The wait is finally over. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has at last unveiled updated interior views of its planned building on the east side of the museum’s campus designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. They come after after months of heated debate between local activists, art and architecture critics, movie stars, and the museum, which has divided much of the L.A. art world.
That the museum took so long to unveil these renderings has been a source of contention for activists. In March 2019, the museum published an environmental impact report on the Zumthor building that included significant modifications to the building’s design, including a reduction in exhibition space. When the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved giving the museum $117.5 million the following month for the new building, critics were incensed because LACMA had only released exterior renderings of the new building, and not ones that would show how the galleries might be configured. (It didn’t help that some compared the new renderings to an airport terminal.)
The new building will have about 110,000 square feet of gallery space, and the renovation will also include 3.5 acres of outdoor space for the museum to conduct programming. The new building is expected to cost $650 million to build, which the museum has already raised, with $125 million coming from L.A. County taxpayers. (As part of this agreement, the County will now own the Zumthor building.)
“The principle of this building is that our collections keeps changing, so we want to present a new art history,” Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, told ARTnews in an interview over Zoom. “Art museums are a product of European and Western colonialism and capitalism, at least encyclopedic museums like ours. One of the ways to rethink art history and create more equity and think of things from other perspectives is to think of our collection not as static. If we have an object in our care, it’s theoretically forever. We feel we have an obligation to look at from different perspectives.”
One of Zumthor’s main goals has been to create a floor plan that does away with perceived hierarchies between various styles of art that make up the institution’s encyclopedic collection. The glass-and-concrete structure will span across Wilshire Boulevard, one of Los Angeles’s major thoroughfares, rising 30 feet above the street. (The part that extends over Wilshire is constructed to act as a bridge and will not have physical supports on the street.) The shape of the undulating building is determined by the overhang of the roof, which will have solar panels, while the gallery floor is more angular in shape.
Govan pointed to the one of the cornerstones of the museum’s collection, Georges de La Tour’s The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (ca. 1635–37), as to what visitors might expect when the museum opens. In one hanging, it might be presented alongside other French Baroque paintings, and at other points it might be shown with other devotional paintings across cultures, or even in a presentation that looks at the way light in presented in an artwork. Incrementally, Govan said, the permanent collection hang will change, which the museum’s curators are still plotting out; small tweaks may be made seasonally in certain sections or all at once each year. He added that in the old LACMA permanent collection spaces, the de La Tour painting had moved 11 times in 14 years.
With this new approach, the curators at LACMA are working more collaboratively across its 17-some curatorial departments. “It used to be that you would have a space for a [curatorial] department and the boundaries would never change. By freeing up to the museum to not be based on a fixed system, then you allow for collaboration,” Govan said.
The forthcoming building, which will have about 50 distinct galleries but has the ability to show art in any section of it, is divided into three types of galleries: terrace, core, and courtyard. The terrace galleries are those that adjacent to the windows are lit completely by natural light and meant to show sculptures and other more durable works. The core galleries are likened to more traditional museum galleries that have controlled lighting and can show works on paper and film and video as well as painting, sculpture, and other media. The courtyard galleries are a hybrid of the terrace and core galleries that are partially lit by the building’s wrap around galleries, as well as by controlled lighting.
Govan said, “There’s glass all around, you can see in, you can see out. It’s a structure that has no front, no back, no hierarchy. No matter where you approach it, there’s art on every side and it’s all on one level. The idea is that people can make their way through it as they like, not as we’re telling them.”
Other features that are part of the construction project include a 300-seat theater in the large pier on the south side of Wilshire that can also open up to an outdoor space, as well as a non-ticketed gallery across the street, near the museum’s border with the La Brea Tar Pits, that is connected to indoor and outdoor areas for education programming and two loading docks.
Earlier this year, the museum began the demolition process on the four buildings to make way for the new one; construction is expected to begin in the coming months. The Zumthor building is slated to open in 2024, with construction finishing the year before, around when a new Metro stop is slated to open across the street from the museum’s famed Urban Light installation by Chris Burden. Govan said that the plan was originally to release the interior renderings in March, but that it was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Govan said that the new Zumthor building is part of a 20-year strategic plan that dates back to 2001, five years prior to his arrival at LACMA. That year the museum held a design competition to construct buildings on the west side of its campus. Rem Koolhaas’s proposal ultimately won that competition, but the architect had insisted that the museum seriously consider renovating or demolishing the existing four buildings on the east part of the museum’s campus, where the Zumthor building will now live. LACMA’s trustees wanted to pursue that vision but could not secure the funding to do so. Koolhaas’s proposal was shelved in 2002.
Ultimately, LACMA proceeded with building out the west side of its campus—the Broad Contemporary Art Museum was inaugurated in 2008, and the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion followed in 2010—which added a total of 100,000 square feet of new gallery space. That allowed for LACMA to remain open while the east side construction, now headed by Zumthor, took place. (LACMA is currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
It’s a project that is a longtime coming and in many ways has been adapted to keep up with the changes that are rapidly happening in art history and the museum field, where diversity, equity, and the telling of multiple stories is key. But Govan said that he doesn’t think that this new building for LACMA is something that should be a cookie cutter adopted for the wider field; the Zumthor building is specific to the museum and its context in Los Angeles.
“I don’t believe in global solutions,” Govan said. “Museums were all built the same way—a Greco-Roman façade, a lobby, two wings. What I don’t want to say that we’ve designed the perfect museum for the 21st century and everyone should copy that. We’ve come up with a specific response to a site and a specific attitude about L.A. The feeling here is of this world of multiplicities.”