© Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

As the designs for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) promise an ever smaller building to be finished ever later (2023!) at a huge cost for a design that to many of us looks questionable, I have to ask the astute LACMA Director Michael Govan and the creator of brilliant buildings, Peter Zumthor, again: Why? Can’t you achieve a much better museum, and one that is more appropriate to Los Angeles by renovating the existing buildings and adding on to them to create the kind of village of forms that the museum campus already is becoming, and that works so well in Los Angeles?

One caveat: It is always dangerous to judge a building from its designs alone. I was wrong about the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s addition, which turned out to be a wonderful building despite what I thought was a puzzling design. So Zumthor’s idea of a black pancake hovering over Wilshire Boulevard and the La Brea Tar Pits could wind up somehow leading to a beautiful and appropriate building. Somehow.

The central question remains: Why is it necessary? The new building, in its redesigned form, will not add substantial square footage to the public gallery spaces. Govan continues to claim that merely fixing the existing hodgepodge of buildings will cost about $317 million, and we have to take his word for that (though it seems to me that eager art leaders often overestimate the cost of repairs and underestimate the cost of new buildings), but even then the current project is estimated to cost between $750 million and $1 billion—with about half of that figure needed for construction and the rest for LACMA’s financial security. And that’s today’s estimate.

The existing buildings are not that good, but they are not that bad either. Good designers, ranging from Frank Gehry, FAIA, to the artist Jorge Pardo, have shown how you can do wonderful installations in them, and I believe that, with a little work, those old hulks could be opened up and connected in wonderful ways. What is more important is that LACMA has developed, though not wholly by design, a wonderful set of connected outdoor spaces that just scream to be enhanced and enlarged. What LACMA needs is a Lincoln Center treatment—a slice and open, nip and tuck, renovate and add on—not an architecture bomb or slime.

Just imagine taking the difference between the cost of renovations and the new building in order to line Wilshire Boulevard with shopping and restaurants (LACMA owns land on both sides of the street). Think of small pavilions for exhibitions—some of them permanent, some of them not—dotting the open spaces. Think of opening up the existing structures to light and outdoor views. Think of taking over some of the adjacent buildings and showing art there. Think of starting right now.

Govan has the right idea in wanting to build a skyscraper on some of LACMA’s land, but why this conventional split between the for-profit tower and low-rise art palace? Why not mix and match culture and commerce and, more importantly, different scales and densities, across LACMA’s holding, carving out places for both community and contemplation in the collage carpet that is Los Angeles?

Govan says he wants to prove that Los Angeles can produce more architectural hits than just Disney Hall. It could. It could have the kind of open, inclusive, ad hoc cultural community center that would be the model for the rest of the 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.