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Big County

Renzo Piano’s expansion of LACMA is heavy outside but has a bright inner life

Photograph by Museum Associates/LACMA

Museums no longer compete for art. They compete for architects, since the art on the walls is often less esteemed than the walls themselves. Building a flying steel-and-concrete bird by Santiago Calatrava, a shattered box by Zaha Hadid, or a handcoined chain-mail wall by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron can lend a museum an air of importance well beyond the scope of its holdings. The new digs are certain to attract the global Kultur class and a flock of critics, whose hard currency and opinions add up to soaring attendance and swelling coffers.

So when it was announced that Renzo Piano, the meticulously elegant yet always understated museum specialist, had been commissioned to design the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it was clear that bold expressionism or dicey experimentalism were out. A high-octane, commercialized destination wasn’t in the offing. Piano’s work is subtle and concise but rarely an advertisement for itself. After the collapse of the brash 2001 plan by Rem Koolhaas to demolish all but two of the existing buildings and replace them with a Mylar-tented dirigible that radically reenvisioned how museums should display art, LACMA was going to play it safe.

That’s exactly what it’s done, which is both refreshing and disappointing. Refreshing because Piano’s restraint, refinement, and love of natural light make for great museum interiors, and the new upper-tier galleries are no exception. Disappointing because BCAM may be the architect’s least successful American museum building. The interior spaces are for the most part bland, and the exterior lacks the kind of presence and cultural oomph that Wilshire Boulevard—and Los Angeles—needs from its premier cultural establishment. At times the lackluster Wilshire facade looks more like the backside of a movie theater than the front of a major architectural work in the heart of a busy metropolis. On Wilshire, the true, linear downtown of Los Angeles, it seems like one more oversight, one more missed opportunity for greatness on the street that is the spine of the city.

You can understand why the new wing isn’t meant to bellow out a new identity for LACMA. The building is an annex, the greatly diminished remnant of the earlier plan to overhaul the museum, from reorganizing the cluster of confusing gallery spaces to tearing off the prisonlike facade. When those ambitions fizzled, the notoriously imperious art collector and opinionated architecture patron Eli Broad announced that he was putting up $50 million for a building that would house the works he’d voraciously amassed—then declined to donate them. This time, however, there was no competition. The 70-year-old Italian-born Piano has been described as America’s default museum architect; he was at work on the Whitney Museum and the Morgan Library in Manhattan, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco when he was summoned by Broad.

Piano rightly conceived of the contemporary gallery as the critical piece that might at last knit together, visually and spatially, the clutch of museum buildings spread along Wilshire Boulevard. In the past two decades LACMA has oozed beyond the well-defined boundaries of the original 1965 mock Lincoln Center extravaganza conceived by William L. Pereira. The floating plaza—with its horseshoe of three white buildings, fluted columns, and leaky black-bottom moat —gave the county museum its ersatz high-culture image of a temple levitated above the scrum and scuffl e of a self-conscious backwater city. The grouping of the Bing, Hammer, and Ahmanson buildings was awkward to navigate, and the plaza, with dancing fountains and Plexiglas canopies, was distinctly corporate. In 1986, the New York architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiff er contributed the hulking, postmodern streamline moderne Anderson wing—the first attempt to consolidate a campus. All that did was create a gloomy interior patio amid an armory of mismatched boxes. Two years later Bruce Goff ‘s wacky and wonderful circular green-quartzite-clad pavilions, which housed a splendid collection of Japanese art, completed the jumble. Wandering from LACMA West, A.C. Martin Jr.’s 1940 May Company Building at Fairfax, to Goff ‘s posthumously constructed Pavilion for Japanese Art, tucked into Hancock Park, you could easily get lost. You never knew exactly where you were as you traversed the big volumes and voids along the boulevard, and even if you did, you felt terribly alone. The spaces defied focus, continuity, and orientation.

If nothing else, Piano is a master of place making, and the newly opened Transformation (the dismal name appended to the $200 million project) proves he can unify disjunction. He began by firing a missile through the front door of the Ahmanson wing aimed straight at the side of the former department store. This cleared a route from one end of the property to the other. A grand staircase now descends to the bottom of the Ahmanson atrium, and a huge opening, punched into the side of the building, leads to a street -level open-air pavilion. A breezeway runs from there to the east face of the May Co., where Piano, still hoping to get his wish, wants to blast another hole, completing the symmetry and connection. Rather than a prospector’s trudge from remote location to remote location, Piano’s simple red steel colonnade makes the journey a jaunt.

The focal point along the pathway is a bright red 51-foot-tall Erector Set escalator hanging from the back of the new contemporary museum like an Escher staircase. Fifty feet might not seem like much of a climb, but when the Hollywood Hills come into full view, the mountain ridge seems close enough to touch. The nonstop run to the top is exhilarating. The canopy covering the escalator extends beyond the upper landing, turning the sky into a frameless blue panel and creating a Ferris wheel eff ect of a ride to infinity.

The three-story, 60,000-square-foot building itself is an uncomplicated H: two identical rectangular boxes (Piano calls them “art vaults”), each 80 feet wide and 123 feet long, joined at the middle by a deep recess. That space is largely occupied by a 21-footwide glass elevator— probably the biggest of its kind anywhere. The exterior is Roman travertine sliced against the grain, sanded and water blasted to bring out a velvet texture. The buttery tone blends with the outsides of the May Co. and Pereira buildings, while the twin volumes suit the scale of the other buildings on that stretch of Wilshire. The structure is massive, but no more massive than those to the right or left or across the way. Piano again is in command of a deft sensitivity: He has carefully pressed BCAM tightly against the boulevard, signaling that the new work is meant to honor its surroundings and be as much a part of the street scape as, say, the Petersen or the American Lung Association buildings a block away.

So far, so good. Piano has got the scale and, as architects like to say, the massing of his building right. He has also organized a maze of buildings by imposing one straight line. He has provided a fun-house ride that is also a riff on the inside-outside tradition of L.A. modernism.

Clarity is Piano’s gift. The son of Genoese craftsmen, he likes to make things and show that they’ve been touched by human ingenuity—not as an exhibition but as a grace note. Here in Los Angeles, Piano uses a spidery fretwork of steel, painted Santa Claus red, to articulate the breezeway, entry pavilion, and escalator. The lacy, see-through steel structures seem barely to touch the surfaces they are connected to. The strong contrast of red steel rails and plain square walls in taupe travertine sets up a dialogue of hard and soft. The thin steel emphasizes the quiet beauty of the stone. The supple stone brings out the strength of the steel. The relationship is sensual, tense: masculine-feminine. Using two materials and two colors—and some serious engineering on the escalator—Piano is letting you know you are entering a museum that’s alive with the possibility of challenging received wisdom about art and the range of human experience.

The escalator climbs directly to the third floor, which is the finest space in the building. The top-floor galleries continue the “roofl ess” motif that Piano has designed for museums such as the Nasher Sculpture Center, in Dallas, and the Fondation Beyeler, on the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland. At BCAM, Piano quotes himself. The 22-foot-high ceilings are made entirely of glass, as part of an elaborate system of exposed trusses and cantilevered aluminum “sunshades.” The closely spaced, 17-foot-tall, S-shaped shades block direct sunlight, allowing a white ambient light to fill the galleries.

The warm natural light lets the eye really see—which is something of the holy grail of recent museum design. It enlarges the space and keeps the artwork from feeling entombed. In these galleries Piano has made a conscious decision to give the building, and not just the art, immediacy. He wants you to see how the glass panels dangle from thin-asspaghetti trusses. It is as if an enormous, clear superstructure were hovering in midair.

On the lower two floors he strives for a fl awless neutrality. The walls are white, the ceilings are white, the oak floors are smooth expanses bleached uncommonly white. This treatment might seem de rigueur for the display of a collection that focuses on postwar and contemporary art. Works by artists such as Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Damien Hirst seem to require a loftlike emptiness, as if the second half of the 20th century were a rupture with history. But blank boxes like these department store rooms can also drain the poetry from art. Art demands a setting that heightens our senses: Those Serras occupying the entire ground floor, for instance, should be experienced—literally felt—up close; they should be an encounter with mass, weight, and volume, which impose terrestrial gravity. The unerring uniformity of the white ceiling—rather than putting a lid on the mastodon-size hunks of cold-rolled steel—renders them into a soothing ether. Without the full force of their physical presence, they become inert.

The trouble with Transformation starts with how the architecture has turned its back on the city. The contemporary annex addresses the new subterranean parking lot buried beneath the adjacent park, not Wilshire Boulevard. Museumgoers arise from belowground to greet the steel causeway that leads them to the escalator at the rear of BCAM or points them to the atrium doorway of the Ahmanson. Piano describes this axis as an “interior street,” a notion he derived from the layout of Tuscan hilltop fortress towns, but he is trying to coax a virtue from necessity.

Piano was given a difficult brief: Orient a disoriented colony. Unlike his predecessors in the 2001 competition, Piano didn’t have a mandate to remake LACMA. He was not permitted to cloak the museum in a new skin, as Jean Nouvel and Steven Holl and Thom Mayne had each proposed. Nor could he tear it down, as Rem Koolhaas audaciously wanted. Piano had to leave the buildings alone yet still find a way to unite them. He knew, just as these other architects did , that allowing Wilshire to continue to be an exterior corridor or walkway between the new and the old LACMA would be deadly. You’d be stuck marching past the postmodern carapace of the Anderson wing, whose striped glass-and-terra-cotta walls have the curious eff ect of making pedestrians feel as if they are walking on a freeway overpass. You’d also be darting on- and off -campus, as you do now, a tiresome experience that makes the museum all but impenetrable.

Given all this, Piano’s solution—the interior street —seems inevitable. But he needn’t have slighted Wilshire so resolutely. All of Piano’s architectural energy, aside from the skylight structure, is devoted to the huge red escalator. The Wilshire facade is mediocre, a blank backdrop for scrims that will advertise the museum. In other words, it’s a billboard. There is no entrance to the contemporary wing from the boulevard, and only a small set of windows suggests that this is something more than a white box. From the vantage of the sidewalk, the building may as well be an art vault.

These missteps illustrate an abiding ambivalence the museum has toward the city. LACMA isn’t sure whether its identity should be bound exclusively in the rarefied art world or in the unstable ground of Los Angeles (the museum sits on a bed of liquid tar). Had BCAM’s Wilshire ground floor been the “entry pavilion,” the museum might have become central to the boulevard. This could have been done without sacrificing Piano’s plan. It is no different to pass through the patio containing the 200 vintage street lamps of Chris Burden’s Urban Light than it would have been to glide through the galleries with the Richard Serra tilted arcs, Sequence and Band. Both ways lead off Wilshire to the breezeway, the Ahmanson, and LACMA West.

Encouraging such a posture would have forced a rethinking of an obviously dull facade. A building might have emerged that spoke persuasively to the place of art in the city. Having abandoned the ambition for truly great architecture, LACMA has left us with a grand artistic gesture. Museum director Michael Govan is raising money for a Jeff Koons sculpture of a life-size locomotive that will be suspended from a 161-foot-tall crane, to be installed above Wilshire . When it arrives, the museum will have come full circle, putting its faith in a spectacle while letting its architecture hang.

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