April 15, 2019

Peter Zumthor’s $650 million LACMA Build Ignites Tension in LA’s Art and Architecture Community

Exterior view west down Wilshire Blvd., courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / The Boundary.

On April 9, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors officially approved The David Geffen Galleries, a $650 million build by Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The David Geffen Galleries are slated to house collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), but despite unanimous board approval, the city’s art and architecture communities have lobbed divisive critiques at the green-lit project. 

Zumthor’s design would house the collections currently inside of LACMA’s four deteriorating Ahmanson, Art of the Americas, Hammer, and Bing buildings, as explained in a LACMA press release. Supporters of the build praise it for its potential to boost tourism and give LA some fresh architectural bragging rights outside of its well-known residential builds. Then there’s the significance of the first stateside public project for the Swiss starchitect. So, what’s not to love?

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Gallery, courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner.

The main complaint concerns the eyebrow-raising shrinkage of the new build’s square footage. “I couldn’t name another museum anywhere that has ever raised hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on reducing its collection space,” wrote LA Times art critic Christopher Knight in his widely-circulated criticism of the project, “LACMA, the Incredible Shrinking Museum.” In total, the Zumthor-designed David Geffen Galleries has 105,308 less interior square feet (at least 10,000 square-feet of this loss is gallery space) than the four buildings it will replace.

On April 5, Times architecture critic Joseph Giovannini took to the Los Angeles Review of Books to write his fourth criticism of the build. In it, he calls the design “irresponsible folly…saddling the museum with unprecedented and unconscionable debt.” He puts the loss of gallery square-footage at 53,000, including 7,500 less linear feet of space to hang works currently housed in the museum’s existing buildings. He also criticizes the opacity surrounding the new build; no floor plans or scale models of the project were made available to the public, or even, he alleges, to the board in advance of their vote on April 9. 

Within days, LACMA director Michael Govan took to the Times to write his own dueling op-ed, titled, “LACMA’s New Building is Visionary—and Big Enough,” in which he addresses the loss of gallery space.

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Conceptual image from park, courtesy of Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner.

Such changes in a design of this nature are a normal part of the process. In this case, the ‘loss’ gains us, among other things, a building that will be safer for the artworks and visitors. (Remember, LACMA sits above three faults and methane and oil deposits.) Of course, everyone has their own ideas about the merits of the proposed building. Zumthor’s design represents a new vision for an art museum. We think it is particularly fitting for diverse Los Angeles,” he wrote.

He also emphasized that the project is mostly privately-funded. Govan writes that taxpayers’ contribution to the build is only 10 percent, although a statement from LACMA puts the Los Angeles County funding contribution at $125 million. 

The project will begin abatement in late 2019 with construction beginning in early 2020. Construction is expected to conclude in 2023 to coincide with the completion of the new Los Angeles Metro Purple subway line, according to the LACMA.

As the David Geffen Galleries at the LACMA gets underway, be sure to check out Renzo-Piano’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures later this year.

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