In decades of covering new, expanded and renovated museum buildings, I’ve mostly refrained from “reviewing” a building that hasn’t gone up yet. That’s why I’ve hung back from weighing in on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s self-destructive (literally) capital project-in-progress, which has now leveled most of the museum’s longstanding buildings (designed by William Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates) to clear the way for “the new LACMA,” designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
The optics of this knockdown of LA’s cultural mecca are bad; for longtime LACMA fans, it could be painful to watch:
End of an era for LACMA. pic.twitter.com/CNllvT6Zrh
— Kieran’s Odd Outings (@OddOutings) August 6, 2020
The 1965 Ahmanson Gallery, the 1965 Leo S. Bing Theater and the 1986 Robert O. Anderson Building (later renamed: the Art of the Americas Building) have been reduced to rubble. Left standing are the 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art (designed by Bruce Goff), the 2008 Broad Museum of Contemporary Art (BCAM, which I reviewed here for the Wall Street Journal) and the 2010 Resnick Pavilion (the last two of which were built under current director Michael Govan, the mastermind of the current reinvention).
Below is an aerial view of what the new campus will look like, if all goes according to plan. The round-fronted building in the foreground is part of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, opening this September (not part of LACMA, but on land that had belonged to it); the red-trimmed building behind it is the Resnick Pavilion; to the right of that is BCAM. The architect for all three buildings is Renzo Piano. The planned new gallery building by Zumthor is the gray curvy shape in the background:
The Zumthor building was poised to begin construction when an unsettling (literally) development engendered an unplanned pause that led me to decide the time had come to weigh in: A tipster brought to my attention an observation posted on an online neighborhood news site, which reported that “LACMA’s construction cranes…on both sides of Wilshire on the LACMA property” had been removed a short time after being installed. A construction worker, when asked about this, said “something about ‘the ground was shifting,'” according to the author of that post.
Not sure whether “shifting ground” was meant literally or figuratively (or even whether that post was reliable), I emailed Govan and Jessica Youn, LACMA’s interim communications director, to learn more.
Youn got back to me with this:
The cranes were disassembled because the foundation of the cranes “settled,” which is apparently unusual. The crew disassembled the crane in an abundance of caution to allow a period for the settlement. In the meantime, Clark Construction will bring in mobile cranes temporarily and has confirmed that the schedule will not be impacted.
And here’s what Clark Construction had to say in a Jan. 22 update, posted to LACMA’s website, about the project’s status:
It is Clark’s standard practice, and a Cal-OSHA requirement, that tower cranes and their foundations be monitored prior to being used for construction. Due to unique conditions presented by the tar pits at the site, the monitoring revealed that adjustments needed to be made to the crane bases. As a result the cranes were disassembled while adjustments are made to the bases and contingency plans for temporary mobile cranes are in place to accommodate this change without impact to the project [emphases added].
TAR PITS?!? I had traumatic visions of the new LACMA sinking into the still bubbling asphalt (it’s not technically “tar”), like the prehistoric mastodons that got mired there. Less dramatically, might the muck (or the methane gas that’s been known to emanate from the pit) encroach on the immaculate surroundings of David Geffen Galleries (as Zumthor’s new building is to be called, thanks to the movie-and-music mogul’s $150-million naming gift)?
The possibility of seepage is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In case you have any doubts that the black goo is still percolating beyond the confines of the “pit,” have a look at this 2019 video from CBS Los Angeles: Tar, Natural Gas Rises Up Onto Streets Near La Brea Tar Pits.
Perhaps unique among art museums, LACMA’s property is adjacent to an Ice Age fossils site, as seen in the site plan (below). The planned new construction is in the curvy gray area near the center. The La Brea Tar Pits, still being excavated, are the black splotches to the right and above the new construction on this map. (Although its red caption says, “NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE,” the site map is, in fact, publicly posted on the museum’s website.)
While at LACMA, I’ve enjoyed visiting the nearby tar pits museum (the white rectangle on the right, above). It houses some of the fossils found there and the scientists who work with them:
Here’s a paleontologist I encountered in the museum’s open lab, who was publicly piecing together a bison’s mandible found on site:
As for the possible impact on the new construction, here’s what Graham Beal, who directed LACMA from 1996 to 1999 (just prior to his 16-year tenure as director at the Detroit Institute of Arts), told me when I asked about the possibility of pit-falls:
From my experience, there is definitely the chance of leakage. I encountered no such problems in my three years there but the original Pereira design, with each pavilion surrounded by pools, had to be abandoned quite soon after inauguration because of leaks. When my son lived in an apartment complex on the other side of the street from the Natural History Museum, the elevator stank of tar and methane.
LACMA acknowledged the past problem in its online recounting of the history of its buildings:
The reflecting pools were central to Pereira’s plan and their almost immediate failure greatly compromised his intent. His firm had taken some measures to mitigate seepage from Hancock Park’s viscous soil, but the board of trustees noted the “highly inflammable gas” in the east pool and the need to constantly drain all the water features just 18 months after opening. The seepage of black tar remained a serious issue; within 10 years, the pools were drained and replaced with a sculpture garden.
Beal also shared with me his views regarding LACMA’s architecture—the demolished and the yet-to-be:
I was no fan of the Pereira buildings—a compromise between the Mies-style glass pavilion that Rick Brown [the late Richard Fargo Brown, LACMA’s respected founding director] wanted and the Millard Sheets “mausoleum” favored by the Ahmanson brothers—but I am utterly baffled by the Zumthor project. (You can see an LA Times photo of Brown on a staircase in the atrium in the Ahmanson gallery before the museum’s 1965 opening, here.)
I’ve tried to read all the head-spinning stuff put out by Joseph Giovannini and Christopher Knight. [Knight’s series of pointed critiques in the LA Times earned him last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Giovannini’s pieces, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, were every bit as well informed and trenchant.]
Michael [Govan]’s “rebuttals” seem on the evasive side. Ever-changing installations of the permanent collections and a handful of satellites seem like very expensive undertakings. When the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer building opened in 1986, [art critic] Robert Hughes likened it to the Monte Python foot that obliterates everything, and said it’d done the “impossible”—made you feel sorry for the original structures.
I’m tempted to repeat that! Mostly, I find the [Zumthor] amoeba design unprepossessingly bland.
I have to assume that the engineers and contractors who are bringing Zumthor’s vision to fruition are well aware of the risks of goo-and-gas seeping from the tar pits, and have devised a workable solution.
But the very thought that the project might be sabotaged by a problem-in-plain-sight—an issue that, to the best of my knowledge, has not come up in public discussion of this project—is what finally moved me to go public with my own serious misgivings, which differ from the reservations expressed by other critics.
I still haven’t told you what those concerns are. [Patience, artlings…]
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