Yesterday, I had the privilege of previewing Peter Zumthor's radical redesign of LACMA's east campus -- prompted by its exuberant and ambitious director Michael Govan -- and I'm going to sound like a religious convert here, but I think I just witnessed a miracle.
Before I get into justifying a statement that you could easily dismiss as wide-eyed hyperbole, the kind of good-old-fashioned, foaming-at-the-mouth boosterism that willed our preposterous city from an oil field on the edge of a desert, let me implore you to see it for yourself. The several ton central model, which will be on display at LACMA's Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion, is the center piece of an exhibit opening June 9th that documents the many (mis)adventures which have led to LACMA's current hodge-podge and less-than-user friendly design. If you've ever wondered why LACMA's east campus looks like a Lincoln Center-wannabe emerging from an '80s porn star's pink-tiled shower stall, this exhibition will tell you exactly why. But the showstopper, which entranced me for a solid three hours yesterday, is Zumthor's proposed redesign. Many others have already broken down the technical details but here's the skinny: an "ink-blot" horizontal structure raised on several columns (which will serve as multiple entry-ways and allow pedestrians from the street to pass through to the park grounds beneath) that ascend to a bevy of gallery space wrapped behind a sinuous perimeter gallery enclosed in glass walls that make art visible from street level -- both art currently on display, and the iceberg's bulk of LACMA's collection in storage. Oh, and just for proper eco-bonafides, a solar-powered roof etc. to make the whole structure energy independent.
But writing about the exciting new possible LACMA is really kind of futile. My words can only do it injustice; it has to be seen to be truly experienced. Even reading Christopher Hawthorne's thorough, enlightening L.A.Times piece beforehand wouldn't totally dispel my usual skeptical anti-hype reaction to every new mega-structure that's touted as L.A.'s next icon. So often these grand proposals leave one feeling like an alien presence has been air-lifted into this already plenty paradoxical, dizzying, and enchanting city of ours. (The Walt Disney Concert Hall, of course, being the exception that proves the rule.) So rarely do non-natives, let alone non-native starchitects truly get this city -- understand that every frustrating aspect of Los Angeles, which provides bitch-fest fodder for each new East Coast transplant (and yes, native Angelenos, too) is actually a quintessential element of its charm. Though, charm probably isn't the right word -- perhaps what I mean is whatever it is that keeps us all living in L.A., in spite of itself.
But Zumthor, in my opinion, gets it. At the press conference, Govan praised Zumthor's appreciation for the site specifics of his unique projects, and how that grounds his entire architectural ethos. And he's right. From the way the "black flower" (LACMA's words, though "ink blot" feels more natural to me) spreads out like the La Brea tar pits themselves to the ingenious uses of our unrelenting Southern California sunshine, this proposed new design feels to me, a native Angeleno, like something that has arisen organically and primordially from the depths of the great, vast, spread-out, freeway-beribboned Los Angeles basin -- while at the same time complementing Piano's latest additions and the beloved Japanese Pavilion. And as contemporary and forward looking as it feels now, it also strikes me as a future classic, a structure that will age well for decades to come. (A feeling that even Rem Koolhaas' ballyhooed 2001 redesign proposal did not entirely stir in me.)
Now, it would be easy to wax sentimental about the original, cramped Pereira design (less so the garish Art of the Americas building); and I was prepared to feel a surge of melancholy at the mere considering of its erasure from LACMA's campus. That was, after all, the museum my grandmother and grandfather led me through as a young child, trying to instill "culture" in me. But sometimes, the 57"-inch flat-screen HDTV just really is better than an old 14" blurry-analog squint-box clad in cheap plastic, nostalgia-be-damned. But my instant affection for this new design did more than just tickle the novelty bone. It got me to thinking about what a museum -- and, natch, art itself -- fundamentally is. And, more essentially, what it means even to go to museums and gaze at assorted, exhilarating/frustrating ambiguous objects/installations on walls (or floors or ceilings) and then try to tell whomever we're with what we think it's all about.
Honestly, art and the casual pursuit of "culture" is a fundamentally silly and quixotic endeavor. Have you ever pulled back and looked at your fellow-museum goers, lost in their various poses of contemplation, or boredom, or whatever? Don't we all just look more than a tad ridiculous, a herd of gallery-roaming primates partaking in a really elaborate ritual of navel-gazing? And yet, I can't deny that I enjoy it and sometimes absolutely need it. Nor can I deny that sometimes, when I lose myself in a piece of art, even one I find totally absurd -- although I'm determined as hell to "get it" so I can justifiably label the artist as at least 50 percent full of b.s.--nonetheless even here I can experience a sudden and rapid suspension of my every-day half-aware self, and reach an ephemeral Taoist state of exhilarating oblivion and connection, kind of like that moment on a great roller coaster just before you drop 1,000 feet in five seconds and find yourself floating free, caught in wonder between heaven and earth? And secretly that's what I'm really hoping for when I confront any piece of art: something like that, or approaching that, achieved through some object or concept, even if I'm afraid it's more than half-fraudulent and that I'm the other half of the fraud, and suspecting that it probably will not happen this time, and totally astounded when it does -- even though that's why I came in the first place! (That and, let's be honest, the gift shop.)
To paraphrase Piano's philosophy for his LACMA redesign, Zumthor's proposed museum had me thinking of art and museums as a miraculous fusion of the sacred and the profane. There are so few sacred spaces left in modern America, let alone California. Sure, you can always go to Yosemite but that's like an 8-hour drive and with gas at $4/gallon... (Or if you want, there's an actual church but that's so exhaustingly politicized these days it makes me want to down a case of sacramental wine. Granted, an argument can be made that religion and politics are the ultimate & original adulterous bedfellows.) But even the most resolute urban secularist or born-again charismatic can head down to his local museum and take a shot at the sublime. When you think about it, museums are the perfect non-denominational, communal-yet-individualist forum for one to approach that feeling of the ecclesiastical -- and I'm talking the old Greek notion of Ekklesia here, a congregational place where we all gather to both connect and seek something larger than our tiny, vulnerable and easily extinguishable selves. I mean, is it any wonder artistic traditions evolve so inexorably from religious ones. And the museum is case in point! Okay, I'll stop now but if this is the kind of mental-mind blowing a mere building proposal can elicit in me, it must be one hell of a building.
That this kind of place could spring from the bosom of Los Angeles -- that such a concept could be gifted to our fair city -- is a form of minor miracle. And it's one I personally would love to believe in. I'd love to believe that our profusion of lackadaisical millionaires and billionaires could chip in a fractional percentage of their net-worth here and there; or, hell, that Govan might start a Kickstarter to reap another chunk of the proposed $650 million. Because, after years of false-starts and half-measures, this new proposal just has to be built. Not only would the new LACMA -- with a future Purple Line stop right nearby -- be an instant international icon, it would be a gift that Los Angeles gives itself. It would be a sign that maybe, finally, as a city, L.A.'s ready to stop trying to ape New York and be itself, whatever that may be. But mostly, the new LACMA would simply be a marvelous, magical place to take your grandkid a few decades from now on a lazy Sunday afternoon and stop to stare at some truly mind-boggling object and feel, for a just a moment, the rollercoaster of human existence drop out from under you.