LACMA Is Leaping Over Wilshire Boulevard, and Los Angeles Isn’t Sure Whether to Come Along

The plan for LACMA. Rendering: Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

The movie doesn’t exist and the key piece of urban scenery hasn’t been built yet, but I can see the opening sequence already: James Bond, wearing a tux and riding a motorbike, roars up a car-carrier’s inclined ramp, goes airborne, and lands on the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art that’s slung across Wilshire Boulevard, while the truck speeds through beneath. Agent 007 rips off the helmet: It’s Lupita Nyong’o. Hand-to-hand combat on the desert-flat roof ensues. In the galleries below, Roman statues by the glass walls preen against the setting sun.

Every once in a while, a work of architecture triggers a shift in the way a city thinks of itself. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall did that for Los Angeles when it opened in 2003. Two decades later (give or take a couple of years), I suspect Peter Zumthor’s LACMA will do it again. As the existing galleries slowly go dark and their contents are packed away in preparation for demolition, a new $650 million replacement is in the works. Squeezed on all sides by a park, open tar pits, a film museum, and an eight-lane city street, LACMA will twist and vault across one of the city’s major arteries, as if to catch the attention of drivers as they pass underneath. With that move, it pays homage to the history of Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, which was developed in the 1920s as a shopping street for the automobile age, lined with buildings and signs that beckoned passersby to pull over, park, and go inside. LACMA is staking its claim to the cityscape with a design that’s simultaneously understated and bold, provocative and deeply serious.

For all those reasons and many more, the plan faces artillery barrages of skepticism and hostility, starting with the question: Why can’t LACMA stay just the way it is, a collection of buildings erected over 40 years? My preference is almost always to grant an existing structure the right to continue existing, but in this case I understand the need to start by tearing much of the original museum down. When the first trio of buildings by William Pereira, executed in a style you might call Lincoln Center lite, went up in 1965, they framed an elevated plaza and appeared to float on a series of reflecting pools. Then black goo from the La Brea Tar Pits started seeping into the water, and the fountains shut down. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer reworked the complex in the 1980s and left it disjointed, cut off from the street, and still in need of fantastically expensive seismic retrofitting.

In 2001, with the dust still settling from the last spasms of construction, the museum settled on a plan to tear the whole lot down and replace it with a new campus designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, spread out beneath a vast tent-like roof. The money didn’t materialize and the plan was shelved. (Not that LACMA saved much: The cost of fixing up the existing buildings now starts at nearly $250 million, not including earthquake-proofing or a system for neutralizing the methane that spews from underground.)

Instead, the museum started expanding in stages. Michael Govan took over as director in 2006, and since then LACMA has erected two new buildings by Renzo Piano, the Resnick Pavilion and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (not to be confused with The Broad, also a contemporary art museum, three miles away on Bunker Hill). Those will remain, along with Bruce Goff’s marvelously quirky Japanese Pavilion, built in 1988, and now temporarily closed for renovation. Having added nearly 100,000 square feet of space in 15 years, Govan wants to consolidate the rest into a single structure, spread out on a single floor.

He turned to Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect who has the reputation of a mystic and a portfolio of quiet, often isolated buildings. His Brother Klaus Field Chapel, set among cultivated lands in western Germany, halfway between Aachen and Bonn, is a work of distilled, intensely austere poetry. The architect marshaled local farmers into erecting a tall bivouac out of tree trunks, then poured concrete around it, and burned the wood away, venting the smoke through a hole in the roof. The result is a small concrete stele standing mysteriously against the horizon. A triangular steel door opens onto an interior with charred and textured walls, dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light from above. The idea of letting such an architectural shaman loose on Los Angeles is both exciting and worrisome. At the Field Chapel he didn’t even have to install plumbing, let alone manage crowd flow, cross a highway, or meet seismic code.

Zumthor’s LACMA design has evolved at a glacial pace. In 2013, after years of work, he unveiled a black, amoeba-like shape that seemed to have oozed out of the tar next door and petrified in midair. When the Natural History Museum, which runs the La Brea Tar Pits, objected that the structure would edge too close to the paleontological zone, Zumthor stretched the structure in a different direction, drawing it across Wilshire Boulevard and sticking it to a lot at the corner with Spaulding Avenue. Little turrets popped out of the ceiling to let light stream into the gallery through clerestory windows. Two revisions later, the skylights and the dark color are gone, and what remains is a glass sandwich between wheat-colored slabs, levitating over one of L.A.’s major traffic arteries. (Okay, not levitating, exactly: It will rest on seven thick columns, which anchor a restaurant, a bookshop, an education facility, a theater, and a children’s space.)

Some critics have always been unconvinced by the road-jumping. “Does the design fetishize car culture?” asked Christopher Hawthorne, then the L.A. Times’ architecture critic (now the city’s chief design officer). “At the very least it celebrates it, in that genuine, often earnest way that Europeans have long viewed our vast grid of boulevards and freeways.” It’s true that the amoeba’s glass outline turns traffic into a mesmerizing spectacle, but that show will change as the city does. This section of Wilshire will soon get a subway stop; if it also grows protected bus and bicycle lanes and a more pedestrian-loving streetscape, then LACMA visitors will have a skybox view of that metamorphosis. The Wilshire-straddling move asserts that art can have a powerful role in reshaping L.A. for the 21st century, just as the automobile did in the 20th.

As Zumthor has refined the design, its plan has started to look more and more like a shape — at once liquid, rigorous, and animate—dreamed up by Jean Arp. Of course, we will only ever see that form from the air, or experience it from underneath. Over time, the design has gradually become less fanciful, less reliant on curving glass walls, less enamored of its early clunky chic. The latest renderings look less bespoke, with large panes of glass held in brass frames, terrazzo floors, ceiling-mounted brass spotlights, and irregularly shaped stone pavers that sweep from the outdoors in. The final product will balance between Zumthor’s refined brand of hand-tooled brutalism and the building’s vast scale, between the poetry of the institution’s budget and the temptations of off-the-shelf shopping-mall details.

Rendering: Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/The Boundary

Like another Pritzker Prize winner, Tadao Ando, Zumthor is a believer in the expressive powers of concrete, but American craftsmanship in that treacherous material is rarely as finicky as the kind that Northern European and Japanese architects can count on back home. In this country, cracks and inconsistencies get passed off as intentional roughness. Not always, though: LACMA should demand the same level of workmanship that Ando obtained for his sublime Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

LACMA doesn’t win points for its rollout of the new design. A small gallery in the soon-to-be-demolished Ahmanson Building contains a historical timeline going back to the 1960s, a crude site model that shows the footprint as a balsa-wood splotch, and a rotating batch of renderings. No plans, no drawings, no augmented-reality fly-through — nothing to soothe critics primed to compare it to a motel, a coffee table, or an Italian highway rest stop. I, too, joined the scoffer’s chorus when the latest designs emerged in March, but the longer I’ve spent studying these paltry materials and pacing the site, the more promise I feel the project has.

Criticisms have been legion: It’s too bland, too blond, too small, too horizontal, too costly. New York’s former architecture critic, Joseph Giovannini, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, has kept a steady drumbeat of scorn going for years. To the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, the design embodies director Michael Govan’s attack on the encyclopedic museum, in which the world’s art is divided into regions and disciplines and masterworks stay in their place where repeat visitors know where to find them.

Govan has a nimbler institution in mind. He has proposed three connected reasons to place the entire collection on a single, continuous floor, and I’ll buy one and a half. The first is practical: It makes life easier for visitors with wheelchairs or strollers, avoids the crush at elevators, and doesn’t eat up gallery space for escalators. Fair enough, but Govan goes on to invoke the same dubiously applicable wisdom that has filled the nation with horizontal shopping malls: Nobody wants to go upstairs. Piano tried to tackle the problem with the dramatic outdoor escalator that wafts visitors straight to the top of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, so they can trickle back down. The strategy only sort of works: Govan says he regularly meets Angelenos who express surprise that the building even has an upstairs. That translates into sparsely populated galleries that cost just as much to keep open as if they were always thronged. All this may be truer in L.A. than it is in Manhattan, where MoMA exhibits its mainstays on the fifth floor and temporary blockbusters on the sixth floor, and still manages to attract 3 million visitors a year (twice as many as LACMA).

Govan’s second rationale is ideological: Museums with multiple stories inevitably fall back on hoary Western hierarchies, placing European masterworks in sweet spots, and relegating other traditions to attics and distant wings. The new LACMA will be, literally, a leveler. This argument seems specious. A staircase isn’t deterministic, and an elevator’s numbered buttons don’t translate to ratings for different artistic cultures. What affects the perception of an artwork’s importance lies in the way it’s hung, lit, and labeled, and what company it keeps — not in its height off the street.

The third and most persuasive reason for a horizontal museum is experiential: It allows curators to map a network of routes through the collection that offer both guidance and surprise. The surprise part is already at work in Piano’s one-story Resnick Pavilion, where I wandered in, past Zhu Jinshi’s colossal curling wave shaped out of crumpled xuan paper, through an exhilarating display of Central Asian textiles and a revelatory show of art from Sri Lanka, and finally into a generous Charles White retrospective. I didn’t even know how little I knew about most of these topics, and the discovery and juxtaposition were thrilling.

Govan envisions laying out the permanent collection like a canny tour guide, mixing familiarity and adventure. There’s some paradox in this approach. To avoid a linear, European-dominated narrative of art history, LACMA hired a European architect to produce a long, linear building. To get maximum flexibility, the new museum will dispense with temporary Sheetrock partitions and lock itself in with immovable concrete walls. Zumthor can resolve these contradictions by creating a layout where the current director can implement his vision and the next might possibly undo it.

Even after all these years of tinkering, LACMA has yet to release a floor plan or a detailed explanation of how the art and architecture will interact. Still, it’s clear that Zumthor has developed three kinds of galleries, shaped not by historical rubrics but by their relationship to light. Stone sculptures can withstand even SoCal sunshine; sketches on paper need a crepuscular dimness; paintings can manage with a calibrated mix of natural and artificial illumination. Light is Zumthor’s trade, the reason he got the LACMA job in the first place. At the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, erected on and around the ruins of a bombed church, daylight glimmers through holes in the façade, sneaks around corners, slips down a staircase, and bleeds into pools of electric incandescence. I haven’t been to the spa Zumthor designed in the Swiss village of Vals, but photographs suggest that there, he has given substance to shadow.

The future LACMA will succeed or fail on how well he handles L.A.’s hot glare and bleached skies, so different from the moody grays of Northern Europe. Zumthor’s narrow, snaking building has glass on all sides and wears a wide-brimmed canopy like a flattened Stetson. Late in the day, a strip of brilliance backlights the Roman statues standing near the ribboning window. Otherwise, a matte pallor, lightened by the sand-colored stone façade, spreads through the outer galleries. Deeper inside, smaller, darker rooms cluster around a series of indoor courtyards so that the experience will be bellows-like: Walk in toward the core, out toward the edge, from dark to light and back.

LACMA Is Leaping Over Wilshire Boulevard, and L.A.’s Divided