Since its inception, Los Angeles has struggled to build a cultural presence to put it on par with the country’s other great cities. While it has largely succeeded from an institutional point of view, ushering in some of the country’s most revered art museums, it has not always done so on a building level,with architecture and urbanism that often falls flat.
The city’s three largest art institutions—LACMA, MOCA, and the Getty—have a checkered relationship with architecture and with the city. LACMA, which was built by compromise (architect William Pereira was chosen over Mies van der Rohe and Edward Durrell Stone),waslargely torn apart by a 1986 addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. The museum is still trying to put the pieces together and recently commissioned Renzo Piano to design one of his less successful cultural projects, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, on the west side of its campus. (His Resnick Pavilion and adjacent restaurant and bar have been muchmore successful.) Museum director Michael Govan started talking with revered Swiss architect Peter Zumthorin 2009 to rethink the campus, but so far that effort has nothing to
show for itself.
The same year as LACMA’s addition, 1986, MOCA commissioned one of the world's great architects, Arato Isozaki, but got one of his worst buildings, a placeless composition that hardly distinguishes the museum on Grand Avenue. The Getty, meanwhile, got what was an architectural triumph by Richard Meier in 1997, but its hilltop location left it sequestered in a literal ivory tower high above the fray of the city.
Now, as the Metro (LA County’s transit agency) purple line subway extension comes down Wilshire Boulevard, LACMA is continuing this legacy, essentially looking the other way as a number of cultural institutions—including the A+D Architecture and Design Museum, Edward Cella Art and Architecture, Steve Turner Contemporary gallery, and arts group For Your Art—across the street get bulldozed in favor of a subway construction staging ground and a new station. (Disclosure: I am a boardmember of the A+D Museum.)
Originally the stop, which is now set for the very site of the A+D Museum (conceptual renderings were just released), was to emerge from LACMA’s May Company building, the perfect solution, since it’s on the same side of the street as the area’s biggest draw, LACMA. But since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) agreed to build its new museum inside the landmark building the plan was scrapped, a move that METRO seemed all too happy to accommodate. Other alternatives, including several
feasible sites west of Fairfax (among them the parking lot of the unused Johnie’s diner and the site of a 99 cent store), were thrown out as well.
According to a lengthy report by the Miracle Mile Residents Association, the small cultural organizations remain the targets largely because of LACMA’s real estate interests in the area. The report positsthat the value of a parcel LACMA owns just east of this new portal (which it is set to develop with METRO) will skyrocket when a station is built next to it. Of course the decision to tear down the buildings on what is, for now, LA’s museum row, came as a result of many other factors, including proximity to other forms of transit, underground infrastructure, and so on. But at the end of the day the decision reveals an obvious set of priorities. LACMA, the Peterson Automotive Museum, and the future AMPAS museum are left standing, and greatly enhanced by the new subway, while several smaller arts institutions will soon be gone. The big thrive and the small are left to fend for themselves. Real estate interests, especially those of larger cultural institutions, and political maneuvering shouldn’t trump the city’s cultural life.