LACMA: The Sky’s the Limit • Commentary by Greg Goldin


[Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.]

 

LACMA: The Sky’s the Limit

Commentary by Greg Goldin

[Editor’s note: Last month, LACMA Director Michael Govan announced a proposal to build what he hopes will be a Frank Gehry designed skyscraper on Wilshire, across from the museum’s campus. This project would serve as a sort of exclamation point to LACMA’s plan to bridge Wilshire with a new museum designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.]

It may be another decade or so before the Purple Line extension is complete, and riders emerge from the subway stop at Orange Grove and Wilshire, but the oncoming train is already changing the landscape at the west end of the Miracle Mile. If the money can be found, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will inflate a glass kidney bean off the backside of the former May Co. building and LACMA’s oil-slick-inspired $650 million-and-counting blob will ooze its way out of Hancock Park to bridge Wilshire and occupy their Spaulding parking lot. Just added to complete the troika of architectural razzle-dazzle could be the city’s tallest skyscraper, rising above the Wilshire/Orange Grove subway portal.

The hotel and condominium tower, presumably designed by Frank Gehry, would also have LACMA galleries, with a new architecture and design museum, as well as Gehry’s own archives. LACMA head Michael Govan told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m jealous that New York has a Gehry tower [left] and we don’t. My dream is some beautiful piece of architecture with an architecture and design museum at the base, which would add to Museum Row.”  Never mind that much of Museum Row is being decimated in no small part owing to LACMA’s maneuvering the subway portal onto the very block where buildings housing the A+D Architecture and Design museum and two other private art galleries must now be demolished to make way for subway construction.

LACMA owns approximately one-quarter of the 350-foot frontage on the south side of Wilshire between Orange Grove and Ogden, and hopes to forge a development deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [Metro], Millennium Partners, and landowner Alan Sieroty before the subway construction site is reconfigured as yet another relentlessly dull Transit Oriented Development.

The LACMA chieftain’s instincts may be right – nobody wants another badly-designed building above another badly-designed subway portal – but Govan’s not taking any chances by trying to sell architecture solely on its own merits. Instead, he put a politically correct spin on the proposal. Once Metro opens the block for development, he said, “We know that density is the key to urban living and to the maximization of mass transit — and key to the environment. And so for all the right reasons, this is the right place” for a high-rise.

Thus, Govan shrewdly positions his “dream” as a civic virtue. No one believes this more than LACMA itself, which, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would become a major real estate developer. The reassuring urban planning rhetoric is meant to neutralize any opposition by making naysayers into nabobs opposed to leveraging a multi-billion investment in public transportation.

While no one doubts that some kind of building will rise once Metro pulls its construction trailers and tunnel boring machinery off the site, LACMA’s ambition is as naked as it is vainglorious. A Frank Gehry skyscraper, looming directly across the street from LACMA’s main galleries, would be, like Trajan’s Column in Rome [right], a triumphal commemoration of the museum’s self-conceived importance not just in the surrounding neighborhood or city – but in the global marketplace of art.

By adding Gehry to the list of Pritzker Prize winning names on the museum’s all-star roster (Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor being the other two), the museum will have clothed itself in the raiment of “great buildings.”  Who, indeed, will ever again question the eminent stature of a cultural institution that once made the mistake of building an unfashionably dated and decidedly Hollywood version of the Kennedy Center and dared to call it a landmark destination.

The William Pereira designed LACMA campus, circa 1965.

This, indeed, is an essay into the ways in which the rich and powerful need to express the glories of so much accumulated money and power. Culture is the playground of the moneyed classes – whose wallets, and egos, are the ripe targets of the monument builders. What better way to supply a secular crown than with a building, by a world-renown architect, which bears your name?Nothing new, actually, is happening here with this proposed skyscraper.  From infancy LACMA has regarded itself as not only separate, but also above the status it retains as a publicly funded and owned art institution.  Embossed in the public record is the dirty secret that when the County Museum of Art spun itself off from its parent, the Natural History Museum, the new museum’s board of trustees first aim was to leave Exposition Park for the greener (as in, the color of money) environs of the Miracle Mile, then quaintly situated on the Westside – which nowadays, along with the money, has moved much further west.

When County Supervisor John Anson Ford offered the newly separated art museum a downtown plot of land – speculation is that the site was atop Bunker Hill, where the Catholic Cathedral now sits – LACMA’s board rejected the plan. “[I]t was recognized…that the location…would not attract the enthusiasm of potential donors from the west side.”

This quote, from the board minutes of January 21, 1958, was the sort of blunt comment made by civic leaders before the present era of milquetoast public relations statements. The museum’s leaders could not fathom leaving Exposition Park – and its surrounding black ghetto – only to be thrust into a downtown neighborhood populated by the city’s poor and elderly and black and Native American citizens. Westside money was hardly going to flow toward a location redolent of the city’s intractable underclass.

And, so, the museum spent several years lobbying G. Allan Hancock [right], the wealthy oilman who’d given the county the park that bears his name and contains the La Brea Tar Pits. Repeatedly, they tried to convince him to cede a piece of the 23 acres for their art museum, although it had been Hancock’s express wish to build a “fossil museum” dedicated to displaying the park’s unique Ice Age finds. In 1959, Hancock finally relented, agreeing to give the art museum 7 acres, and no more. The moment the plans for the new museum were unveiled – the William Pereira designed complex that is now destined to be demolished – LACMA began its long effort to aggrandize pieces of the park.

Time and again, LACMA sought to nibble away at the park that Hancock deemed should be permanently set aside for public enjoyment and scientific exploration. In the late-1960s, an attempt by the museum to expand further into Hancock Park met with a global protest. From Kenya, Louis Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and archaeologist, urged the museum to halt its plan, saying that no one would consider building atop a site where the first evidence of mankind was discovered, so why would they build atop the largest outcropping of Ice Age life anywhere on the face of the Earth? That effort flopped, but 20 years later the Bruce Goff designed Pavilion for Japanese Art was completed, taking another bite out of the park.

By then memories had faded, along with the county assurances that Hancock’s final wishes would never be violated. But LACMA never stopped eyeing the park. The first iteration of Zumthor’s modern design for a new museum covered – literally – several of the tar pits themselves. Only when the Natural History Museum, which administers Hancock Park, strenuously objected did LACMA retreat and come up with this latest version spanning Wilshire Boulevard.

In a sense, all of this is prologue, evidence that from the moment LACMA left Exposition Park to the present, an arrogant self-regard has been the chief characteristic of the museum’s stance. Now, in projecting its skyward dreams in the form of a Gehry tower, LACMA demonstrates all of its inherited insouciance, that blithe unconcern that comes with believing your own message and knowing that when you’ve got the money and the power to back it up the sky’s the limit – or maybe not. Actually, there are no height limits along Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile.

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Greg Goldin is the coauthor of Never Built Los Angeles and a curator at the A+D Museum. From 1999 to 2012, he was the architecture critic at Los Angeles Magazine. He is a longtime resident of the Miracle Mile and was featured in the MMRA Channel’s YouTube presentation: The Miracle Mile in Three Tenses: Past, Present, and Future.”

For additional information:Los Angeles Times:
LACMA, Metro Discussing New Museum Tower on Wilshire Blvd.

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