Last month, I wrote about the proposed new building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), designed by Peter Zumthor, and the blog post elicited a thoughtful response by the institution's Director, Michael Govan. (Scroll down to read Govan's letter.)
In my article, I argued that the current collection of pavilions, though in themselves not particularly beautiful, does condense and highlight the messy vitality that makes Los Angeles such a great place. I also wondered whether the institution could potentially gain the space it needed in a more affordable manner by renovating and adding on to the existing structures.
See details about Peter Zumthor's plan for LACMA.
In response, Govan writes: "…the cost to renovate the old buildings to code, which is absolutely necessary to begin by about 2018, is at least $250-300 million for mechanical, electrical, plumbing, roofs, earthquake retrofit, etc. (assuming nothing goes wrong in the process). The cost of building new is around $400 million. Rem Koolhaas and the LACMA board came to exactly the same conclusion in 2001 and approved the construction of a new building. The key difference between renovating and building new is the ongoing operational costs. The Zumthor building includes a plan to be the largest urban solar energy farm—generating more power than it consumes."
While I cannot second-guess Govan's numbers, though I wonder whether the ultimate cost of the new building will not rise inexorably (not "assuming nothing goes wrong" in that process), purely given the complexity of Zumthor's curvilinear design and the problematic nature of the ground at the La Brea Tar Pits site, making the difference between renovation and a new building considerably more than the $100-150 million Govan foresees—for which you could also build much additional space. I also wonder if the renovations and additions could not also be done in such a manner that they would also be energy efficient. It is evident, however, that one single new building would be much more easy to run and probably more energy efficient.
Govan goes on to say that the new building would double the attendance. This might very well be true, as in many cases new museum structures have created a boost in attendance. That is due both to the new amount of programming an institution can do in additional space, and to the novelty of the structure. Unless the museum keeps up the energy and additional offerings, however, attendance usually drops back down after a year or two, so that the "$5 to $6 million savings" Govan envisions from increased attendance might disappear if LACMA has to keep presenting programs to attract a new level of visitorship.
See a preview of the William Pereira retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Govan also offers an aesthetic argument: "to build one of the most beautiful museums in the world and a truly extraordinarily inspiring and educational experience of art.” He concludes, "Los Angeles, still a young metropolis, owes it to the public and itself to keep experimenting and achieving more than what we have. Zumthor's project for LACMA is one of those things that makes me realize how much there is to do, and is possible, to improve our world."
I agree that Los Angeles could use a few more anchor buildings of great beauty. I will also not argue that this building would be astonishing. I am worried how good it will be. I concur with Govan that "Zumthor knows how to build the most sublime galleries on earth." I am not sure, however, that this design will contain those spaces in a building that is welcoming and appropriate for its context. I also do not understand what to me appears to be a maze-like interior structure of the single-floor design, which stands so in contrast to Koolhaas' clear redefinition of art galleries sequences in his proposed design.
Ultimately, my disagreement with Govan is a philosophical one. To me, the beauty of Los Angeles consists of it as a collage of bits and parts. Its very lack of coherence makes it beautiful. I also believe very strongly in the need to reuse as much of our existing structures as possible.
I trust Govan to know what is best for his institution. He has done a remarkable job recasting it into one of the liveliest art museums in America. He has opened it up to new audiences and presented excellent exhibitions and public programs. I do hope that the design, as it develops to completion, will gain in complexity, openness, and clarity, and that the institution will be able to sustain and expand its programming in a manner that will prove his argument for this new structure.
Here's the text of Govan's response.
Thanks for taking the time to write your article, and for your nice comments about LACMA! And that's why I put the Zumthor plans on public view—for everyone to weigh in.
Just for the record, the cost to renovate the old buildings to code, which is absolutely necessary to begin by about 2018, is at minimum $250-300 million for MEP, roofs, earthquake retrofit, etc. (assuming nothing goes wrong in the process). The cost of building new is probably $400 million, but the positive operational costs difference for a new building amounts to approximately the equivalent of a $100 million endowment. So it's a wash in terms of cost. Rem Koolhaas and the board came to exactly the same conclusion in 2001. (As you probably know, the $650 million possible capital campaign number includes funds for endowment, art, programs, etc.)
It's no easy task to raise the funds to build new. From my perspective, it's nearly impossible to raise the funds to restore the older buildings. (Or at least I don't know how to do it.)
From a vitality and attendance perspective, most of the new attendance is related to the new buildings—which remain. And I can pretty much guarantee about an 80% additional increase in overall attendance with the Zumthor building. Plus the planned new gardens, cafes, and public spaces will make the experience that much better—not to mention that Zumthor knows how to build the most sublime galleries on earth.
Add to that the long-term sustainability of a building that is not only better constructed but gives more energy back to the city than it uses!—and the fact that we'd have at least five times as many works accessible in the same square footage (at less operating cost) than today, as well as classrooms and study spaces for our growing relationships with local universities—and it's not really much of a decision. Building new is the only responsible choice.
With my own 30 years of experience building museums (and now 10 years working with Peter Zumthor) my hope is that along with all this statistical benefit I can offer a more important qualitative advantage: to build one of the most beautiful museums in the world and a truly extraordinarily inspiring and educational experience of art. (But you'll have to trust me on that one.)
So much has been learned about art history, public interaction with art at museums, and building technology in the last 30–50 years since the old galleries were built. In spending the money that must be spent, it would be very sad not to take the opportunity to offer the world a chance to experience all that we've learned in our field. Los Angeles, still a young metropolis, owes it to the public and itself to keep experimenting and achieving more that what we have. Zumthor's project for LACMA is one of those things that makes me realize how much there is to do, and is possible, to improve our world.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.