The Transamerica Pyramid in the San Francisco skyline.

The Transamerica Pyramid in the San Francisco skyline.

Credit: Pete Seaward/Getty Images


Peter Zumthor's proposal to raze and replace architect William L. Pereira's contributions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has received praise for its innovative break from the rubber-stamped architecture in much of the city.

Frank Gehry, speaking to Los Angeles magazine, actually blamed the city’s bland style on Pereira’s LACMA, arguing (as paraphrased by the reporter) that "it was in effect a riff on Lincoln Center, as was the Music Center being constructed across town. That became the model for cultural sites here, Gehry says." Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne supports the plan, writing that Zumthor's design "would give the city a much-needed jolt of architectural energy."

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm, even on ARCHITECT’s own pages. While Carolina A. Miranda writes that "the museum’s urban design is notoriously muddled," Aaron Betsky argues that LACMA's current "bits and pieces create a condensation of the Los Angeles landscape that is, if not high art, certainly typical in its sense of accretion of forms, images, and spaces that flow from indoor to outdoor again."

The original Los Angeles Count Museum of Art campus, designed by William L. Pereira and Associates in 1965.

The original Los Angeles Count Museum of Art campus, designed by William L. Pereira and Associates in 1965.

Credit: LACMA


Despite his support of the Zumthor plan, Hawthorne says that "we owe it to the older LACMA buildings, as they face possible demolition, to understand them as deeply as we can—to recover a clear sense of what their architects hoped they would say to and about Los Angeles."

It may surprise Pereira's critics and supporters alike to know that he was selected to design the museum as a "compromise" to a benefactor, as Elizabeth A.T. Smith writes in the catalog for "Modernist Maverick: The Architecture of William L. Pereira," which just opened at the Nevada Museum of Art. Colin M. Robertson, the curator of the exhibition, says the timing was "a pure serendipitous accident," but it will no doubt help to illuminate Pereira’s role in Los Angeles history.

The exhibit dedicates space to the Transamerica Pyramid, one of Pereira’s more famous works. It includes an artwork inspired by a proposed design for the building (back).

The exhibit dedicates space to the Transamerica Pyramid, one of Pereira’s more famous works. It includes an artwork inspired by a proposed design for the building (back).

Credit: Jamie Kingham Photographer


Since Pereira designed the core LACMA buildings—the Bing Theater, the Hammer Building, and the Ahmanson Building—which opened in 1965, the museum’s campus has become an often-criticized hodgepodge of add-ons by a slew of different architects. Even when it opened, Smith writes, "the architecture of the LACMA complex was harshly criticized for its heavy-handedness, decorative fussiness, and compromised conditions for presenting art."

If the museum raises the $650 million in required funding and builds Zumthor's "black flower," the impact on Pereira's legacy of work would be significant—but not catastrophic.

The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 13, explores several of Pereira's other iconic projects: the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, built in 1961; the Transamerica Pyramid, the 853-foot point in the San Francisco skyline, completed in 1972; the 1970 Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego; and the master plan for Irvine in Southern California.

Deborah Aschheim with her 2009 piece, “Encounter,” from the “Nostalgia For The Future” series, which was influenced by Pereira’s Theme Building at LAX.

Deborah Aschheim with her 2009 piece, “Encounter,” from the “Nostalgia For The Future” series, which was influenced by Pereira’s Theme Building at LAX.

Credit: Jamie Kingham Photographer


Pereira is not known for flashy designs. As Robertson, the museum's Charles N. Mathewson curator of education, writes in the exhibit’s catalog, "while not 'restrained' in the language of International Modernism, all of Pereira's buildings are remarkably simple and geometric: pyramids, boxes, cylinders, and ovoids." In addition to his better-known projects, he also designed scads of commercial buildings around L.A.

Robertson explains that the exhibition encourages visitors to examine why they might be less familiar with Pereira—who died in 1985—than his contemporaries, such as Richard Neutra or Charles and Ray Eames. "Pereira was in many ways ahead of his time," Robertson says. "He designed architecture and environments that were not strictly speaking modernist."

The 48-feet tall sculpture designed by Ball-Nogues Studio was inspired by Pereira’s Transamerica Pyramid.

The 48-feet tall sculpture designed by Ball-Nogues Studio was inspired by Pereira’s Transamerica Pyramid.

Credit: Nevada Museum of Art


The exhibition includes several commissioned and vintage models, including a 48-foot tall Transamerica Pyramid sculpture, as well as art inspired by Pereira and an interactive timeline that includes elements accessible via the downloadable app Layar. It also explores Pereira's focus on designing buildings for a 50 to 100 year lifespan as well as drawing inspiration and design elements from film, according to Robertson.

"It would be a shame for buildings or places he designed or planned to disappear without the kind of public dialogue about historic preservation and architectural heritage simply because he and his work were overlooked in late twentieth century histories of modernist architecture," Robertson writes in an email.

As to LACMA's outcome, Robertson said that the museum does not have a stance on that. "We will leave it for others to decide merits."

"Modernist Maverick: The Architecture of William L. Pereira" runs through Oct. 13 at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada.