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Will LACMA's new blueprint be grand, or 'glass underpants' — and does it matter?

LACMA's newest/oldest attraction: 'Levitated Mass,' which rolled into the museum in 2012.
LACMA's newest/oldest attraction: 'Levitated Mass,' which rolled into the museum in 2012.
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Off-Ramp commentator and contributor Marc Haefele checks in with a commentary on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's plan to undergo a $650 million makeover

The most trying thing about covering L.A. for an entire generation is seeing things that went badly the first time come around again. Like, the execs at the Department of Water and Power sneaking Sparkletts dispensers into their headquarters. Or, more recently, LACMA’s leader deciding it’s his duty to tear the place down.

The plan is to demolish two-thirds of the museum and build a new one — for a mere $650 million.

Last time it was a mere $300 million the LACMA board wanted to redo the place. That was just 11 years ago. The board proposed to reduce to rubble the original 1960s William L. Pereira galleries, as well is the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer neo-Deco building of 1986.  The $300 million would have spread Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ parasol roof over a collection of new galleries. It failed to impress the critical public, of whom some —including me—wondered if that kind of funding mightn’t have been better applied to arts programs in the local schools, colleges and universities.

So the county cooled to Koolhaas. Now the demo sparkplug is Museum Director Michael Govan who, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been working ever since 2006 to accomplish what his predecessor failed to do.

Now, of course, we are talking a full two-thirds of a billion dollars, to be raised from people just like you and me — except with millions more to spend. Again, the Pereira and HHP buildings will get the chop. This time the favored architect is the Swiss Peter Zumthor, who’s kind of the Terrence Malick of his field: He’s done few projects, many of them thoroughly controversial — one recently was rejected by its intended Bavarian recipients, who called it “The Glass Underpants.”

Zumthor has done only two museums, both of them small, in Germany and Austria. I’ve never seen his work in person (I expect most of us haven’t), but from the photos on the web, Zumthor seems to like conventional modern exterior surfaces of concrete and glass, but does some really interesting interiors. We will have to wait for next month to see what he’s planned for our Museum Row. Maybe it will be tremendous, maybe it’ll be another Glass Underpants.

But that’s not the point, is it? The point is: Should our key museum be spending this kind of money on what is, after all, appearances, rather than content? According to the Times, there seems to be quite a lot of vacant space in the current museum, which that kind of money would do a great deal to fill up with worthy acquisitions or exhibitions on just about any scale. Donations on said scale to the above-mentioned nurseries of  artistic learning would do more for Los Angeles as an arts center than would even a new museum designed by a reincarnated Michelangelo.

For that matter, what is wrong with the old museum? The Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer section got raves when it opened 27 years ago. The old Pereira buildings got panned, but they do a perfectly functional job of keeping the rain off the art and that art off the floor—and nowadays, the architecture of the '60s is coming back into fashion. What Govan and his ilksters seem to mind about our County Museum is its ragged sum of architectural parts, representing well over half a century of the diverse creativity of one of the world’s most stimulating cities.

But when you stop and think about it, what kind of museum could better represent the sprawling City of the Angels?