Joseph Giovannini: Why I’m Against Peter Zumthor’s Design For LACMA

Unoriginal, impractical, wasteful of valuable land, and the product of a secretive design process that has given a "mystic" architect too much power. That's the view of Joseph Giovannini, who says it's time to stop the Zumthor design for LACMA before it goes too far off-track.

Joseph Hamptons

This month the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 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 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.

The 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.

Among his complaints: the design is unoriginal, how it will function is unclear, it wastes land with its one story “pancake” raised off the ground, its totalizing, monolithic design limits the freedom of the curators, and it has emerged from a secretive design process that (you might be surprised to hear an architect say this!) gives the architect too much power.

DnA spoke with both Joseph Giovannini and Michael Govan about the design. You can hear excerpts on this show and read Joseph’s views, below, and Michael’s, here.

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DnA: This is an important moment for the museum as it plans some big changes. Tell us why you have spoken out against them.

Joseph Giovannini: Well I think that the existing buildings are really inadequate and I would agree with Michael Govan and the board of directors that something has to be done about them. Just what though is the issue and there are a number of ways of going about it.

And Michael has chosen to tap a certain architectural mystic in Switzerland to come off the mountain to design a project that will be basically a minimalist structure, and I think from that point of departure we run into a lot of serious problems.

DnA: You call him a mystic and you call the project minimalist even though it’s very large. Tell us first, what do you mean by mystic?

JG: There is a category of artists and architects among minimalists — called phenomenologists  — who deal basically in light and the effects of light on materials in space — and light is a sort of mystic material.

And I think this is a sort of confraternity who believe and practice architecture and art in this way and think they are rather special.

DnA: You refer to phenomenology — an easier word might be “atmospherics” — and practitioners of this in art and architecture seem to particularly appeal to Michael Govan; one thinks of Bob Irwin, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and so on.

Anyway, now Zumthor has developed a design that you are calling a “pancake” and the pancake is was recently published in a third iteration. What are your concerns with it?

JG: Peter Zumthor has been working on the project for about four years and there have been only minimal changes. If there are any subsequent changes I think they will not substantially affect the project as we now know it and I do not think we should build it because, first of all, the building is quite regressive for Los Angeles, which is one of the most progressive cities architecturally in the world.

There have been a number of iterations of the same idea, most recently in Germany there’s a headquarters for a company called Eso that is basically the same building.

So I think it’s not only outdated but also highly derivative, and I would expect something more for Los Angeles from a world class architect.

DnA: But assuming originality were beside the point, does the building work on a functional level?

JG: Zumthor has basically arrogated a very plastic form which is a curvy thing that opportunistically moves in and out of the site — and in it he’s basically stuffed in all the galleries and the functional areas for the museum. We don’t know yet whether it works because he actually has not derived the form from the functions.

As Corbusier said, the plan is the generator, but we don’t we have a plan yet.

He really started with the form and the image and he’s working backwards — he’s working like an artist rather than an architect.

We don’t really know whether it works but what we do know is that we don’t know very much. We don’t know how the trucks are going in, we don’t really know where the public access is; there’s so many things we really don’t know and there’s really no way we can go forward without much more specificity and it’s very slow in coming.

In addition there is the huge issue of the wisdom of squandering so much land on a single story building. Michael says that he wants all the galleries on one floor and as a result you’ve got this 400,000 square foot pancake that is sprawled all over the site and which is inadequate to take in all this square footage so they have to now jump over Wilshere to the Spaulding site which is a huge corner site that was acquired as a potential development site.

So they’re squandering the potential income from the site. So from many, many levels it is not well thought out and in my view is really an unprofessional proposal.

FA: What do you think would be the experience of that bridge for a person driving or walking along Wilshire?

JG: Well, I’m not convinced about the pleasure of driving under what is basically a very wide freeway overpass. It looks like a large expanse of concrete like that takes away the light.

I think it’s a major act of selfish egocentricity to assume that the motorists are going to want to see this imposing structure loom over them as they go under it. The Pollyanna interpretation is that we will be able to get glimpses of the art pieces in this upper floor but that’s tantamount to saying that the museum is like a drive-in restaurant or a drive-in theater and this is really quite a jejeune notion about how to experience a building and a work of art.

DnA: Did you use the phrase “selfish egocentricity?”

JG: Yes, tantamount to art über alles. The building itself is being treated as if it were a piece of art and I think one of the huge problems in the whole process is that Zumthor has been treated as an artist rather than as an architect and so as a result he has neglected a lot of functional responsibilities, with a view to doing something beautiful and special and heroic.

DnA: There has been minimal public criticism of this project even though privately it has its critics. You are amongst those that has expressed concerns and you’ve done so with lengthy essays taking apart the project piece by piece. Why have you taken it upon yourself to be this voice in the wilderness?

JG: Well, I’m an Angeleno, I love Los Angeles and that was my museum. But I have a life and I wouldn’t do these pieces for The Los Angeles Review of Books if I felt that the critical establishment in Los Angeles were actually addressing the basic issues. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the critical establishment has been largely supine and passive and I think it’s necessary that somebody actually clarify what the issues are.

The main thing is my disappointment that this is not a fabulous building. I suppose we could kind of shuffle along and make it work and all that but this is not a building that matters.

It will just be there and it will be adequate and there will be an opening and people will say nice things and some decorous adjectives will be attached to it but it won’t be an important building or significant in any way. It will be a missed opportunity for Los Angeles.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.