In 2013, a new proposal for LACMA by Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker-winning Swiss architect who has no public projects in the U.S., showed a jet-black blob on the north side of Wilshire that seemed to ooze between the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits and the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum.
But environmental and spatial concerns forced Zumthor to revisit that design—which had been dubbed “the Inkblot.” Black became beige, due to heat-island concerns, and the blob moved away from the tar pits and across the boulevard, where it now touches down in a museum-owned parking lot. Between 2017 and 2019, the design changed yet again.
LACMA director Michael Govan defended Zumthor’s new design in both a weekend interview and an op-ed at the Los Angeles Times. But Curbed’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker and architecture critic Alexandra Lange took a stroll Friday around LACMA’s campus, and they are not convinced.
The museum is almost two museums—bustling in the cafes and by Urban Light, yet the breezy sculpture garden just steps away is virtually empty. Much of the historical collection is not on display. With parts of the original campus under renovation, closed off, and underused, the museum already feels like a bit of a ghost town. It feels as if the bulldozers are just offstage.
What follows is their conversation about the role of museums in urban life, the controversy surrounding Zumthor’s design, and how the new LACMA must meet the street.
Walker: We’re going to start this conversation at the Metro Purple Line station, which is under construction. There’s a huge crane hovering above us. And this is going to be the way, we hope, most people will come to the museum in the future. You’ll come out of the station and the first thing you’ll see is this. What will you see?
Lange: We are seeing Urban Light, where everyone is hanging out and people are taking their selfies. It is one of the most popular Instagram spots in the country.
Walker: Hopefully there will still be selfies in the future, we don’t know. But the people that you see in this plaza were not here 10 years ago when Urban Light opened. There were not people hanging out at LACMA. And I think this is the most important part of this museum—besides all the great art, of course—it really has become this public space for the city.
Lange: And the whole through-passage from Sixth Street seems to work really well. People know they can cut through there, they know they can stop and see Urban Light or whatever temporary sculpture they put up, and that’s great. That’s the urbanism of the museum, that’s what you don’t want to mess up.
But the proposed building in its current incarnation is also not very ’grammable, unless there is some detail at ground level, but since they have only shown us three new renderings and no model yet it is very hard to tell.
Walker: So if we’re looking east, we’re looking at this lone tall tower, the SBE Headquarters, which used to be the Variety building.
Hopefully there will soon be more tall buildings, all filled with housing that’s close to the subway station that we’ll have in the future. But if we’re looking east, you’ve got Urban Light, activating Wilshire. And then you’ll see, what looks like, and we’re not really sure, because we’ve only seen the renderings, this slab—
Lange: A giant tan bar across Wilshire.
Walker: And a lot of people have said it will look like a freeway overpass, which is my concern.
Lange: Or a toll plaza. My most popular tweet of March called out the resemblance to a toll plaza.
Walker: And a lot of other people have called it—
Lange: A Palm Springs motel.
Walker: And Los Angeles Times reporter Carolina Miranda called it a coffee table. I feel like it would also end up blocking a lot of Wilshire streetscape. Not that we’re saying the Petersen Automotive Museum behind us is totally amazing, but it has raised the bar in a way that challenges new projects to be a bit flashier.
Walker: Yeah, there’s going to be a giant ball out here.
Lange: —and you are going to have these flashy Metro stations. There’s already stuff happening at a large scale. I was thinking of it almost as this new giant-sized Googie architecture—because it is very LA, it is very roadside architecture. There’s the diner on the corner, there’s one of those mirror glass buildings on the corner too, that’s so LA.
Walker: We have all the eras of LA.
Lange: The current LACMA design doesn’t seem like it is participating in any of that fun. It seems like it is a background for that fun. It looks so plain you feel it is inevitable that somebody is going to hang a banner on it.
Walker: Just to get this out of the way, you definitely think the old buildings need to go.
Lange: I do think the old buildings need to go.
They are not worth keeping. But this doesn’t feel like the right thing, and it doesn’t feel responsive to the streetscape, and then there are also a lot of questions about whether it is responsive to the real needs of the museum.
As other critics have said, LACMA is Los Angeles’s encyclopedic museum, as the Met is for New York, and the new organization doesn’t seem to leave space for the kind of permanent galleries of historic art that you return to again and again. The Renzo Piano additions were made for temporary and contemporary exhibitions, as contrast, and now it sounds as if everything is going to be in flux. I don’t think that makes sense for this museum, or for LACMA in the larger ecosystem of Los Angeles museums of art.
Walker: One thing that was noted is that we would be losing—and I say “we” because our tax money is paying for part of this museum—gallery space square footage from what currently exists. And that’s a problem not only because of being able to show art, but also because LACMA needs a lot of space for storage for large items in its decorative art department. So why aren’t we going taller, why aren’t we adding density?
Lange: Michael Govan has said he wants it all to be on one story, but having one elevated story seems like it might be possible for people to come to LACMA and just be under the museum and never actually go into it.
This has been a question through all of the Zumthor designs—how does it meet the ground? How does it make you want to go into the museum at ground level? There are all of these giant design questions that I don’t think anyone has answered yet, so it is kind of unbelievable that the Board of Supervisors is voting on the funding on Tuesday.
There’s one exterior staircase shown in the latest renderings but it is pretty plain—like the concrete stairs to the upper motel balcony.
Walker: Right, this is what I worry about with the LACMA slab. We can talk about the success of other efforts like Vessel, the Thomas Heatherwick sculpture at the center of the Hudson Yards megadevelopment in New York City, to turn a structure into this type of experience where you climb, you look at the view, you take photos, but I don’t see that as part of the slab. I’m going to just call it “the Slab.” It looks like a hermetically sealed freeway overpass that goes across the road—and then what? You’re stuck over there.
We’re standing right where the building will need to cross Wilshire and there are tons of people walking across the street here at this crosswalk. A huge part of this plan needs to be dramatically reshaping all these intersections to activate and improve the pedestrian experience on the ground. I don’t see it in the rendering yet. It doesn’t even really show the street.
How do you make sure that for people just walking by, just using the sidewalk, that their walk is enriched?
Lange: One of the nice things about the existing buildings on the other side is the weird leftover area that now they have turned into a plaza that has a coffee bar in it. It is a much more enclosed and protected space than the breezeway on this side. In the rendering of the Zumthor scheme looking west down Wilshire, it is quite open, even more open than the current through-passage. I’m not sure it makes sense to replicate that. What people like are different sizes and different shapes of open spaces.
Walker: Speaking of, remember when the Renzo Piano plan was revealed and what a big deal they made about the landscaping? Robert Irwin did a palm garden!
Lange: Given how much open space there is at ground level in this scheme, I wonder why there hasn’t been a landscape architect or a herbaciously inclined artist involved from the beginning. Those plazas need as much shaping as the galleries—for variety of experience, for traffic flow, for bike parking, to screen people from the breeze off Wilshire.
I’ve just been immersed in Hudson Yards, where a bunch of hard-object buildings are grouped around a hard sculptural object with lots of stairs and the landscape feels like an afterthought. It would literally cut the building off at the knees for that to happen at LACMA—it could be so unpleasant.
Walker: But we don’t know because we don’t have an architectural model yet. Is that strange?
Lange: I do think it is strange. It has been really hard to get a sense of the scale and the materiality and the relationship to other buildings, because there hasn’t been a model yet. They say they are going to exhibit a model, but it was not available for our viewing today.
I will say that limiting public information drops to a few renderings seems to be a new strategy for controversial public architecture. The Obama Center did this too, as I wrote:
Offering the public these out-of-focus pictures is a strategy intended to indicate that they are placeholders for an architecture whose details are yet to be determined. As Peter Zumthor worked and reworked his design for LACMA—black to beige, blob to mastodon—the renderings had a similar blur and presented a limited number of angles. Don’t rush to judgment, they said, as if they (or we) have a choice. Wait too long, and you end up where we are now, with so much unknown while so much else seems set in stone.
Walker: So did you like the original Zumthor concept?
Lange: I liked the Inkblot. It looked like something. It felt like something different. If you are going to take a Swiss monk architect and plunk him down in the middle of LA you want him to do something dramatically different. I think one of the reasons that LACMA picked Zumthor was frankly for the publicity of having him do his first building in North America in Los Angeles. It always seemed like a weird fit, so I actually like that it was an odd building, a building that seemed to create some of those dark mysterious spaces that Zumthor is known for, but also speak to LA.
One of the things I most liked about that original building was there was a lot of thought about the variety of galleries and different shapes so that the gallery itself would be an architectural experience and not just a plain box.
Walker: There was a blobular quality even on the inside.
Lange: Right, and then there were white skylight pieces that were popping up, so that the so-called “chapel galleries” would be skylit and taller. As you were moving through this horizontal space, there would be spatial variety in terms of ceiling heights as well as openness to views of the city. They have sliced off both the original solar array, and the variation in roof height in the latest version.
Walker: That’s all gone now.
Lange: All the variety seems to be slowly getting stripped out. Why is it one story? Why is it bridging the road? Why is it tan? None of these things have good answers.
Walker: So we’ve walked through this sculpture garden and up into the Hardy Holzman Pfieffer building, and there’s not a lot of people here. Yes, they need to have the sculptures gated, but there’s a staircase here to go into the museum, and you don’t see any people using it. I mean, this really illustrates the problem. But I have to say, it’s not a bad experience really.
Lange: It is definitely not bad. It is piecey. It is what happens when you add onto your museum during different eras and perhaps the people in charge don’t think it through very well. I don’t love the William Pereira buildings, I think he has done better buildings.
I kind of love the completely weird Hardy Holzman Pfieffer building with the glass block and the metal siding that you enter through the very postmodern passageway. It is deeply, deeply unfashionable, and I don’t think anyone is arguing that it should be saved, but it is perfectly fine and some of the more interesting galleries are in there.
Walker: One of the biggest things a new building could accomplish is extending the campus in a way that feels seamless. Right now the design forces you from the new Piano part into the building with the Tony Smith sculpture—you gotta walk down, you gotta walk up, you go in, you go out.
But I always walk around the outside here, on the Sixth Street side, because the cool part of the campus is how close it gets to the park, and the great thing about the Inkblot was how it was going to knit together the tar pits with the museum, which it doesn’t really do right now. I guess the Bruce Goff Japanese Pavilion provides a transition, but the Inkblot would have created some kind of continuity.
Lange: It was touching everything without destroying anything.
Walker: But apparently they said it would destroy something—there were concerns about the building being so close the sensitive site of the tar pits. But that’s why we can’t have the Inkblot at all? That makes no sense.
Lange: It feels like you are in design school and you have this idea, I want a one-story building up on legs and you push it and you pull it and you change the color and you’ve lost the original drama and interestingness of that building, and it makes you think, Why are we holding on to this concept? So many things have changed, why is it still a one-story building on legs?
The other thing is, there was tremendous publicity value for choosing Zumthor and that obviously helped them initially with fundraising, which has slowed down precipitously, which may be responsible for some of the cutbacks.
Since Zumthor was chosen, a number of LA architects have built excellent, well-reviewed museums. Starting with Johnston Marklee who just built the very beautiful Menil Drawing Institute in Houston and Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY, who did the Marciano Collection and the Speed Museum in Louisville. While local heroes maybe don’t bring in the big bucks, it isn’t as if there isn’t enough local talent that probably has spent a lot of time at LACMA to do a building that might even be two stories.
Walker: Imagine that! So are you saying, Alexandra, that we should scrap this watered-down version of Zumthor—this watered-down, non-inky version—and start fresh maybe with someone local?
Walker: It does feel like it could benefit from a very different direction. And like you said, LA has changed so much over the last few years. We knew the subway was coming, but the subway is almost here, they’re pouring the floor in the station below our feet. There’s a housing crisis, and this is one of the most transit-accessible, job-rich places to live in the city. So there will be more people not only coming to LACMA, but living here, and using this as a public space, using this as their backyards and their living rooms that they might not have in their smaller apartments or condos. This project is going to play an outsize role in this part of the city and we need to think about how it will serve the community. It’s not just a museum. It’s going to have a much bigger job.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.