The real scandal about the amoebic pancake that Swiss architect Peter Zumthor proposes to loft over Los Angeles’s most ceremonial avenue is that the meeting is being held at all. The issue should be moot primarily because there is no reason to jump Wilshire in search of more land at the corner of Spaulding and Wilshire. Counterintuitively, the museum claims it needs more land to build a structure with a square footage that is actually less than the Ahmanson, Hammer, Bing and Anderson wings it will replace.
The dirty little secret of this sadly Napoleonic leap of conquest is that there is enough land available right where the old wings now stand. According to director Michael Govan himself, the museum has never even made a single design attempt to test the proposed Spaulding extension on the campus site.
In fact the square footage of the Spaulding pod would fit quite comfortably on the campus site once the existing structures are demolished, without encroaching on the paleontologically sensitive areas of the surrounding park. The diagrams below show Zumthor’s proposal along with two alternative sketch diagrams prepared by the Los Angeles Review of Books borrowing Zumthor’s own (borrowed) amoebic language. The alternatives show versions of the same building either circling back on itself on the site north of Wilshire in a two-story, modified Möbius strip, or a simpler single-story donut, all fitted within the permissible perimeter. The square footage conforms neatly within the area currently occupied by the old buildings and their courtyard. (These alternative designs are not recommended proposals, just square footage tests of the site north of Wilshire.)
Latest Zumthor proposal.
Instead of exploring all possibilities, the Museum and its go-along Board of Directors are putting the Wilshire corridor at risk, even though the City of Los Angeles designated Wilshire long ago as a scenic highway. The structure, some 20 feet above the road and 55 feet high, blinds the long, historically intact perspective up and down the corridor in favor of a fundamentally simplistic design. This ain’t no Rialto Bridge. It’s recycled, low-grade avant-gardism pumped up to monumental scale, and black is the new white.
Why are we even seriously considering this misguided proposition? How did an idea that’s urbanistically compromising even merit a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) hearing?
Govan, a capable, charismatic, reasonable, sometimes inspired museum director, has a stubborn obsession: museums on one floor. Forget the Louvre, the Metropolitan in New York, the Tate Modern, the National Gallery in London. Govan believes that visitors don’t like to climb stairs, and that you lose visitors with each story. So he wants everything on one floor, even though he knows from his experience at the Guggenheim in New York, where he was long assistant director, that architects who know what they’re doing can design continuous circuits that create the effect of a single floor on multiple levels.
Frank Lloyd Wright brought his spiraling one-story ramp up seven stories at the Gugg; New York modernist Edward Larrabee Barnes did the same at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis decades ago, but with stepped terraces that spiral in squared spaces for five stories.
In a recent meeting, held in Govan’s office, the director admitted that no alternative plan solely on the main campus was ever explored because, he maintained, unconvincingly — as though pulling an argument out of a hat — that people don’t like to see art on ramps, even with gradual slopes. He said nothing about stepped terraces that achieve the same goals, such as at Barnes’ enduring Walker Art Center. He said nothing either about inviting staircases. He didn’t mention the Winged Victory of Samothrace taking wing at the top of a regal staircase at the Louvre, which thousands of visitors use daily, quite happily: kings didn’t complain. If the stairs are inviting, they will climb.
Grasping for justifications for the land grab, he defended the Zumthor pancake by noting that jumping Wilshire liberates land north of Wilshire for increased park acreage, but failed to recognize that his mandate is to build a better museum and better institution, not to cede existing museum space to the surrounding park—a matter long since settled. Furthermore, jumping Wilshire to Spaulding squanders possibilities for the future expansion of the museum, and potential income, as I have noted before here and here. (Spaulding had always been slated for future expansion and/or for development, the profits flowing to the museum.)
Architecturally, this bridge compromises historically-designated Wilshire by the construction of what is effectively — no matter how much lipstick you apply — a freeway overpass. The monumental structure blocks the vista down Wilshire without offering an adequately compensatory beauty, and the unprecedented proposal sets a dangerous precedent for other institutions or businesses that might want to jump Wilshire and other boulevards with a design signed by a name architect.
That the building levitates over Wilshire is possible only because it starts out one story above the campus plaza, which creates another environmental issue: shadow. Zumthor’s rather grim new renderings, finally produced after a stunning $3.5 million worth of architectural fees for 2013 and 2014 alone, show covered outdoor spaces under the museum’s lifted belly in permanent shadow. No one would by choice want to stay under the looming concrete mass for long, even if it’s dolled up with clever landscaping. The bleakness is accentuated by a dearth of programming: a museum can only have so many outdoor cafés to activate exterior space, especially if outdoor tables are located in perpetual shadow. Zumthor disproves the validity of his own design with renderings that show how oppressive many of these under-belly spaces are.
One of the strongest environmental arguments against the building is not acknowledged among the criteria written into the CEQA Initial Study document: security. Sadly, in these precarious times, this bridge-of-a-building would be an instant target for a truck bomb. A high-value bull’s-eye, it has everything: a symbol of Los Angeles, a prominent location, tens of millions of dollars worth of art inside, plus lots of people. In cities across the United States, authorities are closing down car drop-offs under prominent civic buildings: both Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station in New York have closed off drop-offs located under vulnerable parts of the station structures.
There would be no way to protect LACMA from a truck that appeared out of nowhere on a nice, sunny Saturday afternoon, parking there just for a moment. So easy. Zumthor’s bridge is ominous in more ways than one.
It is not sufficient to bridge Wilshire just because Govan doesn’t believe in staircases or ramps or escalators or terraces or continuous Möbius-like ribbons or a combination of them all. It’s not sufficient to bridge the corridor just because it’s new, curvy and kind of cool. Certainly the neighbors don’t think so, and City architectural historians and agencies in charge of protecting scenic highways shouldn’t either.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.