One of Peter Zumthor's latest renderings for the new LACMA
Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary One of Peter Zumthor's latest renderings for the new LACMA

It just keeps getting worse with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) proposed new building. What was previously just a bad design that was the result of years and even decades of attempts to enlarge the institution’s home on Wilshire Boulevard now promises to become even more of a white elephant that will likely cost over a billion dollars. It will provide substantially less gallery space than is currently available in ways that are much less flexible and conducive to showing various forms of art. And, by the way, the proposed new building has become, in my humble opinion, even uglier.

We know some of this thanks to various critics and concerned citizens, most notably Joseph Giovannini, who have submitted open records requests and analyzed the museum’s public presentations. What they have gleaned from their research is that conservatively, the new building will have up to 40% less gallery space. The display areas will consist of boxes of a uniform height strewn around a single floor lifted above the ground and thus will have no connections to their surroundings. Each container will be clad with stone, their spaces both monumental and forbidding. Air conditioning elements and hanging devices will presumably be worked into the environment without being visible, which will help contribute to the exorbitant price tag. Lighting will all be artificial and, as depicted in the renderings, consist of obtrusive tracks in this otherwise super-minimalist environment. Building temporary walls in these spaces, especially in an active earthquake zone, will be very expensive and difficult. There is no differentiation for spaces that show, say, small drawings or prints and ones that will exhibit large paintings or sculptures. Because the galleries each are their own room, surrounded by a sea of sunlit circulation areas, there will be no opportunity to combine or sequence the display areas in various ways.

Peter Zumthor's latest proposal for LACMA
Building LACMA Peter Zumthor's latest proposal for LACMA

Could all this be fixed? Undoubtedly it could be, but at an even higher cost. Meanwhile, I fail to see LACMA’s logic here. If you want to open up what is admittedly a bit of a traditional fortress of an art museum, why lift it up over the street and why isolate the art? If you want to provide more appropriate spaces for both display and public gathering, why not do that? Why span over a public road if you could stack galleries on the existing site, especially if none of the galleries will have daylight? The unanswered questions raised by the seemingly illogical design are endless.

As for the most important question, I still don’t understand why the new building, which necessitates the demolition of close to 140,000 square feet of existing space, is necessary in the first place. LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, claims that it would be too expensive and impractical to renovate and expand the existing buildings, yet how could such an approach cost more than a billion dollars? As I have said before, it is even more of a mystery because Govan has done a great job in opening up, connecting, and enlivening those existing, now partially shuttered buildings. Is the hatred of late modern and postmodern architecture so great, and the renown that comes with commissioning a major new monument so enticing, that they trump all logic?

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

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

LACMA in 1965
Museum Associates/LACMA LACMA in 1965

Apparently so. The whole debacle is thus a symptom of our general enslavement to the culture of monuments. Every time we invest more money in such grand edifices, we not only take funds away from operations and current arts activities, not to mention encumbering future generations with the operating costs of the new buildings, but we also waste natural resources. The new LACMA looks like a tremendous energy and material hog to me, whereas investing the same money in making the existing buildings more efficient and enjoyable would have made a major contribution to the institution’s sustainability, both environmentally and economically.

At least the LACMA building, if it is constructed, might well be the last of such dinosaurs. I know of few projects in the arts today, at least in the United States, that are not renovations or additions. Even though some of these also seem wasteful and unnecessary, they don’t come close to the vaunting ambition, bad design, and wasteful nature of this blob.

It may be too late for everybody to come their senses. Los Angeles will now sport three badly designed structures for visual arts: LACMA, the Getty, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Luckily, the city also has a thriving art scene amid renovated factory buildings and warehouses—including the MOCA’s first home; the Geffen Contemporary; and the future East L.A. outpost of LACMA. It is here that we will find the Southland’s cultural future.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.