Michael Govan Defends Peter Zumthor’s Design For LACMA

LACMA's new building is emerging from an open design process and will blend antiquity and modernity in a beautiful experience for visitors, while satisfying present and future needs of the museum's collections. That's according to Michael Govan, defending the design by Peter Zumthor.

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This month LACMA has been celebrating its 50th birthday. And it does so as it plans to tear down the three 50-year old buildings originally designed by William Pereira, along with the 1986 Art of The Americas building by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. 

In their place, Peter Zumthor is proposing a vast, curving, one-story, concrete building raised off the ground and weaving across Wilshire Boulevard.

The design has been dubbed, variously, the blob, the amoeba, the inkblot and, now, the “pancake” — and while some critics have delivered accolades for LA’s own version of the Swiss architect’s atmospheric architecture, others are less sanguine, ranging from preservationists who feel the buildings should be saved somehow to those who think they should be replaced — but not with what’s on offer right now.

govan_lacma_06The most vocal person on that front is Joseph Giovannini, a critic and architect based in LA and New York. He just published the second of two lengthy commentaries in the Los Angeles Review of Books, enumerating all the reasons why he thinks the County Museum needs to stop the presses and reconsider the design —  before the project enters the next stage of development.

Next up for the project comes environmental review, completion of the fundraising that is already underway, demolition in 2018 (when, says Govan, “internal systems in the old buildings that are really going to have timed out”) — and completion before the subway opens in 2023.

DnA has discussed the museum on several occasions with Michael Govan. 

Read excerpts below detailing why, in his view, the building is just the right solution for the site, and the needs of the museum. Read Joseph’s concerns, here. And get excerpts from both conversations on this DnA broadcast.

DnA: Joseph Giovannini argues that the design process has been very secretive and that, even though the public’s been shown models, there hasn’t been the chance for outside review from architecture or museum experts. Is that the case?

MG: It’s completely untrue. The fact is the exhibition itself elicited criticisms and thoughts and ideas — not only from the staff but from architects who were very much part of the feedback I got.

I do believe the building process has been unprecedentedly open, especially in the early phases of design. I know architects and artists don’t like to have the creative process so public but I think it’s a nice thing, and the architect has gone along with it and the board has gone along with it at risk of you sharing the mistakes and early ideas. It’s part of the creative process and you know I’m a big believer in that process.

When Frank Gehry was designing Disney Hall or Bilbao (which I worked on) every iteration wasn’t public and as any architect or creative person will tell you it takes a while while you work on big things like structure. Obviously there are things like gallery design and the specifics of the interior which don’t get critiqued by curators and staff until further in the process.

Moreover, almost everything you’re seeing in the building is part of building requirements based on a 2001 plan that was given to Rem Koolhaas and others which has been augmented programmatically with the acquisitions we’ve made.

But it’s been an amazingly interactive process.

I can tell you everyone’s given me their opinion and and given Peter (Zumthor) their opinion. We had staff meetings with curators and finance people and visitor services early in the process so Peter could hear from staff of all kinds from the museum.

DnA: Some have questioned why other architects were not considered initially for this project, for example younger emerging designers in Los Angeles.

MG: I understand that. I work with a lot of young artists, but you are talking about giant civic scale projects. . . and generally there are certain architects that are qualified to build big giant things. Frank Gehry actually didn’t get those jobs ’til very recently, architects tend to get them really old.

If you have to raise private money from many sources where many, many people have to agree it’s. . . hard to take that risk with a young architect.

One of the things that’s nice about Peter Zumthor is he’s built successfully two small museums. It is a small risk but it seems like he’s ready to take the next risk, and you have some sense of the quality that people can go and see and touch then you are also taking a leap; I think that’s what exciting, it’s right in that territory.

Again if you have public money to commission someone and the money’s ready to go and you have a process that’s a very different thing and that can yield very conservative or very exciting results, like the Pompidou Center or Bilbao, where we were able to do that.

And a single patron — like M. Arnaud or Eli Broad — has the ability to take a risk in a different way. They can choose architect that they have faith in personally even if you couldn’t get a larger consensus and that is where to push those risk-taking ideas if you can. Whether it be state or private, I don’t think there’s a big difference; the idea is you don’t have to have a lot of people buy into it and contribute smaller amounts.

But when you have big civic projects that involve either very large sums of money and very technical things there are only a few firms that are qualified; and then also when you have to raise money from many, many sources you definitely have to pick an architect who has had experience and who you can find some agreement on.

DnA: Michael you are greatly admired for your accomplishments at LACMA and you are an amazing storyteller — both the story of LACMA and the story of the design. But some are concerned about the massive scale of this monolithic, one story building and the notion of it going across Wilshire. Even if one agrees with the assertion that the four buildings really should come down, is the replacement going to be the best we can get it?

MG: I think there have been palpable senses of worry about a lot of buildings that have been proposed by modern architects in recent history. I know in my modern art history that a lot of building designs were quite radical. I worked on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and nobody would have approved that from a staff perspective ever.

The process there was a very similar process to that at LACMA and that yielded wonderful results.

I think that what’s important is the track record of any artist or architect because you have to see that it hasn’t been accidental.

Peter Zumthor or Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry have a wonderful track record of great structures so that’s important, number one.

Number two, you have to know that the client or or the patron is thoughtful and has a lot of experience so you’re not getting mistakes of the past but hopefully you don’t kill experimentation.

I think that one of the things that’s really important in our society and in Los Angeles is that if we don’t experiment we will not create something new.

But if this doesn’t work you won’t know immediately through a design process or from paper whether it’s a great building. There’s no possible way to know that from the design; you will only know later. So you have to trust the process a little bit.

There is a little bit of risk, but it’s a risk within reason of an architect who really, really knows what he or she is doing. And frankly in Los Angeles I would like us to be responsible for something new. And something future-thinking.

And by way, you could try to raise $320 million to repair the old buildings but I don’t think it’s the best option.

DnA: I definitely myself do wonder about the experience of walking or driving underneath the bridge over Wilshire which does seem as if it might be rather dark and weighty overhead.

MG: It won’t be dark and if it was we wouldn’t build it. There are many, many examples of modern buildings that fly overhead; you think of Oscar Niemeyer, you think of there are so many examples of beautiful buildings that have that open ground floor. Because that’s essentially what you’re doing, you’re opening the ground floor for transparency and it’s not only not going to be dark, I think it’s going to be super exciting to be driving through a museum that you’ll see right through.

I think going over Wilshire Boulevard does many many things, including putting the museum in the middle of the community, staying away from the tar pits and giving a future chance for the museum to expand. Plus, is what you really want another big tall building over there with a hulking shadow over the tar pits? No.

And it’s one of the most dangerous moments on Wilshire. We’ve had many injuries from people shooting across the road.

In addition, I can tell you Frank Gehry sent me his plans for a bridge. And Rob McGuire who is a former trustee wrote me immediately to say, oh, we planned to bridge Wilshire decades ago.

DnA. Back to the design and its experimentalism. Just how radical is the design?

MG: The fact is the design is not very radical at all. It’s based on precedent of many, many designs — even the idea that you have activities on the ground floor and then you go up to a grand major floor, as at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which is one of the greatest museums ever built.

But I’m proposing a new form and I’ll just give you a practical thing. If you have a horizontal plane you have an infinite flexibility to reorganize collections as they change and grow in these fifty years, and I guess this collection will change a lot again in the next fifty years — for example, our Latin American, Korean and African art collections which keep growing and changing the shape of the whole collection.

DnA: But how flexible will it be? One of the critiques that’s being made is that the design as conceived by Peter Zumthor doesn’t have room to expand.

MG: You mean, it doesn’t have a chance for wings, those famous wings of museums that get added on and which always don’t work.

It can be expanded in other ways which is the way we’ve added on to the campus to date — with pavilions and new buildings which is actually is a very coherent way to add on in an outdoor climate like Los Angeles.

DnA: But it’s exactly the pavilions that many people respond to now and are nervous of the proposed large monolithic form.

MG: So what happens is as you add over time you wind up with twenty pavilions and that just doesn’t work for the museum. So we’re expanding and absorbing that expansion into the concept of walking outdoors in park space between pavilions. Which is exactly the idea that Pereira had in 1965.

And it’s not just a modernist idea of just having the main floor elevated — that comes from the classical Piano Nobile.

DnA: But the piano nobile sits over a solid ground floor. This is different, this is the Modernist idea of the building raised on Pilotis, and is it going to be dark and are we going to lose all connection to the sky or are we going to have a sense of magic going from light to less light to light again? 

MG: You’ll end up with something really beautiful with a flow of air and light and something you can’t have except in a park like this.

DnA: Zumthor’s approach involves atmospherics, it’s about a sensory experience at the level of materials and light. It can be exquisite but does it scale up to the size that you’re proposing?

MG: A lot of people who are very sophisticated in the art world love the jewel-like buildings and are fearful of a big building. With the mix of art that a museum like this needs to serve, the idea was to come up with a solution that creates lightness and openness and bigness that that we need for the diversity of the collections as well as a coherence for visitors — and that’s the exciting thing about the solution.

DnA: So the curators are all on board and feel it’s going to serve their needs? They all have different needs and yet it is a sort of totalizing scheme.

MG: It is a totalizing scheme and there are some curators who have questions and there are some curators who like it, but of course the galleries aren’t designed yet. That’s a further step to refine the gallery design to satisfaction.

But again, what we’ve seen over fifty years of growth is what served one set of curators in 1965 does not serve curators in 2015 because collections and priorities change.

So we need to design something that will allow the next generation to maybe have a different take at how to organize the collections. Nothing’s totally future-proof but the impulse is not to satisfy just the needs of the present but to think forward like often a good car design thinks forward a few years to where taste will be.

A good example of that was the solution that Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano came up with for the Centre Pompidou: the open floor plan for modern art.

Since then that has been been redone and redone and the problem with the open floor plan is that it is great for a modern museum with partitions because that looks very modern and essentially that’s what you have in the Resnick pavilion.

But it doesn’t have the feeling of solidity inside that I think emotionally connects with art of other ages. That where a Carlo Scarpa design or another design where you feel the weight of time helps as a backdrop for older art, so it doesn’t look like it’s presented in an auto show or festival.

A solidity and a kind of gravitas inside will help those works of ancient and medieval times to exist nicely in Los Angeles, rather than on a sheet-rock wall. Yet that (need for light flexible space) was part of the reason that we built the Resnick Pavilion.

So for a museum director thinking about all the curatorial priorities the idea is to have enough flexibility in the totality of a campus, a flexibility of where to put things but also have the gravitas of an older building. It’s a high ambition and you know personally I think it’s going to be something that people haven’t seen before and will be sublimely beautiful.

DnA: What you are talking about sounds like the marriage of antiquity and Modernism.

MG: I would say that’s a good characterization; it is intended to be a marriage of modernity and antiquity. In fact, when we looked at the design once, I said, oh, it’s kind of a primordial modernism. It’s both feels old and it feels new at the same time. Isn’t that nice!

DnA: LACMA turns 50 as your tenure almost hits ten. This building will be your legacy too. 

You know when you’ve achieved something you have two choices — you can stick and say OK that’s good enough or you can imagine the future. There are very few cities in the world or certainly in the United States that will look as different as LA will in twenty years. This is not a city of status. And so in that spirit design should be part of that experimentation, within reason of experience, if we are going to figure out what the Los Angeles of 2050 looks like.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.