The Nebulous Future of LACMA’s Black Blob Design

At a ”Third Los Angeles” talk, architecture critics disagreed on the merit of Peter Zumthor’s design for the museum’s new building

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hosted the fourth in a series of “Third Los Angeles” talks. This one centered around the proposed redesign of LACMA by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Joining Hawthorne in the discussion were LACMA director Michael Govan, Times art and architecture writer Carolina Miranda, architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, architecture critic Greg Goldin, and architecture critic and historian Alan Hess.

Before the discussion, Hawthorne read a letter from architecture critic Alexandra Lange. In it, she wonders about the imposing form of the proposed building: “Would the LACMA selfie now include the museum as a dark cloud overhead?”

The “dark cloud” that Lange is referring to is Zumthor’s vision of a new and improved LACMA, which will descend on the museum no sooner than 2022. The structure will be elevated above the ground, an amorphic horizontal plane rimmed with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Covering the roof will be enough solar panels to power the entire building, the interior of which will be broken up into trapezoidal galleries. In the updated design the building has been pulled back from the tar pits (the previous version butted right up against them). Now, it extends over Wilshire Boulevard, with an entrance on either side of the street.

Of immediate concern is the color: a dramatic black. Govan pointed out that Zumthor “did it in black because the solar panels are black, the tar pits are black, and black absorbs the light so [the building] is not too bright.” He also revealed that the interior space of the new museum will be used much more efficiently. “I’m sure that at least five times as many artworks will be accessible,” Govan said. Unlike now, there will be almost no works in storage. He also explained that the construction of the new building will be more efficient than an effective renovation of the current buildings.

Hess, however, feels that the demolition of the current William Pereira-designed structures would be a blow to an important L.A. architect’s legacy. He pointed out that Pereira is significant in his own right: in addition to the LACMA buildings, he designed the CBS Studios, LAX, and 5900 Wilshire (home of, that’s right, Los Angeles magazine’s offices). Though there is something of a negative stigma associated with Pereira’s work—Hess noted that critics have thought of him as “Hollywood’s idea of an architect”—his style has still defined important fixtures of the L.A. cityscape. According to Hess, LACMA functions as “the capitol building of his suburban metropolis.”

Miranda disagrees. She believes the loss of the buildings to be a worthy sacrifice. “I’m deeply nostalgic for the LACMA Pereira buildings,” she said, “but I think we need new ones. They’re just hostile to art. The feel of entering one of his buildings is like entering one of his department stores. There are other buildings that better exemplify his skill as an architect.”

Lee shared Miranda’s sentiments. “Pereira is a bit like the Bobby Darin of architecture,” he quipped. “Bobby Darin had great ones like ‘Up the River’ and terrible ones like ‘Splish Splash.’ LACMA is closer to ‘Splish Splash.’”

The actual demolition of the cherished/disfavored Pereira buildings is still a long way off, with groundbreaking scheduled for 2018. In the meantime, enjoy navigating the museum’s often-confusing hallways while you still can. And be sure to check out the upcoming influx of new artworks in honor of LACMA’s 50th anniversary.