"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

Credit: Museum Associates/LACMA


Does the Los Angeles County Museum of Art need to start over again? That is the question this institution is answering with a resounding, $650 million “yes.” They are proposing to tear down all of their original buildings, as well as a mid-1980s addition, and replace it with Peter Zumthor–designed, blobby behemoth they say will add 70,000 square feet of gallery space and create a coherent core in which they can pursue their mission.

Peter Zumthor is, I believe, one of the best architects working today. And LACMA needs more space. So why do I have doubts about the current plans, models, and (a few) drawings of which are currently on display at one of the museum’s newest buildings, the Renzo Piano–designed Resnick Pavilion?

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

Credit: LACMA - The Los Angeles County Museum of Art


When I visited LACMA to see this show, as well as the James Turrell exhibition (about which more later) and a few other offerings of what has, it was clear to me that this institution has, under the leadership of Michael Govan, become one of the liveliest and most innovative art museums in the country. The place was bustling. The café, nestled under a canopy that shades LACMA’s central space, was packed; people were wandering from pavilion to pavilion, and the whole compound gave you the sense that there was something else to discover around the next corner or in the next building.

That is why I am wary of the notion of wiping most of this out to create a single, amoeba-shaped labyrinth of galleries lifted above street level and accessed through five separate cores. Through pure circumstance, LACMA has arrived at a state of vitality that is due, I would argue, not only to good leadership and programming, but also to the very messiness of its campus. I do not think any of the buildings—from the original, Pereira-designed triad, to the Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer neo–Art Deco glom-on, to one of Bruce Goff’s weakest designs, to the Piano pavilions that try to hide their blandness behind brightly colored staircases and air vents—are particularly good. Govan might also be right that, between their high operating costs and what it would take to bring them up to modern standards, they might not be worth saving.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

Credit: Museum Associates/LACMA


But together, these 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. It seems to me that it would be logical to keep going in this mode by adding on, renovating, and intensifying those qualities. Would it really cost $650 million to fix leaks, add solar panels to the roofs, create 70,000 square feet of gallery space in additions or separate pavilions, and design effective wayfinding tools? Nor would such a strategy embody a lack of vision. In fact, I would argue that this kind of first-one-thing-then-another, modular, tactical, and renovation-focused way of making spaces is the wave of the future.

I will also admit that I do not quite understand the Zumthor design. Though I have loved just about every building of his I have ever seen, this attempt to turn the adjacent La Brea Tar Pints into a black piano nobile disassociated from the human-made city around it strikes me as odd, out of scale, and out of real context.

Perhaps it is necessary to build this structure because that is the only way both to solve the many problems the campus presents, the full extent which I do not know, and to raise money to do so. I would hope, however, that there is another, more rambling path LACMA can take.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

"The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA," installation view.

Credit: Museum Associates/LACMA


Update: This post originally stated the cost for the Peter Zumthor building campaign as $850 million. It has been corrected.

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.