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Architecture as Civic Self-Help: LACMA Debuts New Look

Zumthor Exhibit
Photo by Courtesy of LACMA

During a conversation with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor on Monday night, Michael Govan revealed that before he had even agreed to move to Los Angeles to become director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006, he had already hatched the plan for the massive $650 million renovation plan he is now shepherding. 

Now dubbed the “Black Flower,” this ambitious vision will be made public in an exhibition opening Sunday at LACMA as part of the Getty funded Pacific Standard Time Presents. A massive, six-ton concrete model of the proposed new building, which critics are hailing as “bracingly forward-looking” anchors the exhibition. This examination of the site’s history and Zumthor’s preliminary plans is the necessary next step towards its creation.

The museum, lead by Govan, is now tasked with raising the $650 million largely from private donors. The plan calls for razing the original 1965 William Pereira campus and the 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. But the price tag may ultimately prove a bargain when you consider the enormous symbolic and therapeutic value the building would add to the city. If realized the building will serve as a marker of the transition between L.A.’s  “teenage years” and young adulthood.

If art is a form of self-help, as the artist Jeff Koons has said, Govan’s prescription for L.A. is Pritzker-winner Zumthor. Amid the tumult that has afflicted the L.A. art scene in recent years, Govan’s visionary plan is an opportunity to exorcise the ghosts of LACMA’s past and establish a historical marker in the city’s evolution. 

The degree to which the “Black Flower” reflects contemporary Los Angeles was observed by the L.A. Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne:

Like L.A., the proposed building is open and tolerant. 

Zumthor’s design doesn’t have a back façade, but rather offers multiple access points that would lead to different masterworks from LACMA’s collection. The design reflects an acceptance of L.A.’s wrongly maligned stereotypes – the most common being its lack of a European-like downtown and it’s flat, spread out nature. Instead of shirking from these stereotypes, Zumthor embraces them.

One of Govan’s great achievements since his arrival was the 2008 installation of the artist Chris Burden’s Urban Light, a 24-hour urban attraction that “literally embraces” the fabric of the city.  At any given moment during the day people can be seen interacting with Burden’s lamp posts. Govan hopes to imbue the new LACMA with a similar 24-hour interactivity. Speaking Monday, he cited the 24-hour availability of storefront displays along retail corridors like Rodeo Drive to pedestrians. Zumthor’s plan realizes the potential of a museum to be a 24-hour center of energy, transparent to its public to allow visitors to experience the art at all hours through the museum’s lit exterior glass corridors.

Govan joked that the paint on the model on view in the Resnick Pavilion is still wet, which reflects another stereotype of L.A. —the city is perpetually under construction. But unlike so many other construction projects around L.A. Zumthor’s plan represents a powerful connection between the present and the past, which makes the project’s still unknown patrons stewards of the future.   

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