Zumthor on the Chopping Block?


An Ideas Competition in Opposition to a Concrete Design



HILLACMA by TheeAe (image © TheeAe)



In early 2020, a group advocating a new approach to the design of the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA)—The Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA—organized a competition to counter an existing design by the Swiss Architect Peter Zumthor. Already commissioned by the LACMA administration, the project is slated to begin almost immediately with the demolition of  four LACMA buildings—three existing and one new. Moreover, the existing plan to incorporate all of the existing collections under one roof isn’t covered by the Zumthor plan. This obvious lack of exhibit space was the focus of a query by the Ahmanson Foundation, a major donor of artworks to LACMA in the past. Upon not receiving assurances from LACMA that those donated works would be exhibited, but possibly held in storage, hidden from public view, the Foundation cut all ties with LACMA.  Finally, the plan by Zumthor foresees the new structure not only occupying much of the new space created by demolition, but extends part of the new building over Wiltshire Boulevard. As one might anticipate from Zumthor, the construction of the structure is also primarily of concrete, thereby raising the cost per SF. So no matter how highly finished this material turns out to be, it does in essence represent a brutalist structure replacing an eclectic ensemble.



In a nutshell, the organizers of this competition explained their opposition to the design as follows:
“After carefully analyzing publicly available documents about the new building designed by architect Peter Zumthor, we regretfully concluded the design is inadequate and dysfunctional: it provides too little gallery space, consumes too much land, and costs an extravagant price per square foot. It strips the museum of essential services such as curatorial offices and the library. The design fails the collections, which will be stored or dispersed to other locations.”


The competition jury included the two co-chairs of the “Citizens Brigade to Save LACMA, 

• Joseph Giovannini, principal of Giovannini Associates and architecture critic of Los Angeles Review of Books, New York City and Los Angeles 

• Greg Goldin, independent architecture writer/curator

• Aaron Betsky, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, Blacksburg 

• Winka Dubbledam, founder of Archi-Tectonics, New York City, and Miller Professor/chair of architecture at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

• J. Patrice Marandel, chief curator of European Art (retired) at LACMA, Los Angeles

• William Pedersen, FAIA, founding design partner of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), New York City

• Barton Phelps, FAIA, principal of Barton Phelps & Associates Architects and Planners, Los Angeles


John Walsh, the competition adviser, is the former head of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and before that he worked at the Frick, the MET and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He guided the Getty through the construction of the Meier-designed project. He commented on final submissions seen below.


Of the 20 firms submitting entries to the competition, six finalists were chosen, three each for two categories established by the organizing committee:

Existing Buildings

• Ground Up


Unified Campus by Paul Murdoch Architects (image © Paul Murdoch Architects)


According to the organizers, all of the designs selected by the jury of architects, curators, and critics correct problems that are inherent in LACMA’s current scheme designed by Atelier Peter Zumthor.
They are:

• enlarge, rather than reduce, the exhibition square footage

• build only on the current site, rather than bridge across Wilshire Boulevard 

• save money per square foot, as compared to the Zumthor plan, thereby allowing County funds to be used to better serve its citizens (especially during the COVID-19 crisis) 

• place curatorial concerns ahead of making a dictatorial architectural statement 

• provide flexible gallery interiors, not permanent concrete gallery walls 

• retain back-of-house services, including curatorial offices and library, rather than placing them off site 

• tie the Resnick Pavilion and BCAM into the new museum and embrace the La Brea Tar Pits Park and Museum 

• use conventional construction methods rather than expensive high-finish concrete
• maintain the formal continuity of LA’s memorable Miracle Mile district along Wilshire Boulevard


Since only one month was allotted for entry submissions and a very minimal amount of compensation was earmarked for the designated finalists ($1,500), this may have accounted for the small number of entries. An additional $500 was available for “Peoples Choice Awards” in each category. When viewing the extent of diagrammatic detail and illustrations featured in most of the presentations, only firms with considerable fiscal and manpower capacity could have put together these presentations in such a short time.


LACMA Wing by Coop Himmelb(l)au (image © Coop Himmelb(l)au)


In addition to the six finalists seen below, eight “Ideas of Merit” are on view at the competition website:


Note: We are indebted to the generous assistance of Julie Taylor, The Taylor Company, for her cooperation in furnishing us with essential information that allowed us to arrive at a better understanding of the essentials of this competition.



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Recent Archive Updates




Prince Charles in the White House?

Expressway toll booth of the future ©Paul Spreiregen
(Explanation of lane designations below*)


Recent news about a new U.S. government policy concerning the design of public buildings under President Trump bears a striking resemblance to the controversy surrounding that very issue in the U.K. in the second half of the 20thcentury. It was then that Prince Charles appeared on the scene to challenge the use of modern design in architecture. Prince Charles’ career as architecture critic on the public stage began in 1984 with his criticism of Mies van der Rohe’s design for a new tower on Mansion House Square in London. Unfortunately for Britain’s architects, the voice of the crown carries some weight in British society, and the Mies tower was scrapped, replaced by a post-modern structure by James Stirling—which the Prince also did not like. According to the Prince, those modernist buildings resembled “Frankenstein monsters.” According to U.K.-based architects who had to deal with Charles’ pushback on modern design during that period, he was the “worst thing that happened to architecture here.”


Since then, Prince Charles’ influence in blocking the evolution of modern design in the U.K. has diminished considerably with the ascendance of modern architecture as a common staple—led by architects such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Amanda Levete, Zaha Hadid, John McAslan, Nicholas Grimshaw, Thomas Heatherwick, and others. Although not taken seriously by his European neighbors on the continent, Prince Charles’ ideas did find fertile ground in the U.S.—both in municipalities and even in academia, where classical architecture became a staple at such programs as Notre Dame and, to a lesser extent, Yale. At the latter, I learned from a former student there that Prince Charles even surfaced on a list of “architects” one could choose from as a topic in one seminar.


Instead of peer review, federal architecture under the auspices of the General Services Administration (GSA) now will apparently be at the mercy of a “beautification” panel, which will see to it that modern architecture recedes into the background, if at all. U.S. architects may see themselves placed in the uncomfortable position German, Italian and Russian architects experienced under their totalitarian regimes in the 1930s. By embracing the primacy of classical architecture as a blueprint for public buildings, the Trump regime certainly has helped the National Civic Art Society reach its ultimate goal, at least at the federal level—requiring American architects to turn to the replication of 17thand 18thcentury-style buildings as the preferred design model. Assuming that happens, Prince Charles would be a welcome visitor in the White House.


Addressing this issue, Paul Spreiregen FAIA, architect and professional adviser for the Vietnam Memorial competition states:

“Architectural history is not a copybook. Rather It is a textbook, to be read with a deep understanding of the many principles upon which architecture comes into being. The history of architecture is not served by aping it but by building on it, addressing the programmatic needs of each new building in its own time and place, its neighbored respected, thereby reflecting and honoring the culture it serves. 
To use the “styles” of the past as a cloak for the new is a lie, a subterfuge for respectability and supposed prestige. That is the work of authoritarian governments. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini were its more recent and notorious promoters. They produced not architecture but laughable if not tragic cartoons of architecture.

All the great works of architecture of the past were, in their own times and places, masterpieces of ancient principles seen anew. That practice has been the glory of the best of American architecture.”**

*Letters to the Editor, The Washington Post, 17 February 2020



*Lane designations

I – Express lane for National Civic Art Society members and family
II – One-horse Roman War chariots (a non carbon emitting benefit)
III – Two-horse Roman war chariots (other emissions of a non carbon nature to be monitored)
IV – Fiats
V – Ferraris
VI – Alpha Romeos
VII-IX – Other automobiles of the great unwashed
VVV…. etc (in colonnade)

Vestal virgins (scantily clad in aisles I-VI) poised in colonnade who wave red or green flags to signal receipt of toll fee
R It – Italian fast food restaurant. (order by mobile phone)
R Gr – Greek fast food restaurant.