A Unanimous Vote—and a Little Help From Brad Pitt—Pushes LACMA’s Controversial Building Plans Forward

Diane Keaton showed up at the board meeting to voice her support too.

LACMA rendering by Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / The Boundary. Courtesy of Building LACMA.

In just a week, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new building plans were released, reviled, and then abruptly passed—thanks in part to some of the museum’s celebrity friends.

When Swiss architect Peter Zumthor first revealed his plans for the museum’s new $650 million building in 2013, the daring design proposal resembled a black inkblot with balconies around it and public space beneath. But the design has undergone many revisions in the years since, and the latest digital renderings LACMA released last week show a much simpler beige building and an exhibition space that had shrunk by 10 percent, shedding about 40,000 square feet, according to the building’s final environmental report released on March 22.

The public release of the renderings last week—which, to the consternation of many, did not include a three-dimensional model—prompted an onslaught of criticism last week.

On Monday, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight urged the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors not to approve the environmental report or release the $117.5 million in county funds to what he considered to be an ill-considered and over-priced design. (The project has a higher price per square foot than comparable museum projects in recent years.)

John Wicker and Deputy Chief @garciane and DPH Director Barbara Ferrer with #BradPitt at the Board Meeting. Brad Pitt supporting an LA County Agenda item.

John Wicker, Deputy Chief Norma Edith Garcia, and DPH Director Barbara Ferrer with #BradPitt at the Board Meeting. Brad Pitt supporting an LA County Agenda item.

But a favorable vote appeared predetermined. Supervisor Ridley Thomas tweeted that day that “LACMA’s new building is visionary—and big enough” and, on Tuesday, he repeated the sentiment at the board meeting in front of film stars Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton, who showed up alongside museum trustees to voice their support.

“I believe that there’s no way to truly understand [Zumthor’s] work from a computer-generated image,” Pitt said, even though the only digital rendering available so far shows the exterior alone. “To understand what he does you really have to stand in” his buildings.

The building’s footprint spanning Wilshire Blvd. Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / Courtesy of Building LACMA.

Then, as Pitt stood to leave, Keaton began to speak. “Do I leave too?” she asked. “I think I should leave because, honestly, you know where I stand. I mean, what’s the point, except that I’m so excited for this.”

Other county supervisors echoed the excitement and characterized the recent spate of criticism as “misinformation.”

“The people who need to make the decision should be in possession of a good deal of information and I would say we are,” added supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Few observers deny the need to replace LACMA’s unwieldy Art of the Americas Building, Bing Center, Hammer Building, or Ahmanson Building. Curbed LA critics Alissa Walker and Alexandra Lange published a conversation last week in which Lange said the old buildings “are not worth keeping.” But, she added, the Zumthor design “doesn’t feel like the right thing, and it doesn’t feel responsive to the streetscape, and then there are also a lot of questions about whether it is responsive to the real needs of the museum.”

LACMA rendering by Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / The Boundary. Courtesy of Building LACMA.

During his brief presentation, LACMA director Michael Govan said he thought the Zumthor design “envisions the future of art museums” and assured the board that the new design was big enough. He said the cost was $1,400 per square foot, whereas average “museum construction these days is $1,250 per square foot.” This contradicted information he had given to Los Angeles Times reporter Deborah Vankin in an April 6 interview, when he calculated the cost at $1,873 per square foot.

Those who spoke out against the proposed plans were on the whole less glamorous than the supporters, but they raised pragmatic concerns about the transparency of the design process, the cost, and proper vetting procedures.

“There have been no details of the building released until the week before this meeting and models will only be shown to the public after this funding has been approved,” said Oscar Peña, an artist and former LACMA employee. “While politically savvy, this shows that the director is more interested in preventing criticism than earnestly responding to the needs of the public. We are being asked to approve over $100 million for a building we are not allowed to see.”

Board chair Janice Hahn, who had thanked the celebrity speakers profusely, did not thank Peña for his comments. Then, a few moments later, the board unanimously approved the funding.

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