The Case for Zumthor

Peter Zumthor’s June 2014 LACMA scheme took a grand leap across Wishire Boulevard.
Courtesy Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner

We should remember why Rem Koolhaas’ competition-winning scheme for LACMA’s campus project was abandoned a few years ago: There was a lack of funding but, above all, there was a lack of support for the project, making fund-raising infinitely more difficult. A complainers’ chorus criticized the concepts and schematics of a project in development. Opposition focused mainly on the tent-like roof, with little understanding that ideas presented in a competition or at an early stage of a project change, sometimes completely, as a project develops. OMA’s roof could have easily become an enclosure similar to the one at, say, the Musée d’Orsay, or the courtyard of the British Museum. Instead, the water was thrown out before the tub was full. Let’s not have this happen again.

One can legitimately criticize the fact that Peter Zumthor’s project is not yet complete. One cannot criticize what one imagines will come. In a series of lengthy articles, architect and design journalist Joseph Giovannini has led the opposition to the current Zumthor project. There is no question that LACMA has to address its financial obligations—regardless of who designs a new building—or that the selection process could have been more transparent. Nevertheless, one must separate politics from architecture. They have little do with each other and muddling these issues serves no one.

Giovannini, like everyone else, has his formal preferences. His Kurt Schwitters-inspired art gallery illustrates these. He is the Godfather of Deconstructivism, and he really wanted one of his friends to get the LACMA commission. The first article of his epic cycle for the Los Angeles Review of Books is “A U-Turn on Wilshire: Why Frank Gehry Should Design LACMA.” In the last article, he slips in a bit of praise for the new Petersen Automotive Museum down the street: “Its streaming lines will soon give it a striking new physical presence based on visual flows.” The new Petersen is—to use a precise architectural term—a piece of garbage. But such is Giovannini’s taste and we must accept it.

The insulting and condescending tone of his articles make them difficult to read. His platitudes become tiresome: the “monkish architect coming down from a village in the Alps with promises of architectural simplicity,” the “Alpine prophet” who “has come off the hill to levitate our expectations,” or the “ayatollah of elementalism” expecting us to make “the hajj to Haldenstein.”

Accusations of plagiarism, the inane comparisons, or Giovannini’s advice to study the New York Guggenheim make the articles impossible to take seriously. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramped, continuous gallery, the “thrilling promenade” which “serves the art itself and the display of the collection as a whole” and is, according to Giovannini, “a paradigm waiting for takers.” The Guggenheim may be a good space for a promenade but it is not a good space for art—it famously never was.

Giovannini rightfully describes Zumthor’s Therme Vals as a “remarkable environment— beautiful, evocative, atmospheric, serene [with a] deft play of elements.” Elsewhere, he states that Zumthor “orchestrates entire environments to cultivate atmospheres, not just singular moments, resulting in spaces that are light-and-materials installations.”

Giovannini cunningly leaves out an equally important quality: the extraordinary choreography Zumthor sets up, the spatial sequence, the visitors’ movement through the landscape to and through the building, the horizontal and vertical path towards views, light and landscape. He leaves this out because he is trying to make the idiotic argument that the new LACMA is a one-story building because Zumthor is “spatially limited, even challenged” and “working with a limited tool kit.”

 

But why, then, a one-story museum? Last year, like many other architects, our firm entered a project for the Helsinki Guggenheim competition. To better understand the needs of the museum, we invited three internationally known art world figures to be a competition advisory team: curator and West of Rome Public Art director Emi Fontana; conceptual artist and Harvard Visual and Environmental Studies professor Stephen Prina; and curator and former Museum Ludwig director Phillip Kaiser.

For weeks, various strategies were examined and we, the architects, learned that the museum is best organized on one level. One level allows collections to expand, contract, and shift over time; it permits non-hierarchical arrangements between collections (without a traditional front or back, Zumthor’s LACMA pushes this idea even further); and draws the audience  through permanent collections that often go unvisited through strategically placed temporary exhibition galleries. Most importantly, it allows all galleries equal access to natural light. Anyone who has worked with art, anyone who has contemplated art, knows the central importance of light. A museum is as good as its light.

This one level museum could be at ground level, but this would restrict access to the perimeter, and the building would separate street from park. Instead, the building and the art are lofted off the ground, allowing access into the center of the building from beneath. The ambulatorium, a continuous circulation space surrounding the galleries, offers views across the city that help to orient the visitor within the building and lead to the galleries’ entry points.

And, of course, we all want to know more about the space beneath the museum. We want to see what the vertical play will be, the rise and fall of the public topography against its horizontal datum, and we want to see how the space will meander in and out from under its building. And why the shrieking, as if the building’s underside were exposing something indecent?

This is Southern California. A large covered outdoor space is a good thing. This is a space that will connect the street to the park, a space that will be filled with people and activities—bars, cafés, restaurants, outdoor concerts—that now populate LACMA’s current covered outdoor spaces. It will be unlike anything we have seen before in Los Angeles. I predict LACMA’s out-of-door foyer will become our city’s agora.

If visual aids must be provided, one can look at Herzog & de Meuron’s Barcelona Forum Building, which floats above its site. Beneath that building exists a glorious shaded space, a reprieve from the relentless Mediterranean sun.

It is clear, though, that the new LACMA may just be too quiet for some, not offering enough entertainment or spectacle. Or, as Giovannini concludes, “Zumthor represents one end in architectural debates currently polarized between complexity and simplicity. In choosing Zumthor, LACMA has taken sides in a broader polemic, becoming both a testing ground and a battleground.” Our architectural world, though, is more nuanced. Let us distinguish between architecture that is complex and architecture that is complicated. There are enough examples of architecture that pretends to épater la bourgeoisie—an important cultural position one hundred years ago—and instead manages only to amuser le bébé.

Complexity in art may be expressed in a simple form, a complex idea in a simple phrase. It is precisely the tension between conceptual complexity and formal simplicity—the absence of noise—that makes Zumthor’s work so good.

Related Stories