthor’s work has grown justifiably famous for, most of all an interest in craftsmanship and precision over novelty or form-making.
They also produce a profound loneliness, especially when Leis—which has its own 17th-century church, St. Jacob’s Chapel—is empty, as it was when I visited. (There is a restaurant just down the hill, which serves mostly hikers walking from village to village, but it was closed tight the day I arrived.) To reach the houses by road requires driving up a series of tight switchbacks that are nerve-wracking even when the weather is perfect, as it was on the May afternoon I made the trip. During winter the drive is downright treacherous: Zumthor, who turned 70 earlier this year, told me the only time he’s had the sense of cheating death is when he was heading up after a major snowstorm and felt his wheels begin to lose traction and slip downhill, sending his car nearly sliding off the side of the mountain.
Zumthor and his family rent out the pair of houses, and they are building a third next door. But the architect also designed them as a vacation spot—as a getaway from his primary residence, which is located right next to his firm’s offices. It’s when you consider the houses in that context that you begin to get a sense of how Zumthor thinks and works—and the great change in his professional routine that was brought about by his decision, roughly five years ago, to accept an invitation from Michael Govan, then newly installed as the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to design a major new building for the museum on its Wilshire Boulevard campus.
The Leis houses suggest how deeply and happily local Zumthor’s professional life has been up to this point, and how much that fidelity to place has shaped his architecture. This is an architect who seeks a break from his life in a small Alpine village by spending time in a weekend house in a slightly smaller (and higher) Alpine village about an hour’s drive away.
Zumthor, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2009, is anything but provincial; he’s a thoughtful, well-read architect, gregarious in a certain Swiss way, who has designed projects in London and Norway; has two superb art museums already to his credit; who studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and taught for a year, on the invitation of the L.A. architect Robert Mangurian, at SCI-Arc. Over the last five years he has been slowly enlarging his office (the staff now numbers about 30) and taking on a few foreign commissions.
But the fact remains that an architect who has spent his life and career solidifying his ties to one particular region in Central Europe is now at work on a project in Los Angeles, next to the La Brea Tar Pits and on the edge of the so-called Miracle Mile, that because of its size and prominent location is likely to serve as the capstone to his methodical and much-analyzed career.
Given that putting up a new Zumthor wing at LACMA will require demolishing four of the museum’s existing buildings—three from 1965 by William Pereira, the well-known L.A. modernist, and a 1986 addition by New York firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer—the California project will also be a test for the American public’s tolerance for grandly scaled museum design in a post-boom economy. In 2001, when LACMA commissioned a similar plan from Rem Koolhaas—abandoned two years later—the support among preservationists for Pereira’s buildings was fairly restrained. This time around, Pereira seems to have many more fans. And already Zumthor’s proposal for LACMA—for a huge undulating building of black concrete lifted 30 feet above a plaza—is drawing fire from Southern California architects and curators and from members of the public.
The two men who have been conspiring to remake the architecture of L.A.’s biggest museum first met more than a decade ago, when Govan was heading the DIA Foundation for the Arts in New York. Zumthor at that point had completed the Kuntshaus Bregenz, a remarkable four-story box of a museum, with concrete floors and concrete walls inside and a skin of frosted-glass panels, next to Lake Constance in Austria. But he was still far from a household name, and still several years from winning the Pritzker.
Govan asked Zumthor to design a building on the campus of Dia:Beacon, in upstate New York, to house a single artwork: Walter de Maria’s “360° I Ching.” Zumthor proposed a white concrete box of a building with a waffled roof. Visitors would enter onto a small mezzanine overlooking the sculpture, laid out directly on the floor of the gallery like a minimalist strip of dominoes, and then descend to ground level to inspect the work up close.
After the plan was put on ice (Zumthor and Govan both say it may still be built), Govan accepted the LACMA directorship, and Zumthor finished a second art museum, the Kolumba in Cologne, Germany. Govan now says that placing a phone call to Zumthor was one of the first things he did after deciding to take the L.A. job.
The collaboration proceeded in fits and starts until last year, when Zumthor tossed out the preliminary sketches he’d made for Govan, some of which called for a scattered collection of pavilions in a lush Southern California landscape, and suddenly drew a confident, organic shape for a single large building, wrapped in black concrete and topped with solar panels, hovering over Wilshire Boulevard. The fluidity of that shape suggests a new formal approach for Zumthor, one that shows the influence both of the adjacent tar pits, which ooze up from underground just east of the museum campus, and of the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
To mark the unveiling of Zumthor’s preliminary design for LACMA, Govan and curator Wendy Kaplan, head of the museum’s Decorative Arts department, organized an exhibition called “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA.” As its title suggests, the show makes a point of looking not just at the architectural history of LACMA but the longer, geological history of the site where the museum sits. The opening room of the exhibition shows photographs of the first attempts to study and document the fossils trapped in the tar. Then we learn about the complicated architectural past at the museum, whose board nearly hired Mies van der Rohe to design the original 1965 campus, and since then has commissioned not only Pereira and HHPA but a Japanese Pavilion by Bruce Goff and, in the last five years, two gallery buildings by Piano. (The Goff and Piano wings will not be affected by Zumthor’s new building.) The central section of the show includes a small retrospective of Zumthor’s career and a series of large models of his plan for LACMA.
There is, to be sure, an appealingly muscular primitivism and free-flowing charisma in Zumthor’s proposal for the museum. It would lift a single level of galleries one story up in the air; this hovering building, faced entirely in glass along its curving perimeter, would be connected to ground level by seven or eight legs, or “cores,” each containing a staircase and an area for open storage. Each visitor will enter not through a massive punched-out opening in a towering façade but, presumably, through a regular-sized door leading to one of the staircases (or to a well-hidden elevator). You’ll get to feel the weight and texture of the door handle in your palm, just as you do in most of Zumthor’s best-known and most acclaimed projects.
The galleries themselves are the least developed part of the LACMA scheme; each of the cores will lead to a large gallery holding one of the prized objects in the museum’s collection, a group that includes the Tony Smith Sculpture Smoke, Richard Serra’s Band, and the 16th-century Ardabil Carpet from Iran. Though early versions of the LACMA proposal showed a flat roof, more recent ones show a variety of gallery heights, suggesting a sort of jumbled skyline in section. A continuous walkway will run along the full perimeter of the new building, offering views of the Hollywood Hills, Wilshire Boulevard, the tar pits, and the rest of the LACMA campus to the west.
Already there is opposition to the proposal, driven in part by concerns about its cost—the museum hopes to raise $650 million in total, with the building itself pegged at an estimated $450 million. Govan says that the older buildings at LACMA need to be modernized, updated, and seismically beefed up, at a cost he estimates at $250 million or $300 million. In other words, he argues, the choice the museum faces isn’t between paying nothing for the status quo or paying a heap of money for a new building. It’s between paying a lot of money to update the old buildings or even more to build a new one designed by Peter Zumthor.
Still, Govan’s decision to choose Zumthor on his own, without any kind of competition or other sustained selection process, has rubbed more than a few L.A. architects the wrong way. “I have grave misgivings about the process,” one of those architects told me in an email over the summer. “It seems so arrogant for a single director to handpick his architect, and the two of them steamroll over everything else.”
Nostalgia for the Pereira buildings may also prove to be an obstacle. Already, a Facebook page and petition have appeared calling on LACMA to drop the Zumthor plan and restore the 1965 campus instead. The architectural historian and critic Alan Hess, among others, has been outspoken in defending those buildings, calling them “part of the museum’s permanent collection.”
In Leis, I woke up early. I ground the beans packed in my paper bag, made a strong coffee in the absurdly complicated espresso machine sitting on the kitchen counter, and stood in front of the huge living-room windows sipping it, taking in the spectacular view down valley. After a short hike, I got behind the wheel of my rental car for the vertiginous drive back down the mountain. At that point, I was halfway through a six-day visit to nearly all of Zumthor’s most celebrated projects, including the two museums, a pair of small chapels, and his thermal baths in Vals.
The trip hasn’t changed my mind about the potential of Zumthor’s LACMA scheme, which is easily the most exciting piece of architecture proposed for a major site in Los Angeles. But it has convinced me that the LACMA proposal hasn’t reached the level of sublime inevitability that marks the best of Zumthor’s completed work. Nearly all of his buildings that I saw—and especially the museums—have a kind of airtight architectural logic to them, even as they are quite different from one another. Though Zumthor likes to point out that he doesn’t have a signature style, he does have a signature approach, a philosophy of patient craft and holistic, often slow-moving architecture.
In Bregenz, this approach is evident in a fanatical—and in the end entirely convincing—treatment of light. The glass panels on the exterior and skylights on the roof bounce daylight into plenums on each floor, so that the quality of light is supremely consistent in each gallery, whether you are at the top of the building or on one of the middle levels. At the Kolumba Museum, the light is also unshakably serene. But more striking is the ease with which Zumthor brings together the ruins of a Gothic church bombed during World War II, a postwar chapel on the site by Gottfried Bohm, and his own museum, a collection of blocky towers in light brick—and the way the resulting ensemble sits as an urban object in the middle of old Cologne. Kolumba is a high-wire act masquerading as a walk in the park, the work of an architect operating without apparent strain or doubt at a remarkably high level.
In the LACMA design this sense of one architectural element flowing without friction to the next hasn’t quite been achieved. Still, the power of the museum proposal as seen in plan is undeniable, the way it seems to echo both the oozing shape of the tar pits and the designs of Niemeyer and the artist Jean Arp. Govan has already joked about how great that black blob of a form—that inkblot—will look as a LACMA logo, stamped on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
But the very strength of the scheme might be its Achilles heel. The new building would benefit greatly at ground level from a courtyard or other open space; as proposed, the entire boulevard level will be covered by the massive form of the gallery floor above, an unbroken mass of levitating concrete that in winter, even in balmy California, doesn’t promise to be a great place to hang out. A couple of courtyards carved out of the mass of the roof would be a useful addition to the proposal, both for what they'd add along the ground and for the new views they'd create from inside the building looking out. But that might undermine the clear graphic appeal of the design in plan. There are no holes in the tar pits, after all. Their slick, black surface is continuous and unbroken, undisturbed by the particular demands, cultural and practical, that can make architecture so tricky.