Debating the New LACMA

Architect Peter Zumthor’s plan to radically redesign the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has divided critics and architects in L.A. like no other proposal in recent memory.

After Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan gave a thoughtful defense of architect Peter Zumthor’s controversial plan to remake the museum’s 50-year-old campus, local critics engaged in a lively exchange of views pro and con at the fourth session in the popular Third Los Angeles series.

More than 500 people gathered in Occidental’s Thorne Hall saw new models of the latest iteration of the Zumthor design and heard Govan defend the project as “a risk. Most museums are taking no risks. I think this is a worthy risk, thoughtfully considered.” Zumthor’s dramatic design – series organizer Christopher Hawthorne, architectural critic for the Los Angeles Times, called it a “horizontal skyscraper” -- would increase gallery space and access to the collection, rely on solar energy, open up more than two acres of park space, and “be something distinguished, something unique,” Govan said.

The museum’s 50-year-old buildings, designed by William Pereira, should be preserved and creatively reused, countered architect and modern preservationist Alan Hess. Pereira has received ”a bad rap… he is one of the most important shapers of Southern California,” Hess said. “I do not see in the current [Zumthor] design any deep understanding of L.A.” But Pereira is “a bit like the Bobby Darin of architecture, who recorded both “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” … LACMA is closer to “Splish Splash.”

One of the principal reasons why the new design is so controversial, said architect Sharon Johnston, is that “it does remove the idea of the museum as object, a building that advertises itself as what it is. [People ask,] Why would you design something that is so difficult to read?” Hess suggested a different reason: ”Angelenos haven’t really resolved what we think about our city.”