08/13/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Building Plans for Los Angeles County Museum of Art Don't Live Up to Near $1 Billion Pricetag

Suddenly Angelenos are being asked to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. The monumental bill of goods now up for sale is the take-it-or-leave-it design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, priced somewhere between $650M and $1 billion. The two-story, ten-acre, amoeba-like building was unveiled last summer, but last month, the design made more news when it sprouted a tentacular pod that reached over Wilshire Boulevard, as though in a Hitchcock movie, to grab a vacant site across the street.

Besides the protoplasmic design, apparently inspired by the oozy La Brea Tar Pits themselves, the project raises questions about propriety since the design for a county museum on county land financed with hundreds of millions in public funds evolved outside the usual selection process (often a competition), without much transparency and without even a blue-ribbon panel of advisors weighing the choice of architect and project in public. The design was developed under the radar in a board-sanctioned tête-à-tête between the director, Michael Govan, and his Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor.


The only time Angelenos truly get mad about a public issue is when somebody takes away a freeway lane, so there has been no cumulative howl of protest, just muted surprise and a great, big acquiescent "whatever."

The building, however, demands scrutiny. For starters, the site and floor plans are hopeless. To create a museum of one story, Zumthor has lifted his amoeba off the ground so that for about ten acres, what he bills as a "park" flowing beneath the galleries has no sunlight. The results approximate a freeway overpass perfect for homeless encampments.

Upstairs, the floor plan shows no overall organization, just a train wreck of galleries, all boxes, with no coherent plan. Zumthor's portfolio shows virtually no effort in designing complex vertical sections, other than by stacking floors like pancakes. At LACMA, to fulfill the spatial needs for the encyclopedic collection within a single floor, he has to find more space by bridging to a corner site opposite, where the pod squanders most of the parcel. The architect could have spiraled the museum up several floors on the original site. Building Kansas is odd for an architect who lives in the Alps, which is all about moving up and down.


The arguments supporting the design, aired in a one-on-one "buddy" video between Govan and Zumthor, are jejune. Zumthor compares the cylinders holding up the amoeba to trees, evoking the sequoia argument for glass cylinders more accurately related to kitchen shelves. He claims design originality, without citing the curvy floor plate famously proposed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for a Berlin tower back in 1922. Versed in museum design theory, Govan inexplicably announces that the curvy form avoids any front or back to the museum, as if any major architect today would propose frontal buildings like the MET in New York, forcing visitors inside via the missionary position.

The opposition is silent. Because Govan, all boyish charm, has usually fought on the side of the angels and has performed brilliantly as director, and because of LACMA's own centrality in the LA cultural ecosystem, few people have gone public. But out of his earshot, players on the national art scene have said that Zumthor is usually a good architect "but not this time," that the scheme shows that "the Swiss mystic wears no clothes," that the floor plan inside is a "rat's nest," and even that the scheme is "a piece of shit" -- this last appreciation by an internationally known architect.


Often doctors searching for a diagnosis look for an unusual sign, and the telling symptom for Zumthor's design pathology can be found in his temporary Serpentine Gallery pavilion in Hyde Park, London, in 2011. Unlike other world-class architects who conceived their designs for the annual event as joyous structures open to the park in summer, Zumthor created a dark, penitential box that opens to a courtyard circled by a lugubrious corridor, centered on a patch of wildflowers -- the only spark of life in what he intended as an ascetic garden of contemplation. Simplicity here is supposed to pass for wisdom. Like many other Swiss architects, he has just designed a box.

A defining characteristic of American and Los Angeles architecture is the lesson that Frank Lloyd Wright learned when he allowed the prairie, and American space, to break open the closed, defensive box, which originated in Europe, to the vastness of the American continent. Wright's LA protégée, Austro-American architect R.M. Schindler, broke the box vertically with houses that climbed LA's hillsides, all ladders of space. The Greene brothers in Pasadena introduced Japanese space in their bungalows, an openness later sought after by GI's returning from Japan. The post-War Case Study Houses in LA all opened to the outside as a matter of principle.

The Edelweiss is an emblematic flower that grows in the Alps above the tree line. Zumthor built his one great building in these rarified climes, the Thermal Baths in Vals, a sublime structure that was carefully crafted with stone in strata that match the mountains. Perhaps Zumthor, certainly a serious if limited architect, only prospers, like Edelweiss, at high altitudes. His so-called contemplative architecture of closed forms, his boutique practice, and his rather hair-shirt attitude do not transplant to Southern California, where space is big, generous and sybaritic, and where photons tend to chase away shadowy atmospherics. It takes a certain touch to do great architecture in LA.

The design and the commission itself are being treated as a fait accompli, but both should be recalled. A freeway lane is being taken away from the public.