Peter Zumthor’s proposed design for the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the ultimate architectural Rorschach test. Seen from above, the gray monolith bears an uncanny resemblance to the biomorphic collages produced by early surrealists. To the sci-fi set, it looks like an elegant reimagination of the Cylon Basestar from Battlestar Galactica. It has been compared to an amoeba and a water lily—as well as an inky black tar pit. The latter is no coincidence: LACMA shares a plot of parkland with the La Brea Tar Pits.
Within sight of museum structures that house Rembrandts and Ruschas sits a lake of black tar that regularly burps up clouds of methane gas. It was from this unusual (and smelly) geological phenomenon that the Pritzker Prize–winning architect—one known for his meticulous devotion to landscape—drew his inspiration. Like a lake, Zumthor’s design seems to pour into the LACMA campus, where it laps at the edges of some of L.A.’s key sights.
“I was rooting myself in the ancient,” he tells ARCHITECT. “A tar lake reacts to the topography. It is a free line.”
On Sunday, LACMA will open the doors to an exhibit devoted to the architect’s proposal, which includes a 6-ton concrete model fabricated on site. “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA” will offer the general public its first chance to get a glimpse at what the noted Swiss architect has in mind for Los Angeles. How Angelenos—not to mention potential donors and the media—receive the plan is a crucial moment for LACMA director Michael Govan, who commissioned the project when he first joined the museum as director back in 2006.
Twice in the last dozen years, the museum has ordered grand campus redesigns by Pritzker Prize–winning architects—one by Rem Koolhaas in 2001, the other by Renzo Piano two years later—only to have them wither due to a lack of fundraising or political will. To see the Zumthor project to completion, LACMA will have to raise $650 million. “I know it’s a big ask for a city like L.A.,” Govan says. “But the question is, ‘What are you building? And is it worth it?’ For me it’s worth it. There are so many innovative ideas and it’s so exciting—it’s exactly the type of project to attract interest.”
Certainly, Govan isn’t asking for millions to build a prim little exhibition hall. Zumthor’s proposal represents a radical departure from traditional museum design. The “black flower”—as the building is referred to by LACMA staffers—contains no grand staircase and no main entrance. Instead, a single story hovers 30 feet above the ground, on seven pods that lead visitors up to the galleries via staircases and elevators. Instead of a majestic hallway lined by exhibition spaces, visitors navigate the building along its winding, glass-clad perimeter, which will offer views of the Hollywood Hills in the distance. Because there is no one entrance, it means no single type of art takes priority, thereby eliminating traditional art historical hierarchies (in which European painting generally gets pride of place). And with its very structure, Zumthor seems to reject all the tropes about sunny Southern California: The building’s frame comprises two austere concrete slabs the color of coal.
Most notably—and perhaps most controversially—Zumthor’s plan calls for the razing of a clutch of buildings on the east side of the LACMA campus, including a trio of modernist pavilions built by L.A. architect William Pereira for the museum’s opening in 1965. This is not the first time someone has proposed tearing the place down and starting over. In 2001, Koolhaas famously suggested leveling much of the campus and replacing it with a single, tented structure: an idea that garnered plenty of support but ran aground financially during the post–Sept. 11 recession.
Architects seem to have good reasons for wanting to rebuild LACMA from scratch. The museum’s urban design is notoriously muddled. In addition to Pereira’s three marble-clad structures, there is a mint-green pavilion for Japanese art that resembles a samurai helmet designed by Bruce Goff, a Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte, and a 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates that gobbled up Pereira’s courtyard areas and essentially erected a massive wall on Wilshire Boulevard, the museum’s front door. Navigation is awkward; the bizarre agglomeration of buildings has made the museum the butt of design jokes. One architectural writer described it as a “civic embarrassment.” A Los Angeles Times story from 2008 calls the LACMA campus a “homely, humped creature.”
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘This has to go,’” Zumthor said, at a public forum at LACMA.
For his plan, Zumthor has proposed removing the Pereira buildings as well as the universally unloved Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition. The Japanese pavilion stays, embraced by two of Zumthor’s amoebic pseudopods, as does the pair of structures built by Piano on LACMA’s west side: the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art (2008) and the Resnick Pavilion (2010). The plan, Govan says, will result in a gain of 70,000 square feet of exhibition space, without taking up any more land. The museum will be able to show twice as many objects in the same space.
Zumthor’s plan also creates a more cohesive public space. Some of the ground-level pods that support the building would be wrapped in glass, allowing for the display of art objects and other artifacts to the public for free at all hours. In addition, the elevated museum structure would allow for easy public access to Hancock Park, which lines the northern edge of the museum. Previously, someone on Wilshire Boulevard would have had to walk around a number of LACMA buildings to reach the park. The new design, however, allows pedestrians to walk right on through. Zumthor describes it as having “the park as my foyer.”
Moreover, the Basestar's eastern edge will take advantage of its prime views of the La Brea Tar Pits. Zumthor has cantilevered the building over the park’s largest tar lake, offering museum visitors a panorama of one of L.A.’s most spectacularly surreal sights: Howard Ball's cement sculpture of a woolly mammoth, stuck in a pool of bubbling black tar. In extending his building’s bloblike appendages to the area’s key sights, Zumthor explains, he is showing respect. “I want to be affectionate all around.”
See a breakdown of building costs at LACMA over the years here.
Surely, there is a mountain of “ifs” that stand between the museum and the completion of this grand new design. The greatest is money: The $650 million price tag will require Herculean fundraising efforts on Govan’s part. (The museum has yet to launch a capital campaign, and Zumthor’s designs are still considered a work in progress.) Then there is the issue of demolishing some of the museum’s more iconic structures. The Pereira buildings are long-time L.A. icons—famously depicted by Ed Ruscha in The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965–68) and tagged by the Chicano art collective Asco in 1972.
Govan says he has already received mail decrying the potential loss of the Pereira buildings. (He is quick to note that no one has expressed concern about the destruction of the 1986 Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition.) A Facebook page has sprung up in opposition to the plan, calling for the Pereira buildings to be restored instead. But restoring the buildings raises a whole host of other issues. The Pereira buildings were plagued by problems from the start. The decorative fountains had to be removed when tar seeped into the water and turned it black. Narrow galleries created display problems, requiring the main atrium to be sealed up to provide more wall space. In addition, the structures have received regular critical drubbings for feeling too commercial—“the first tract house museum,” in the words of one L.A. curator. The various additions from the 1980s have also eaten into the buildings.
“You can’t do it,” Govan says. “It’s physically, practically, financially impossible.”
Govan estimates it would cost as much to bring all of the old buildings up to contemporary museum standards as it would to build a new building from scratch—and it wouldn’t add any additional gallery space. “Museums over time become patchworks of add-ons that work or don’t work,” he says. “The idea of a museum on this scale, that works from its solar panels to its study centers to its circulation, to its nonhierarchical arrangement of the galleries—it’s an opportunity to completely reconceive the idea of an encyclopedic museum.”
As Govan rallies the troops, the laconic Zumthor, an architect known for his quiet attention to detail, is further refining the building’s program. “It’s a beautiful form,” he says. “You can print it out like a Jean Arp and hang it on the wall.”
For more details and images of The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.