Paul Murdoch Architects/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

It is one thing to say a design is bad. It is another to offer an alternative. That was Joseph Giovannini’s motivation in organizing an ideas competition to find counterpoints to the expensive, dysfunctional, and pompous blob Peter Zumthor, Hon. FAIA, has proposed as the new home of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Co-chair of the Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA, Govannini dubbed the competition "LACMA not LackMa." As a member of the jury (together with architect Winka Dubbeldam, writer Greg Goldin, former LACMA Chief Curator J. Patrice Marandel, Bill Pedersen, FAIA, Barton Phelps, FAIA, and of course Giovannini), I got a firsthand look at whether anybody could do better than Zumthor, who has proven ability to make stunning environments and objects but seems completely off track in Los Angeles.

The answer is: of course. Although the architects only had a few weeks to work on the design, the competition was a bit ad hoc, and many potential entrants declined to participate because of the politics involved (who wants to alienate one of the largest arts institutions on the West Coast and the members of its board?), the six projects we chose as winners all show that you can solve LACMA’s problems in ways that are probably cheaper and certainly more logical and sensitive to the collection and the context than Zumthor’s pancake, suspended in mid pan-fling over one of the city’s major boulevards. (You can vote for your favorite designs here.)

The entrants were asked to stay within the boundaries of LACMA’s current site, and to increase the exhibition space (Zumthor’s design reduces it) while improving circulation and flexibility, as well as resolving a host of other back-of-the-house issues. We were also looking for a structure that would integrate LACMA better with the public park it abuts and would provide a proper and inviting face along Wilshire Boulevard. Initially I insisted on only considering proposals that reused all of the existing buildings on the campus, but the fact that LACMA is already busy tearing some of those down convinced me to support a different approach: We picked three good examples from each of two categories—proposals, like Zumthor’s, that assume all the buildings designed by William Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (HHP) between 1965 and 1986, would be demolished; and those that propose to save all (or at least most) of the existing structures.

Paul Murdoch Architects/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

I have to say I am not overly fond of any of the winning schemes in the first category. The most logical of them, Paul Murdoch’s rectangle running east-west over the site where the Pereira and HHP buildings now stand, is not exactly adroit or exciting, but it provides all the necessary spaces (and more), is logical and efficient, and has a clarity and a reserved presence, even though that appropriateness helps drains all the civic qualities out of the proposal. This is a good background building that unfortunately can only stand behind the equally banal Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA designs from the 1990s.

TheeAe/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA
TheeAe/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

On the other hand, the design by Hong Kong-based TheeAe is striking, but perhaps too much so. An undulating façade faces Wilshire Boulevard, but the best suggestion occurs beyond that meaningless billboard, where the design turns into an artificial mountain that allows the park to continue up over the bulk of the museum. I wish TheeAe had left it at that gesture, and buried the whole building in the park, as some of the other schemes did.

Coop Himmelb(l)au/The Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA
Coop Himmelb(l)au/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

Finally there was the contribution by Coop Himmelb(l)au, which sent in a quick sketch for what has become a standard museum solution: a few simple blocks organized around a central atrium; the latter’s expressive form serves as a circulation area, party space, public attraction, and institutional signature. I am not really sure what the proposed globes and bars have to do with LACMA’s program or site but, given the firm's track record, I have no doubt it could make an exciting and appropriate building based on the sketch.

Barkow Leibinger/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA
Barkow Leibinger/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

Much more interesting to me are the second group of winners. The most radical of them is Barkow Leibinger’s submission. Presented as a postcard from a sunny Los Angeles, it proposes keeping at least the three Pereira buildings and surrounding them with a two-story plinth that would fill out the site. Courtyards left in the middle would set off the surviving neo-Classical buildings or, if LACMA remains intent on its cultural destruction, those buildings would be reconstructed as they are (or were). That last solution strikes me as odd, as does Leibinger’s inclination to tear down the 1980s HHP addition, but the airiness and logic of the new scheme are seductive.

Kaya Design/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA
Kaya Design/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

Simpler is Kaya Design’s solution, which proposes an introverted version of the Coop Himmel(b)lau design. The atrium here becomes a swirling soft ice cream concoction whirling its way out of a box the firm jammed between two of the Pereira buildings. It seems logical, although the new addition appears too large in scale and different in design approach to fit in with the existing structures.

Reiser + Umemoto/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA
Reiser + Umemoto/Citizens' Brigade to Save LACMA

By far the most promising solution, at least to me, is the one by Reiser + Umemoto. Although it also proposes to tear down the HHP addition (I think I may be the only person who thinks that building, for all its problems, still has a great deal of merit), it offers what I think would be the logical solution to the current campus’s problems. The combination of a new pavilion that connects the existing buildings, a public space running north-south through it, and a few cuts through the existing structures would reanimate LACMA and make it more usable, larger, and altogether more pleasant to visit.

I can see many problems even with this design, and no doubt others would arise if it were to develop into another stage. But the sanity, clarity, and logic of this approach is such a clear reproach to the misplaced grandeur, lack of utility, and utter wastefulness of the Zumthor scheme that it is hard for me to fathom why LACMA would continue on its current path. They will, of course, leaving us only to wonder what could have been. At least now we have some concrete ideas of what was missed and, if nothing else, have proven that good architecture can provide answers to difficult questions, even if those solutions are ultimately ignored.

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.