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New Formalism Never Looked So Good

A few years ago, when I heard there was a movement afoot to build a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I reacted in the way many did: here we go again. Here comes yet another attempt to manage what has become a hodgepodge of buildings adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits.

Next came the news that the plan called for razing the original LACMA (William Pereira & Associates, 1964). These buildings, constructed during a time when Los Angeles was struggling to find legitimacy on the national arts and culture scene, exuded a sterile formality that over time began to feel less and less like Los Angeles and the vibrant art and architecture scene the city has since spawned.

Within 10 years of their construction, the shallow moated pool that originally surrounded Pereira’s buildings was filled in. Then a number of new buildings started popping up on the site, closing off the campus from Wilshire with a post-modern wall of punched openings and glass brick (Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, 1982). The acquisition of the May Company (Albert C. Martin and S.A. Marx, 1940) seemed like an opportunity for an interesting adaptive reuse. Instead, two new pavilions, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (Renzo Piano, 2008) and the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion (Renzo Piano, 2010), were added.

LACMA’s capital campaign materials for the newest project describe it as “replacement of inefficient, deteriorating buildings with new environmentally sustainable structures embracing state-of-the-art resource management and technology.” Copy that.

However, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, Hon. FAIA, has designed the new building as an elevated black mass, a giant amoeba in plan that spans Wilshire Boulevard. The architect describes the building as inspired by the site of the tar pits themselves and as a non-hierarchical building that radiates out in all directions—emphasizing the horizontality of this city. He calls it “the black flower.”

Upon inspection, it seems Zumthor’s vision of Los Angeles is a dystopia born of primordial ooze, rather than a city of dreams and reinvention, where creativity flourishes and produces innovative art and architecture. The new design actually makes me nostalgic for Pereira’s new formalism. Although the Pereira buildings at LACMA never made art feel accessible, it appears Los Angeles has missed the mark yet again for one of its most beloved institutions. No matter. When a wave of nostalgia for 1960s LA and its cultural identity crisis washes over me, I can go to the Music Center (Welton Becket and Associates, 1964-69).

Sian Winship

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