LOS ANGELES — A major overhaul of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has been in the works since at least 2001, with the specifics of said overhaul constantly changing. Structural issues with the current campus, such as leaking, as well as a desire to “forge an enhanced relationship with art and the cultural programs [they] offer,” have been cited as reasons for the renovation. In 2009, the museum partnered with Swiss Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor to spearhead a redesign of its Miracle Mile complex, estimated to cost over $600 million — a price tag they still haven’t quite raised enough to afford. (For comparison, the contested addition to the American Museum of Natural History is looking to cost nearly $400 million.) Zumthor’s plan for the new campus has undergone multiple, significantly different iterations since the first publicly available version was released in 2013. The plan has been to replace four aged buildings with a single large structure which will span Wilshire Boulevard, but many details have kept shifting, particularly the shape and color of the new museum. On March 22, the latest environmental impact report for the project revealed yet more changes.
The newest blueprint is most notable for downsizing the complex’s scale from its previous draft. Chapel-style galleries on the top level have been removed, reducing the building’s height from 85 feet to 60 feet. It is mapped out at 347,500 square feet, which is 40,000 square feet smaller than the last version (only 109,000 of that is for gallery space). That’s also 45,000 square feet smaller than the total area of the four current buildings which are fated to be torn down to make way for the new structure. No explanation for the shrinkage has been provided as of yet, and LACMA did not respond to a request for comment. All this has shortened the projected construction time from 68 months to 51 months — one possible motivator for the changes. The museum is hoping to begin the redesign late this year and complete it by the end of 2023, at the same time that a new station on the LA Metro’s expanded Purple Line is set to open right across the street.
LACMA’s project, and Zumthor’s designs in particular, have been met with skepticism in some circles. His first plan was popularly referred to as “The Blob.” Multiple critics have been unenthused about the various proposals. Evaluating the project in light of the latest news, the Los Angeles Times‘ Carolina Miranda compares Zumthor’s concept to “a small-city airport terminal.” The paper’s art critic, Christopher Knight, suspects that so much is being spent on a downsizing to pursue “a dubious shift in museum philosophy” — that is, a focus on temporary exhibitions at the expense of the permanent collection. For an illuminating (if unscientific) survey of public opinion on the subject, note that few comments on any article on the redesign (like this one at Curbed) are positive. A Twitter search for “LACMA redesign” will similarly yield almost nothing but derision.
The museum’s current look isn’t terribly well regarded by architecture aficionados either, but has a nostalgic pull for many residents. The prospect of the busy Miracle Mile area being filled with construction for so long is also seen as unappealing (the subway construction has been bad enough). It’s also unclear just what the logistics around closing the campus will be, or what certain LACMA employees will be doing for the duration. (LACMA did not respond to a request for comment on this topic either.) All this and such a staggering amount of money are being sunk into a new look that seemingly few are enthusiastic about. We’ll see what any further changes to the project bring.