The LACMA Travesty

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a travesty, architecturally speaking, that is. It is a random collection of buildings that have no relation to each other. But it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way moving forward.

LACMA used to be a jewel when it was first built in the mid-1960s:

Looking much like New York City’s Lincoln Center, the original three buildings were designed around a fountain and pedestrian plaza. The fountain drew you in from street, where you could marvel at the mid-century buildings, which sit above water, seeming to float on it.

However after about twenty years, the museum needed to expand. With mid-century architecture out of favor, the brilliant decision was made to build the Art of Americas Building in the plaza and around the eastern-most structure, totally obscuring it. They also drained the water and got rid of the fountain. The end result was a huge wall built along Wilshire Boulevard and destroying the beautiful entrance. The new entrance was a high-roofed, claustrophobic passageway. The wall and the new entrance were not designed to draw people off the street;  in fact it did just the opposite — it forced the museum to turn its back on the street, a common, destructive Los Angeles habit of architecture.

In 1988 the stunning Pavilion for Japanese Art opened. That building stays true to the original buildings, looking like a combination of Asian and mid-century design. There was a plan recently to tear down that building, which would be an outrage.

In 1994 LACMA took over the old May Department Store. In 2004 the museum decided to build new structures next to May. One proposal was to tear down everything and start from scratch. That seemed a bit much for the museum’s directors, so they hired Renzo Piano to build two new buildings and a new entrance plaza.

The Broad Museum of Art along Wilshire opened in 2008, with the smaller building behind it opening in 2010.While the buildings are not unattractive, they certainly are not inspiring. One architectural critic said Piano had an opportunity with the Broad to make a huge statement and build a spectacular building along Los Angeles’ grand boulevard. Instead, he built a massive billboard. Indeed, the facade of the Broad is blank — it is used to hang large billboards of the museum’s current exhibits.

They sort of corrected the entrance problem with the unfortunately named BP Grand Entrance, featuring the Urban Light exhibit (which I still can’t decide if I like or not).

But it is something that can draw people off the street and into the museum. One problem is that when you get past the lights, what are you exposed to? A fountain? An architectural wonder? Nope, tables and chairs.

Now, in a city with very few public spaces, this area is much needed (and the recent addition of an outdoor bar and a restaurant are very welcome). But the seating area could have been moved back, with some sort of architectural element past the lights.

The long red overpass was supposedly designed to connect the museum’s buildings. It begins at the seating area and dead ends at a wall at the old May building. Not much of a connection.

After all of the new construction, the museum is still a mishmash of buildings. Unfortunately, it always will be, unless that idea to tear it all down was adopted. That would have been terrible because we would have lost those three original buildings which are still beautiful. So here is my plan — in the words of then-President Reagan, “Tear down this wall” and the entire the Art of Americas Building.

Getting rid of the building would once again open up the museum to the street. The original pedestrian plaza could be restored, and we could actually see the old buildings in all of their glory. Yes, the museum would lose some exhibit space, but that space is easily replaced in the new buildings.

Putting up that wall was a fateful mistake. It is an easy one to correct.

1 comment for “The LACMA Travesty

  1. Mjshimada
    September 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    I completely agree with you. I have always liked the original buildings designed by William Pereira and never understood the decision to hide them behind that monstrosity of a wall. Whether you liked mid-century design or not, the original campus did have a cohesive and classically-proportioned look to it and, as you say, was much more welcoming from the street. While I also think Piano’s buildings did not take advantage of the opportunity (and perhaps he was handcuffed by other factors), fortunately he chose to use that travertine stone which does blend with the Perieira buildings. Without the Americas building, I can imagine subtle landscaping and architectural features that would further bring the Piano and Pereira buildings together, and also rehabilitate the original plaza into a true public space. Think of the squares and piazzas in Europe; this space has that potential. Farmer’s markets, outdoor movie showings, or just to sit down with coffee and people-watch. I guess I’m dreaming…

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