Got questions for the LACMA makeover? Bring them to a “scoping meeting” Wednesday

Zumthor's current design for LACMA.
A rendering of Peter Zumthor’s new wing for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as it crosses Wilshire Boulevard. (Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

LACMA hopes to start construction in 2018 on a new building designed by architect Peter Zumthor, to replace four existing buildings — the three original 1965 structures designed by William Pereira and the Art of the Americas Building (formerly Anderson Building), designed in the late 1980s.

Now they have moved into the next stage of the process: the Environmental Impact Report, or EIR. To formulate the Draft EIR, the museum will host a public “scoping meeting” Wednesday evening at the BCAM building at LACMA.

At this meeting you can pose the questions about the project you would like to have answered in the EIR. At the meeting you won’t hear answers; you can only pose questions you would like the draft EIR to address, in a process that will involve some public meetings.

For many, this might seem like a long overdue opportunity to air questions about a project that, despite being first displayed three years ago, remains mysterious, from the seemingly secretive process that has produced it to the under-explained design itself.

Limited renderings suggested an undulating dark concrete and glass “pancake” raised above the ground and bridging Wilshire Boulevard to land in what is currently the museum’s parking lot at Spaulding Avenue.

According to Greg Goldin, architecture critic and member of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, the scoping meeting is unlikely to satisfy those with concerns about the project.

“A scoping meeting and what will follow the environmental impact report are both extremely limited in the questions you can ask,” Goldin told DnA. “We’re not going to be able to address aesthetic issues. We’re not going to be able to address economic and fiscal issues. We’re not going to be able to address matters of how does the building actually impact the neighborhood. How does it affect the surrounding park? None of those questions are on the table.”

So what questions are on the table?

According to LACMA director Michael Govan, “the EIR will definitely. . . study the impacts on the neighborhood, including scenic resources, visual character and quality, shading impacts, traffic, emergency response and evacuation.”

He also says that plans, sections, renderings and a model will be on display, offering up more detailed information than has been available to date.

The meeting on Weds., Aug. 24 runs from 6 to 8 pm in BCAM on the LACMA campus. According to the museum, Michael Govan will speak at 6:15 or so for 15 minutes then ‘stations’ will be open to ask questions. Parking in the underground garage will be validated.

The former Metropolitan Water District headquarters in Echo Park, designed by William Pereira. In the background is The Elysian, a restored Pereira building. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

The march towards tearing down the Pereira buildings comes at a time when this midcentury Los Angeles architect is enjoying a revival of interest. The charming architect kicked off his career in LA in movie set design (even winning an Oscar) and went on to found a prominent commercial firm that, along with Welton Becket, AC Martin and Victor Gruen, built many of LA’s defining buildings — LAX Theme Building, CBS Television City, Marineland of the Pacific (now demolished), the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, and the master plan for the City of Irvine.

William L. Pereira graced the cover of Time Magazine on Sep. 6, 1963.
William L. Pereira graced the cover of Time Magazine on Sep. 6, 1963.

He also designed two significant institutional projects that are on the brink of demolition: the 1965 complex for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Water District building high on a hill in the “Victor Heights” neighborhood west of downtown, between Echo Park and Chinatown.

The MWD site consists of an low-rise structure he designed in 1963 that, since 1996 has contained a Korean church. Next to it is a tower he added in the early 1970s that has been restored and adapted into a high-end apartment building called The Elysian by the development company Linear City.

The owners of the earlier building, Palisades Capital Partners, say the building has been altered beyond repair and they plan to demolish it.

But local architecture preservationists are trying to halt the proceedings by getting the building a landmark designation. The application has been filed by Linear City owner Yuval Bar-Zemer. Last week the LA County’s Cultural Heritage Commission held a public tour of the building at which Bar-Zemer and the developer’s preservation consultant, Jenna Snow, sparred over the state of the building and whether it could be redeemed.

The former boardroom of the MWD headquarters, with a photo showing what it once looked like. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
The former boardroom of the MWD headquarters, with a photo showing what it once looked like. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Much of the original MWD building has been stripped away. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
The original MWD building’s balconies and railings have been stripped away, though the columns and much of the structure remain. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

Alan Hess, architecture historian, argues that the building is not only “one of the two great monuments to water architecturally in Los Angeles” (the other is the Department of Water and Power building in downtown, designed by AC Martin) but it is a symbol of a warmer, more accessible Southern California Modernism that helped put Los Angeles on the map as it came into its own as a city of the future in the post-war years.

For the site’s owners, however, the former MWD building actually represents that period in a way that did not actually benefit the lives of residents. The site is 30 feet above Sunset Boulevard. Palisades Capital Partners’ VP of development Brian Falls told DnA that grade separation presents an urban design challenge: “The building was built during a time when it was isolated up in a hill, and it was accessed completely by cars. We’ve always put an emphasis on pedestrian connectivity to a site,  and with a 30-foot grade separation you can never achieve that by keeping existing buildings.”

Incidentally, Palisades Capital Partners includes 8600 Wilshire, a mixed residential and commercial complex in Beverly Hills designed by prominent Chinese firm MAD Architects. Now under construction that project will be the first building by Ma Yansong’s firm in the US.