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08.29.2014
Shifts at the Pits
LACMA changes development plans, neighborhood braces for impact.
Zumthorrs latest plan for LACMA would bridge Wilshire Boulevard.
Courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

LACMA director Michael Govan has taught us to never get comfortable with his plans. For a moment it looked like the museum had settled on a design by Peter Zumthor that suspended a new complex over the La Brea Tar Pits. But now that proposal—and the museum’s development plans in general—are a lot different.

In June, responding to fears that Zumthor’s curving, tar pit–like design would disturb the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits, the museum revealed that the new building would instead bridge over Wilshire Boulevard. The glass-clad structure would touch down on the site of a current parking lot across the street.

In July, LACMA leaked news that it was talking with LA’s Transit Agency, METRO, about developing a Frank Gehry–designed tower across the street, closer to Fairfax Avenue. The design and height of the tower, containing an “architecture and design wing,” are still undetermined, but there is no question the building would be a vertical counterpoint to the very horizontal plans rolled out so far. Ironically, it would be located near the site of the current A+D Museum, which is being torn down to make way for Metro’s Purple Line expansion.

View of Zumthor's plan looking west, with massing model of potential Gehry tower behind it.
 

“There’s good reason to build a major development there. You’ve got subway access and density on Wilshire. My dream is some beautiful piece of architecture with an architecture and design museum at the base, which would add to Museum Row,” Govan told the LA Times. Govan did not respond to AN’s request for comment as of press time.

Gehry has acknowledged talking with Govan about the tower, but the discussions are very preliminary. If it moves ahead, the block would contain new architecture by three Pritzker Prize winners: Zumthor, Gehry, and Renzo Piano, who is designing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new museum.

Looking at the proposed Zumthor building from Wilshire Boulevard.
 

Govan’s plans for the Zumthor building have so far received the endorsement of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and several other key political players. But this extreme influx of development has residents in the area on edge. For now, said Ken Hixon, vice president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, which represents about 7,000 people who live near the site, the jury is still out. “As we’ve painfully learned, the devil is in the details,” said Hixon, “We’re not the design police. We want good design. We want good architecture. But it’s all about the connective tissue.”

Hixon pointed out that issues such as the museum’s relationship to local housing, available parking, preservation, street life, and construction have yet to be specified. An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project is still far off.

The situation is more pressing considering the coming addition of the Academy Museum (another Govan about face: the space was originally supposed to contain pieces from LACMA’s collection before the museum worked out a deal with AMPAS), the renovation of the Petersen Museum, new subway stations on La Brea and Fairfax, and several new mixed-use developments, which will all put significant pressure on the neighborhood. “The challenge here is to have a major cultural center in such a densely populated urban corridor,” said Hixon. “Everything leans on everything else. This is a big rock in the pond. It’s a lot to take in. The next ten years are going to be crazy.”

Sam Lubell