“Façadomy,” The Broad and the Petersen Automotive Museum

Two museums, two skins; one designed by "high-art" architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the other by the car-loving Eugene Kohn, partner at corporate architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox; both fabricated by LA's Matt Construction. What do they mean for architecture?

The Broad museum
The Broad museum, completed September 2015, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro; built by Matt Construction with glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) skin by Seele; photo: Frances Anderton.

Skin Jobs

Two museums, two skins; one designed by “high-art” architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the other by the car-loving Eugene Kohn, partner at corporate architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (both New York firms); both built by LA firm Matt Construction.

The Petersen Museum
The Petersen Automotive Museum, exterior redesigned by KPF, reopening December 2015, built by Matt Construction with metal fabrication by Zahner; photo: Frances Anderton.

Gefilte Fish and Guy Fieri

One is largely viewed as serious architecture, the other is already seen by some as kitsch, but both are inspiring colorful characterizations.

The Broad’s concrete “veil” has been likened to a “mattress,” a “cheese-grater,” the “skin of gefilte fish,” and a “1960s parking garage in Pomona.”

The exterior steel ribbons of the Petersen Automotive Museum, due to reopen in December, bring to mind “Guy Fieri,” and an “unspooled Diet Coke can, a pair of toe socks and the Edsel of architecture.”

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2003, designed by Frank Gehry; photo: Frances Anderton.

Why are we seeing more of these kinds of complex façades?

Frank Gehry kicked off the trend when he integrated CATIA into architecture (CATIA, or “Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application,” was originally developed by French company Dassault for designing its Mirage fighter jet).

This digital convergence of design and custom fabrication made possible the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Thom Mayne’s Emerson College on Sunset Boulevard, below, and numerous complex skins the world over.

Emerson College on Sunset Boulevard, designed by Morphosis, skin fabricated by Zahner; photo: © A. Zahner Co.
Emerson College on Sunset Boulevard, 2014, designed by Morphosis, skin fabricated by Zahner; photo: © A. Zahner Co.

Fabulous or Façadist?

At best, argues architect Elizabeth Diller, this approach to design and construction allows for facades to take on a fanciful form while being “performative” at the same time.

In the case of The Broad, she says the “veil absorbs light, handles the building’s large spans and creates a shaded arcade.”

 Philip Johnson's Chippendale motif atop the AT&T, now Sony, tower was the apex of Postmodernism.
Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, now Sony Tower, 1984, was the apex of Postmodernism. Photo: Joe Shlabotnik.

But she cautions, such skins can also simply be decorative, harkening back to “Postmodernism” when boxy buildings were slathered with neo-historicist, ornamental façades, an approach termed pejoratively “façadism” or “façadomy.”

It’s a term that might apply to the Petersen Automotive Museum, whose silvery ribbons simply wrap the existing Welton Becket building, while unconnected changes are being made to the interior.

la-la-et-zumthor-lacma-model-jpg-20150323
Peter Zumthor’s design for a replacement for four LACMA buildings.

Deliriously Uncouth

But the Petersen’s makeover is certainly an effective approach, turning the Southwest corner of Fairfax and Wilshire into an unmissable billboard for the museum’s contents — while thumbing its nose exuberantly at the Peter Zumthor-designed slab of European good taste that is intended to take the place of four early LACMA buildings on the opposite side of the road.

Norms on La Cienega; photo by Elizabeth Daniels
Norms on La Cienega, 1957; designed by Armet & Davis; photo: Elizabeth Daniels.

And it’s an approach that has deep roots in Los Angeles, where businesses that shout their presence have been the norm (think, Norms, for starters), and cosmetic surgery is routine for people and buildings.

The latter was brilliantly explored in Exterior Decorating, a book by the late John Chase about how West Hollywood decorators unabashedly made over the facades of their stucco box homes.

Tighe exterior elevation
Courtyard at La Brea, 2014, designed by Patrick Tighe, with metal screen fabricated by Machineous.

LA takes pleasure, said the LA Times’ Carolina Miranda on this DnA, in flouting rules for architectural appropriateness in favor of being “deliriously uncouth.”

What do you think of these façades? Send us your thoughts.

Hear from the clients and architect of the Petersen Automotive Museum skin design, on this DnA. Hear from the builders of the Petersen skin, on this DnA. Hear Elizabeth Diller, Marissa Gluck and Carolina Miranda talk skins, the Broad and the Petersen skin, here and in the audio below. Check out Carolina Miranda’s LA Times column on the topic, here. Read about the interior design here.