The checkered architectural history of LACMA is a classic, perhaps unsurpassable, example of how an inferior design can bedevil sponsors years after a project was finished. In light of later depredations, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art of 1963–1965, designed by the local firm William L. Pereira and Associates, doesn’t seem so bad. Apart from the scheme’s bastardized Modern-Classical styling and the off-putting moat that originally surrounded the three-building complex, the Pereira ensemble of freestanding pavilions took advantage of the region’s benign climate and avoided the claustrophobia endemic to so many conventional museums. In 1984, the architect Charles Moore surprised his fellow Postmodernists when he called LACMA “on the inside, one of the finest museums in Southern California.” Moore’s admiration is borne out by the recent reinstallation of the museum’s twentieth-century collection in the Pereira firm’s Ahmanson Building, whose square ground plan is centered by a lifeless skylighted atrium. (Piano has given the Ahmanson a grand interior staircase to connect the old complex more dramatically with his new entry plaza.)
Overseen by LACMA’s longtime curator of modern art, Stephanie Barron, and unveiled in January, the exemplary renovation of the galleries was accomplished with little more than new dark wood flooring, doorways realigned to establish stronger enfilades, and improved background colors, including a graphite-hued wall that imbues a group of figural Giacometti bronzes with the haunting aura of a spectral apparition. (Those sculptures are among the 130 works in the Janice and Henri Lazarof collection, acquired in December and estimated to be worth $100 million.)
The museum’s holdings are particularly strong in German Expressionism, with prime examples donated by such early Hollywood collectors as the directors Joseph von Sternberg and Billy Wilder, and the playwright-turned-screenwriter Clifford Odets, all of whose gifts look better than ever. Barron’s effective but economical transformation cost LACMA $600,000, small change for museums these days. This instructive lesson ought to make other institutions think twice before embarking on ruinous architectural adventures.
However, not every building’s shortcomings can be straightened out with sheetrock or covered up by a fresh coat of paint. Starting over with a clean slate can sometimes be the wisest solution to a persistent problem, but obliterating a recent architectural dud and building anew is too drastic for most patrons. Nor is it in the nature of institutions to admit having made a big mistake. Although LACMA tried time after time to improve its physical plant bit by bit, things got worse and worse. LACMA’s expansion of 1982– 1986, by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, burdened the site with a ponderous PoMo-Deco addition reminiscent of a Hollywood sound stage. The museum’s quest for architectural cohesion was doomed by Bruce Goff and Bart Prince’s bizarre Pavilion of Japanese Art of 1978–1988, a zoomorphic folly that evoked a fossilized mammoth, the resemblance underscored by dinosaur replicas placed around the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.
LACMA’s one great chance for architectural redemption came and went with the master plan of 2002– 2003 by Rem Koolhaas of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Koolhaas’s museum commissions bring out the anarchic streak that lurks beneath the surface of even his most benign designs, and his brilliant but confrontational proposals for New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art scared off both clients. At LACMA he wanted to lop off the upper levels of the entire complex and encase the remains under a rectangular, translucent plastic bubble roof not unlike an inflatable tennis dome. With one breathtaking gesture Koolhaas would have freed the museum from its procrustean bed and given it a new architectural identity of stupendous power. But LACMA officials balked because the radical plan required closing the museum for three years—whereupon Broad approached Piano, who in 2003 agreed to design the collector’s dream museum, but only if LACMA would also implement Piano’s far less audacious master plan.
On paper, Piano’s rethinking of LACMA seemed so logical as to be irrefutable, and sensible enough for the most conservative trustee. Instead of Koolhaas’s scorched-earth approach, his successor called for the demolition only of the ugly multilevel parking garage that separated the Pereira complex from Albert Martin and S.A. Marx’s May Company department store of 1940, a suave Streamline Moderne landmark west of LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard, which Piano will convert into offices, education facilities, and galleries. In place of the old garage, he positioned the Broad museum as fulcrum of the expanded campus, which is now entered via a new entry plaza on Wilshire between the Broad and the original LACMA ensemble.
The first phase of Piano’s three-part master plan exacerbates some of the site’s defects. The initial installment comprises the Broad, the BP Grand Entrance (an 8,100-square-foot piazza shaded by a graceful, unenclosed, and flatroofed minimalist canopy, named for British Petroleum, which donated $25 million to the museum), and covered walkways linking the Piano and the Pereira buildings (phase two will add a large wing for changing exhibitions, phase three an overhaul of the oldest structures).
The Broad’s boxy form and forbidding Wilshire façade reiterate the monolithic muteness of the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition. To enliven the twin squares of his building’s street elevation, Piano suggested they be hung with superscale, scrim-like banners commissioned from local artists. (The first banners, one of which depicts a palm tree being photographed on a cellular phone, are by the cult-figure conceptualist John Baldessari; see illustration on page 18.) Without such embellishment, however, the Broad would be virtually indistinguishable from a public utility substation.
The Broad’s symmetrical gallery wings are clad in beige travertine, and to emphasize the H-shaped ground plan Piano gave the slightly recessed midsection, containing elevators and stairways, a transparent glass skin. The absence of an entrance on Wilshire acknowledges that almost all visitors to LACMA come by car and enter through the parking garage rather than from the street. The BP Grand Entrance pavilion employs the same red-painted steel Piano used for the Broad’s side-wall fire escape and the beams that protrude horizontally above it, as well as the escalator-cum-stair tower and the concourse that connects the Broad with the original complex.
The interior wall colors Piano specified for his New York Times Building of 2001–2007 in Manhattan (including several infelicitous shades of red) exposed his deficiencies as a colorist. The screaming fire engine red he picked for the Broad’s exterior metalwork looks awful against the pale masonry. Mixing bold, even loud, colors with neutral stonework is not an impossible task, as was proven by James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s majestic Staatsgalerie of 1977–1983 in Stuttgart, a rare Postmodern masterpiece. Stirling and Wilford used acid green mullions and hot pink railings to take the curse of bürgerlich propriety off the museum’s stolid sandstone veneer. Here Piano’s contrast comes across as no more than a mixed metaphor.
The Broad Museum is meant to be entered on its third and uppermost story, reached via the open escalator or the stairway housed within the scaffold-like red painted steel structure Piano has dubbed “the spider,” but which more closely resembles a playground jungle gym (see illustration on page 15). Not since the gigantic plexiglass tube he and Rogers snaked up one flank of their Pompidou Center has Piano designed such a flamboyant people mover. Indeed, this overelaborate appendage seems a nostalgic bid to recapture the brashness of his breakthrough commission. Whatever the architect had in mind here, the mildly embarrassing entry sequence is soon forgotten as one approaches the main event: the galleries for which Piano is so celebrated, and the fabled collection that has made angels weep in the City of Angels.
At the press preview Govan extolled the “crystal clear” light of Piano’s loftlike, columnless exhibition spaces. But after one entered the building and passed through the top-floor lobby (dominated by a vast, glass-fronted elevator shaft containing a three-story-high, black-white-and-red montage commissioned from Barbara Kruger), the first gallery on the north side (devoted to Jasper Johns) came as a shock. Forget the hallucinatory clarity of the architect’s Menil galleries in Houston. Despite the perfect weather—as bright a day as can be expected of Southern California in winter—the light was gray and gloomy. A nearby room devoted to enormous unstretched canvases by Leon Golub fared somewhat better, but it too seemed inadequately illuminated. The only truly impressive gallery was a spacious room hung with tier after tier of large color photographs by Cindy Sherman, where the low light level, inexplicable elsewhere, might have been dictated by conservation requirements.
It may be hard to determine whether things went wrong at the Broad because of an insufficient budget or the use of what Piano had to work with. Broad’s history as an architecture patron has been mixed. Although he was praised for his leadership in jump-starting the long-stalled construction of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall of 1989–2003 in Los Angeles, his earlier Gehry commission, for an art-display addition to his house in Brentwood, ended badly. Impatient with that project’s slow pace, Broad (accustomed to the brisk methods of the mass-produced housing industry) gave Gehry’s still unfinished drawings to a contractor who completed the job. The architect removed the design from his corpus and was infuriated when the collector boasted of “my Frank Gehry gallery.”
Another telling portion of the museum’s inaugural publication—the transcript of a discussion among Broad, Govan, and Piano—hints at a possible source of the trouble:
EB: …I was very concerned with the cost of the roof. Renzo and I had quite a few discussions about how to get it down to $200 a square foot.
RP: The good thing about the roof is that we needed the roof. I lost on the basement, and I won on the roof.
EB: The roof’s great, except it cost more than the rest of the building.
RP: Eli, do you remember one day, we were around the table and you said, “How much do we save if we take the roof away?” Well, you save a lot, especially on the architectural fees!
By way of comparison, the Broad museum cost about 66 percent less per square foot than the Nasher. (LACMA has not itemized the final cost-per-square-foot of the Broad’s roof.) By any reckoning, however, Broad cannot be called a cheapskate. Nevertheless, his dickering over the architectural element Piano is most famous for—his ingenious overhead light filters—might have led to the architect’s use of rows of relatively rudimentary mesh ceiling panels below the rooftop’s factory-style sawtooth skylights, which evidently do not perform at the high level achieved by the intricate, custom-designed ceiling systems he created, without regard to expense, for the Menil and the Nasher.
Broad is much less averse to parting with large sums of money for art, but the highlights from his foundation and personal collection on view at LACMA (where the initial installation will remain for about a year) were hardly electrifying. In addition to Sherman, two other stars—Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst—are arrayed in gaudy profusion, thanks to Broad’s policy of concentrating on certain artists in depth. But much has been lost as well.
In a public relations coup that implicitly shamed the Broad, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)—housed in Arata Isozaki’s Postmodern bijou of 1981–1986 in downtown Los Angeles—mounted an eye-opening survey, “Collecting Collections,” cunningly timed to piggyback on its new rival’s ballyhooed debut. Ever since MOCA was founded, in 1979 (its first chairman was none other than Eli Broad, who is now a life trustee there), it has patiently assembled a superlative permanent collection, anchored by several private collections of historic significance, especially Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s hoard of postwar American masterpieces. By celebrating three decades of prescient L.A. collectors whose gifts have ranged from Jackson Pollock’s transcendent Number 1, 1949 to first-rate recent works by Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, and Kara Walker (important contemporaries who are all missing at the Broad), the MOCA exhibition serves as a timely reminder that Eli Broad holds no monopoly, local or otherwise, on connoisseurship and public spirit.
Southern California is often said to be America’s proving ground for trends that later go nationwide. Although the private museum was pioneered on the East Coast (and also at the Huntington Library near Los Angeles) in the early twentieth century, its postwar resurgence was largely an L.A. phenomenon, with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu and Brentwood, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood. It is impossible not to imagine what the cultural life of Los Angeles would now be like if those three men had given the billions they lavished on art and architecture to LACMA instead.
There is a definite group dynamic in philanthropy, which can be cooperative or competitive, depending on complex social factors. Several American communities have developed distinctive cultures of public giving, and it might be argued that Broad is continuing the L.A. tradition of Getty, Simon, and Hammer, all shrewd entrepreneurs who seem to have viewed collecting art as another business deal. (Hammer, CEO of Occidental Petroleum, had a second, sometimes clandestine, career as an art dealer, both as owner of Hammer Galleries in New York and as middleman for Stalin’s sell-off of Old Master pictures from the Hermitage to finance his catastrophic Five-Year Plan.)
However, those buccaneers were not the only hometown models Broad could have emulated. For decades, one of LACMA’s biggest and most reliable supporters was the fabulously rich, publicity-shy Anna Bing Arnold, who died at the age of one hundred, in 2003. Her first husband was the New York real estate magnate Leo Bing, who funded such seminal housing-reform schemes as Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens of 1924– 1928 in Queens, New York, and new town of Radburn, New Jersey, of 1928– 1932. The $24 million she bequeathed to the museum for its education program was just a fraction of her gifts to LACMA, where she was esteemed for her unconditional readiness to pay for acquisitions curators deemed imperative, the antithesis of Broad’s all-strings-attached modus operandi.
To be sure, the record prices being racked up on today’s international art market make it difficult, if not impossible, for museums to compete with rich private collectors like Broad. He has said so himself, yet exploits conditions he has had a big hand in creating and at the same time uses them to justify his new paradigm of the museum trustee as cultural arbitrageur. Thirty years ago, Anna Bing Arnold addressed a Los Angeles conference on the arts in education. In phrases that harked back to the nineteenth-century notion of the museum as vehicle for spiritual uplift and social cohesion, she emphasized what a unifying force art can be:
Art is a universal language which binds people to one another and to humane and ideal aims…. Art can still be the leaven to help us fulfill our emotional needs, to accept the restrictions in our daily lives, and to become all that we are.
What a museum chooses to exhibit is sometimes less important than how such decisions are made and what values inform them. To have the crucial role of museum professionals usurped by self-serving tycoons in the name of economic imperative threatens not only the integrity of individual institutions but the very principle of art held in public trust. Not all California crazes have caught on from coast to coast, which raises hopes that the cautionary example of LACMA, seduced and abandoned, might deter other museums from entering into such dangerous liaisons.
Justice for Bing & Bing August 14, 2008