PRINT February 1987


Los Angeles' recent acquisitions.

THE MOST SENSITIVE MOMENTS in any museum experience are the time spent in front of a given piece, the time in which visitors spot works of art that interest them, approach them tentatively, find their right viewing distance, square themselves to the work, and settle into vision, ideally without track lights, sprinkler heads, and a stream of other visitors breaking their thoughts. This December, for example, it was possible to look at Yves Klein’s Monochrome, 1961, at the new Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Arata Isozaki, and to occupy the painting’s intense blueness, depth, and radiance without interference; the tranquillity and the proportions of the room isolated the piece and ushered you into the space of the painting. The highly controlled area around the painting was an antechamber to the work. A powerful piece, the Klein is nonetheless fragile, dependent on the kindness of its environment for its fullest power.

The architectural task of nourishing these moments has often been interpreted narrowly to mean white walls and a neutral box, a sacrifice of the building, and of the many responsibilities a good building can address, to the art. As designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1969, for example, the highly regarded Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, was so successful inside that it even turned people into handsome objects, but outside it remained a mass of closed volumes that gave little to the city. It was overspecialized and introverted—a building simply wrapped around its art.

The building for the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the new Robert O. Anderson Building for modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), both of which recently opened to the public, are among a generation of museums that are much more ambitious in the range of architectural responsibilities they take on. MOCA’s new Bunker Hill facility in downtown Los Angeles and LACMA’s along Wilshire Boulevard both aim to act as major civic symbols, and they are intended to respond and to add to their neighborhood and streets. In a less obvious way, Frank Gehry’s renovation of police-car garages into MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary also supports its neighborhood—the conversion respects the streetscape and the architectural fabric of a neighborhood threatened with a cancer of parking lots. The designs of all three buildings recognize that architecture is an art, and that the building is a major object in the museum’s collection, not simply a servant. And, like any other building, these structures are accountable to the city and the street. They have not been piously neutered in the name of art, and they are not spirited out of the city because of a perceived higher purpose. The architects have tried to deal with a building type that often remains closed, to open it in some way to the city without compromising the experience of the art. The story of how the new buildings finally treat that intimate experience can be thought of as starting outside, with the way they address Los Angeles.

The design of LACMA encapsulates within its four buildings a history of the city’s urbanism. The three original buildings designed by William Pereira in 1965—the Ahmanson Building for permanent and temporary exhibitions, the Hammer Building for changing shows, and the Bing Center’s theater and restaurant—were conceived as freestanding pavilions lapped by freeform pools and arranged in a horseshoe configuration in Hancock Park, with outdoor terraces overlooking the famous La Brea tar pits. You entered the museum not from the street but by walking into its grounds and climbing terraces to the courtyard in front of the pavilions. The basic idea was that this was a museum in the park as Los Angeles was a city in a garden. The urbanism was largely botanical; finally, the year-round vegetation was what gave the city its visual consistency. The new Anderson building, designed by the New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHP), is sited directly on Wilshire Boulevard. The placement of the new wing directly on the street symbolizes the urbanization of Los Angeles that has occurred since LACMA’s first buildings were constructed, a generation ago. Despite its persistent suburban imagery and reputation, the city has become a highly sophisticated urban agglomeration. The Anderson wing is a metaphor and symbol of that transition.

The idea for the placement of the new wing was first proposed by Frank Gehry, as a practical strategy. If the horseshoe shape of the site were turned into a doughnut shape by the addition of a wing, the doughnut’s hole, close to a football field in size, could be made into a huge entry hall simply for the price of a wide roof. The museum would gain a large amount of space, an orientation area, and a way of tying the four buildings together spatially in a cogent way. HHP inherited this idea, and they have monumentalized it by designing the front of the addition in the form of a huge triumphal arch, a Roman form with a slight Deco inflection: strips of glass block, admitting natural light into certain galleries, echo the streamline moderne history of Wilshire Boulevard. HHP’s design for the new urban museum would be urbane. The facade of the new wing is large enough to act as a billboard announcing the museum to all of Los Angeles and Wilshire, and it is also imposing enough to dominate and mask the old complex. The size of the facade as well as its placement are strategic.

The concept was right, but it is disserved by the design itself, which is so large and exaggerated that it is peculiar. Cars slow in front of it; drivers gawk. What promised to be architecture with a civic presence has turned out to look like a vast movie set—MGM’s elephant gate, as architectural historian Esther McCoy has observed. You cannot get out of your mind the idea of a cast of thousands pouring out, some in chariots, when in fact small clusters of people at most walk into and out of the high portal. A monument here makes sense, for the city, for Wilshire, and for the institution, but this interpretation of monumentality is condescending: If this is Los Angeles, let’s be Hollywood. As a symbol, a Roman arch gone Hollywood is wrong, and the inappropriateness is rendered even more glib by the styling of the facade: the architects seem to have parachuted in from New York and picked up some quick images while driving in a rented convertible down Wilshire. Streamlining a triumphal arch is a clever splice of traditions, but it is eclecticism with little meaning. The design monumentalizes the trivial.

The facade as an arch is also architecturally wrong. It consummates only a view up a narrow side street opposite it; it is sideways to the main thoroughfare, and cannot summon a march up to and through it. The strongly axial corridor that leads from the arch to the court points to nothing in particular. The language of this facade is rhetorical, all the more hollow because of the way it evades the obvious issue of how to join the new building to the old ones. The relationship of the new wing to the existing buildings is a critical one, and not easy—the old buildings are closed forms, with strong perimeter columns that do not lend themselves to coupling. HHP’s approach, however, is blunt—simply overwhelm the old buildings and win the argument by scale alone. The architects do so by extending the facade like a screen across the site, but this front is vastly overscaled given the size of the new galleries behind. At the west end, the two sides of the addition converge in an acute angle with little functional space inside, apparently an allusion to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but without the justification of the capital’s plan. At the other end of the facade the top floor extends over the gateway (with only one room inside), supported by a huge pier which houses only stairways—a plan contrived to inflate the presence of the building on Wilshire. The arch is an act of pure facadism—the sort of false-front architecture that looks arbitrary, and essentially is.

Yet if this is a stage set, there is, unfortunately, no movie. All you get is a back lot. What would have been an orientation hall is an episodic and eclectic area, covered by train-shed roofs and decorated with some squiggly pipe railings, terra-cotta cladding, and geometrically patterned paving. To be sure, engaging the old Pereira buildings, which have a strong character, is not easy, but the addition does not transform or reinterpret them charitably—for example, the supports for the shed roofs sit on the tops of the perimeter columns of the old buildings, and look like opportunistic jokes. After you walk through the gate and up the long corridor leading in from it, the space is dramatically anticlimactic, and it leaves serious questions in your mind about where to go. The three buildings of LACMA always confused visitors; now there are four. A covered, enclosed hall would have given the museum usable room and a strong orientation space, and thus would have reinforced the approach of monumentalism. Instead, its monumentalized facade remains only an isolated gesture to the street. Without making this covered space into an enclosed room, the new addition might just as well have been placed within the hollow of the horseshoe; it did not have to be on Wilshire. Placing the addition within the courtyard would have transformed Pereira’s exterior walls into interior walls and resolved what to do with them. LACMA does plan to reclad these walls, which may be an improvement overall, but it will not make the junctions between all the parts here much smoother. The courtyard may also be improved when it is more completely roofed over, as the plans call for it to be; but it will remain partially open and partially closed, making it ambiguous in a disturbing way (neither a room nor a plaza).

One of the basic architectural tasks of a museum building is to grade the experience from the outside to the inside and from the inside to the art. Here too the LACMA plan falls short. Its hyperkinetic architectural elements keep the visitor off esthetic balance, even enervated, with their eclectic mixture of forms, materials, and allusions—it is a type of energizing architecture that is inappropriate in this place. It does not induce a state of contemplation or establish a relationship toward the architecture that can be transferred to the works inside. The visitors who have walked through the arch to the central space still stand outside; the buildings have not started to close down and focus their world. Entering the new wing from this courtyard you find a vestibule, a tall, high service space with little grace—it does not hold visitors but serves only as a quick passage. So you reach the first-floor galleries abruptly, with little sense of transition. There is no clear indication of how to get upstairs; to one side, behind fire doors, there are the fire stairs, and nearby are two large elevators, but nothing invites you upward. The building resists you—you have to figure out how to get from one floor to another, and from one wing to another. The architecture does not lead.

The new wing’s upper two floors of galleries are arranged in an essentially Beaux Arts plan of contained, well-proportioned rooms with an enfilade of doors. There is a sculpture balcony where you can walk outside and admire a view nicely edited by the shed roofs; there is an attempt in some rooms to give contact to the outside with windows (though none of them have the interest of, say, Marcel Breuer’s windows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where their forced perspective lines bring the city into the building like a painting). Yet what is remarkable about these 20-to-30 gallery interiors is that collectively they are small given the spectacle of the facade, about the size of one of the mansions in Hancock Park—the interiors, appropriate for the scale of the art, do not justify the Arc de Triomphe scale of the front. Furthermore, many of the spaces combine windows with too many doorways, a different form of the architectural nervousness outside, and this keeps your eye from resting on a painting and prevents you from feeling protected in the space. In the long third-level front gallery, for example, four large doorways and one window break up the walls and dilute the space. The axis established between the window and one doorway carries your attention off through a sequence of five doorways beyond, and straight out a window at the end to the Santa Monica mountains. The paintings have to compete.

HHP’s commission also involved redoing the galleries in the Ahmanson Building, and unfortunately the work here reiterates the lack of clarity and grace in the Anderson wing. The path from the reception desk into the galleries is unclear, and visitors do not arrive at the artworks readied for them by the passage. Still, as in the Anderson wing, the galleries themselves are the strongest point of HHP’s design—well proportioned, decorated with moldings, painted in deep colors, arranged in suites, with an orderly arrangement of doorways. For most of the paintings here, the spaces do work (even though the nobility of it all is staged). But the basic Beaux Arts plan has some trouble fitting into the old museum, especially where the latter is architecturally assertive—at the entrance, the large four-story interior court, and the elevator core. To give certain of the galleries flanking the court a fourth wall, for example, the architects have walled up two sides of the court; the court was never lively, perhaps, but it is now sepulchral. The new interiors, though appropriate for some of the art, are nonetheless somewhat cynical. The disappointment is that we have come through this century in the spirited company of Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and James Joyce only to land back where we started, in the predictable spaces of the ancien architectural régime. While LACMA is all about style, it is finally a style victim.

If LACMA is inflated, in both its size and its architectural language, MOCA is a monumental building that is somehow miniaturized. The Platonic solids the architect has used are powerful without being large—there are pyramidal skylights over the main galleries; a barrel vault roofs the library, which itself is raised as a gateway over a cubic ticket booth. You step under the gateway into a grouping of buildings, down a wavy staircase to a small sunken courtyard with a small cafe, and it feels like a village. Within a context of 30-story high rises Isozaki has clearly established the presence of his low-rise building with geometric forms, and then brought the visitor skillfully into a smaller physical universe, using the building itself as a shield. The visitor does not feel diminished by the building. To step down this elegantly detailed but unpretentious flight of stairs is already quieting, the first part of a very successful process that conditions you for the paintings and sculpture to come. After the admissions foyer lies a second step in the process—a huge cubical room topped by a pyramidal ceiling culminating in a skylight. The room has a penetrating stillness, like the visual equivalent of an anechoic chamber. It is a powerful void, marking the beginning of the galleries by transporting you into a space where time seems suspended. In this and the similar adjacent room, you are able to hear, it seems, a Rothko.

Interior and exterior of this new building are clearly successful, but the design of the museum provoked a conflict early in the institution’s history. Isozaki has said that the building committee had chosen him because, he gathered, it wanted a “portrait architect”—one who they believed could be commissioned to do a building in the museum’s self-image. The committee saw the museum as a warehouse in which the architecture “disappeared” in deference to the art. While Isozaki did not dispute that art worked best in neutral spaces, he felt that the building had an important symbolic role to play for art and for the city. The argument pitted some of the trustees against the architect (one of their first commissioned artists) and the professional staff, and established an unfortunate precedent here of interference with professional independence. Isozaki’s argument finally prevailed, and the result shows that he was right. The 98,000-square-foot building has a marking presence in Los Angeles; it is the first building of any civic importance to be completed downtown in a generation. While still expanding at its perimeters, the city has been recentering itself downtown, and the needs of the region for a prominent institution here in a visible and important building were strong. The resurgence of downtown Los Angeles called for some cultural affirmation—Angelenos and out-of-town visitors needed, very simply, a place to go during the day. Remarkably, downtown had no such place. Isozaki’s MOCA has filled that gap.

The same argument could be made of LACMA, on Wilshire Boulevard, the city’s other (linear) downtown. HHP fumbled, however, where Isozaki did not. The Platonic solids have a formal power and seriousness well beyond their relatively small scale. Their gravity is reinforced by their materials and meticulous detailing: the barrel vault over the library has a copper roof; the cleft-finish red Indian sandstone gives the building weight. One’s eye stops at this building and explores its forms, their relationships, the spaces. For the administration building, the architect uses a discrete amount of glass block that captures the day’s brightness, refracting light inside; at LACMA glass block is used in the galleries, muted and mat from its treatment against deleterious rays. Isozaki details all the forms so that their corners are uninterrupted, which reinforces the sense of solidity in the building.

It was clear during the openings of these two buildings that Isozaki’s Platonic forms have not compromised the art inside. Except in the first two rooms, they are largely forms used for form’s sake. The galleries are white, neutral, and suffused with soft natural light. Unlike other neutral spaces such as those of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney, or Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Isozaki’s large galleries are not abstract floor plans but distinct spaces, with walls that give a sense of containment. That these rooms are closed and have few door openings helps make them concentrational; that they are detailed so that the details do not show helps make them visually quiet. In the inaugural show, “Individuals,” qualities in the group of paintings by Ed Moses, for example, were intensified by the room’s architecture—their redness, layering, richness—and the reflections from Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings pooled on the floor, work also enhanced by architecture. And light works by Dan Flavin became environments of pure light in their space—one understood the pieces, with their pinks, whites, and yellows, largely because the room enabled them to read clearly, without distractions. Works in rooms as focused as these read so clearly that weaknesses stand out as well as strengths—the architecture makes no excuses. Isozaki himself designed the installation, and he did so simply by subdividing the space in the same architectural language as the permanent rooms—using plain, white, thick walls. The subdivisions were strong and decisive, but there was always a silence within the spaces they defined, and always a firm backdrop to the works. Circulation in MOCA is mercifully clear, and all on one level. In a dumbbell-like scheme, halls are located at the north and south ends, and they are hyphenated with a long corridor gallery. (This corridor is the weak link—the artworks look uncomfortable, for they essentially occupy a passage.)

Isozaki’s MOCA is a highly finished building; Gehry’s Temporary Contemporary is raw. A renovated garage, it has an unfinished quality that Gehry has cultivated. The Temporary Contemporary was opened three and a half years ago to allow the museum to mount shows while waiting the completion of the Isozaki building; it will continue to function as an exhibition facility. With the two spaces, MOCA has extraordinary range. Some pieces work better in one location than in the other: in “The First Show” held in the T.C., Jackson Pollock’s No. 1, 1949, looked lost, diminished by the space’s roughness and vastness, but the same painting hung in the opening show in the Isozaki space has a commanding fullness. It would, however, be difficult to see the Serra that so confidently occupies Gehry’s space chopped into Isozaki’s maple floors—one wouldn’t have the heart to break the buildings serenity with such a violent gesture. Gehry’s space can take it.

Julia Brown Turrell, the curator of the inaugural exhibition, at one point entitled the show “The Expanded Image,” and the title gives a good sense of her intentions. Starting with the paintings of Pollock, who expanded the scale and space of a painting so that the full surface became a field, she progressed into works of even greater scope and size. Her material, in fact, finally outgrew Isozaki’s building and found a more compatible home in the T.C., and in the streetscape around it. Anselm Kiefer’s vast apocalyptic paintings were extraordinary in the Gehry space. Chris Burden, who dug a pit to reveal the foundations of the T.C., could not have done it in Isozaki’s building. Whereas Isozaki’s MOCA is really a precious container, Gehry’s building encourages play: you can break the building, participate with the shape. From the ramps in front of the galleries the whole interior can be viewed, and it all appears a magnificent growth—it is a powerful space of complexity and character, and one that is extremely accepting of the most ambitious art, even art that turns on the building itself.

Successful though it is, Gehry’s building is hardly a test of his strength as an architect. It was, however, a test of his personal and artistic maturity that he did not try to do too much to the building. He has whited the space out up to a height of 15 feet, leaving the rest rough, and the upper register seems to emerge out of the lower with inevitability. So much postwar art is created in lofts that works are often encoded with a sense of these spaces, and many pieces in the inaugural exhibition seemed simply to be returning to their birth space.

The T.C. was popular from the beginning, and not only because it did so well by the art; lofts are now a chic and culturally acceptable space type. At one time, in fact, the question was raised of why build the Bunker Hill building if the T.C. worked so well. The reason was that the Gehry, though it works well in the neighborhood and is a paradigm of adaptive reuse and respect for its urban surround, does not have sufficient calling power or radiance as a building within Los Angeles and the country as a whole. It would not have positioned the institution nationally and internationally, as Isozaki’s building was designed to do. Even though the T.C. is all it could be—Gehry extracted the full potential from the commission—it was, as a piece of design, not a great challenge for the architect, and it is insufficiently useful for a museum of MOCA’s obvious ambitions and aspirations.

Between the T.C. and the Isozaki building a wide range of works can be accommodated, and with an architectural calmness and self-assurance that allows contemplation of the art without denying it its own active role. With these two buildings, MOCA has the best spaces for the display of contemporary art in the United States. And this success in displaying the art has not been achieved at the expense of the architecture.

Joseph Giovannini, trained as an architect, writes on architecture and design for the New York Times.