Are We Tall? Are We Flat? Ooze or Coagulate? What Should The Buildings of L.A. Say?

Peter Zumthor's proposed LACMA design | Photo: © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, is asking some provocative questions about the overhauled design of the proposed replacement to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.

Both the former and the new concept for replacing LACMA's unloved, mid-1960s buildings are by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The first concept intruded on the footprint (and airspace) of the La Brea tar pits and their trove of paleontological specimens. The revised plan loops away from the pits and crosses over Wilshire Boulevard.

Hawthorne asks what Zumthor's flat, sinuous blob of a design says about Los Angeles. He wonders if Zumthor's intersection of place and structure is missing the point.

"(M)y feelings about Zumthor's LACMA have grown more complicated," he wrote in his Critic's Notebook recently. "The more I think about the plan's newly attenuated form, stretched like a piece of black bubble gum across Wilshire, the more I wonder if the architect's basic reading of Los Angeles could use an update."

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 Sinuous | Photo: © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

In the new design, the museum would undulate from LACMA's current location to a rectangle of land on Spaulding that the museum currently uses as a parking lot. In bridging Wilshire Boulevard, the new design might allow museum patrons to look down at the traffic passing below. (Perhaps this is to be understood ironically.)

Hawthorne's critique questions if Zumthor's design for LACMA mistakenly presents the past's "romantic" view of Los Angeles -- the city as an amorphous, boundless, and blobular surface ordered only by its relationship to traffic flow. How could Zumthor's nostalgia for the city of the early 1980s, Hawthorne asks, have anything to do with the confined, denser, and increasingly more vertical city Hawthorne believes, along with many others, that Los Angeles is becoming?

The question revolves around the expressive value of the city's buildings. Should they harmonize with the city's clichés of itself? Be a critical investigation of those clichés? Define the city for the unobservant observer? Or should buildings predict a future city, whatever that might be?

Setting aside the idea that "great architecture" is an expression of genius unconnected to the people who have to live with the architecture, what would we want the new LACMA to say to us?

The new LACMA could be a set of boxes for safely holding the real art inside (pretty much what most of LACMA's building are now, although they were tarted up a bit for the benefit of their big money donors). Or the new LACMA could, as Hawthorne said of the original Zumthor design, be "beautifully and powerfully strange." In our godless place, there's so much longing for the numinous.

Or the new LACMA -- strange or not -- could set our imaginations free to consider what space and place have meant to us and will mean to us, and draw out some tenderness from us and kindle our desire.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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