LACMA: The Encyclopedic Museum of the Future?


Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan has recruited Pritzker prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor to reimagine LACMA as the encyclopedic museum of the future while resolving the museum’s complicated campus format. In a proposal for a $650-million project that has been seven years in the works, Zumthor proposes a horizontal building along Wilshire Boulevard, east of Chris Burden’s outdoor sculpture of lampposts, Urban Light (2008), that will be wrapped in glass on all sides, its exhibition spaces elevated one floor above ground level, with solar panels on the roof.

Zumthor’s achievements include the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, Austria’s Kunsthaus Bregenz and the Therme Vals in Switzerland, which will be explored in the upcoming exhibition. For LACMA, Zumthor took his inspiration from the nearby La Brea Tar Pits; from above, the LACMA addition will resemble a drop of liquid.

The new proposal will go on public view in the exhibition Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA” (June 9-Sept. 15) as part of the Getty’s multi-venue initiative “Pacific Standard Time: Modern Architecture in L.A.” The show is co-curated by Govan and Wendy Kaplan, head of the museum’s department of decorative arts and design.

Zumthor, 70, was hired to re-design LACMA’s east campus. Under his plan, four buildings would be razed, including the original 1965 buildings by William L. Pereira and an addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York from 1968. LACMA’s more recent structures, some of them added by Govan, would remain intact. These include the Resnick Pavilion, two buildings on the west campus by architect Renzo Piano, Bruce Goff’s Japanese Pavilion, the Art Deco May Co. building ,and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. With these buildings’ combined 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, the museum will be able to remain open during construction. The plan recalls a 2001 proposal by Rem Koolhaas that called for the leveling of the main museum campus, which was approved by LACMA’s board but for which the museum was unable to raise sufficient funds. For the Zumthor plan, construction would cost at least $450 million; Govan aims to raise $200 million for operating expenses and contingencies.

In the exhibition, “LACMA will analyze the development of its campus and explain how financial restrictions, political compromises, and unrealized plans have impacted the museum’s architectural aesthetic and art-viewing experience,” says a press release, acknowledging that the campus format is challenging and its buildings are not universally loved.

Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, points out Govan’s against-the-grain tactics in designing the project before beginning fundraising, which creates a quandary: having to convince donors to give to a plan they will have no part in shaping. Hawthorne also points out a major flaw, namely that the addition will fail to create additional exhibition space.