Tag Archives: ACADEMY MUSEUM OF MOTION PICTURES

ACADEMY MUSEUM OF MOTION PICTURES: PLOT AND CLIMAX

August 5, 2022

(photo by Anthony Poon)

My first thought is simply this: weird. But is weird a bad thing? After years of delay, the $484-million Academy Musuem of Motion Pictures finally opened late last year. Designed by Pritzker-prized Renzo Piano with local Gensler as executive architect, the results are indeed weird.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

When Renzo Piano first arrived at the doorstep of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, in 2003, the city was thrilled. Art patrons were giddy and light-headed. The Italian architect had already designed notable museums around the world, e.g., Whitney in New York, Menil in Houston, Kimbell in Fort Worth, and of course, his career-launching, iconic Pompidou in Paris. (He was only in his early 30s!)

After having created a master plan for LACMA, two Piano-designed buildings were completed. The $56 mil, 60,000-square-foot BCAM opened in 2008, and two years later, the $54 mil, 45,000-square foot Resnick was completed. Unfortunately, the architecture world was mildly impressed. The critics were not kind: serviceable, predictable, Team B, elegant but not inspired, etc.—such notions come to my mind.

(photo by Iwan Baan)

Yet Starchitect Piano was asked to return for this fourth round. (Why?) With the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, he was determined to defy his critics and not let this city down again. Perhaps his ego needed to make an artistic statement, a final cry for attention. Indeed, the bar had been raised by Zumthor’s “Blob” and the Peterson’s swoops and stripes.

left: concept diagram (from kriegerproducts.com); right: concept sketch by Renzo Piano (from aasarchitecture.com)
Saban stair lobby (photo by Anthony Poon)

Piano’s concept is that of juxtaposition: a new 45,000-square-foot theater in the form of a 150-foot diameter sphere vs. the renovation of the 250,000-square-foot May Company Building. It is a story of new meets old—a futuristic concrete, steel, and glass globe confronting the historic 1931 Streamline Moderne, former department store. The meeting of the two sentinels finds it success in contrast and the ability to make each other look good. The parasitic relationship of visitor to host is both uneasily beautiful and compositionally stunning. But after this, the plot loses its voice.

Theater projection booth clumsily protruding out of the building (photo by Anthony Poon)

The renovation of the existing building, now called the Saban Building, explores “less is more.” Offering the museum curators a canvas of bare concrete floors and columns with a splash of red, inspired by the Red Carpet, the reduction and simplicity results in sincerity. Yet with the new spherical building, the design might have been better served by investing in the strength of the effortless sphere, understanding its elemental power, and exploiting this sense of reduction. As Louis Kahn showed us, there is power in abstraction, purity, and geometry.

Instead, creative decisions are no more than clumsy attachments and visual distractions. A projection booth that protrudes on the outside piercing the beautiful curvature of concrete? What about the odd slices and chamfers that appear to be from the hand of a clumsy chef attempting to decorate his cake, the uncomfortable plaza crushed by the hulking mass above, pointy sticks and javelins, stairs like scaffolding, giant earthquake-resistant base isolators of toy-like black rubber and red trim, and so on?

Under the belly of a whale, the awkward Walt Disney Company Plaza (photo by Anthony Poon)
Dolby Family Terrace (photo by Anthony Poon)

I found the most effective story twist on the roof terrace, an incredible engineering climax of glass and steel. Viewing 180 degrees north towards the Hollywood Hills and sheltered by a massive yet graceful transparent dome, the sublime experience is accompanied by a sense of wonder, a feeling of enlightenment.

I have always enjoyed movies for their ability to transport me to other worlds, whether Wakanda, Elm Street, Oz, or WWII. For a museum dedicated to the art of film, maybe the architect sought to deliver us a fantasy, a design of weirdness. Angelenos have been quick to label the building the “Death Star.” Of course, Piano dislikes this title that references the evil Galactic Empire. He prefers Tom Hanks’ “magic lantern.” Hoping for Hollywood magic, Renzo Piano states, “Call it a dirigible, a zeppelin,” “flying vessel,” or “a soap bubble in the middle of a concrete city.”

1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. Note: I did not have an opportunity to visit the interior of this theater. (from discoverlosangeles.com)

PETER ZUMTHOR AND ELEMENTAL IDEAS

November 3, 2017

Zumthor’s original 2013 presentation model for LACMA. Though it looks like a conceptual diagram, this is actually the complete design for the project. (photo from inexhibit.com)

There are the usual suspects: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, and so on. Call them celebrity architects or call them “Starchitects,” but one greater walks amongst these mere mortal rock stars. I speak of the one who is called an “architect’s architect.” He is Pritzker-winning, Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor.

Many non-architects may not even know the name of the enigmatic Zumthor, for his Haldenstein-based practice is small and artisanal, perhaps even cultish. But in a short time to come, Los Angeles will know Mr. Zumthor’s work.

LACMA’S campus building architects
upper left: William Pereira (photo by George Carrigues); upper right: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (photo by Alison Martino); middle left: Albert C. Martin Sr. (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); middle right: Bruce Goff (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); lower left: Rem Koolhaas (photo by Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times); lower right: Renzo Piano (photo by Museum Associates / LACMA)

He has proposed a courageous addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“LACMA”). This museum campus has had a string of prominent designs of their time, from the 1965 concrete structures of William Pereira to the curious 1986 Post Post Modern addition of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (my previous employer), from the 1994 purchase of the iconic Streamline Modern May Company department store by Albert C. Martin Sr. to the quirky yet poetic 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art by Bruce Goff, and from the controversial 2004 unbuilt $300 million glass roof from Rem Koolhaas (my previous teacher, herehere and here) to the elegant but underwhelming 2008 and 2010 buildings of Renzo Piano.

Exterior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)
Interior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)

Contrasting all this noisy activity, Zumthor’s proposal is so elemental and simplistic that you have to wonder if this is pure genius, or is it a blob of ink that accidentally got turned into the $600 million dollar project?

However, this is how Zumthor excels. He generates ideas like we all did in architecture school or even as a child. Innocently.

Simple ideas come to us all, and if we stay true to our opening statement, then our architecture can result in greatness. But in the real world of client changes, limited budgets, unrealistic schedules, and construction shortcomings, our ideas of greatness are at best compromised. At worst, our ideas drown in a tidal wave of mediocre practicality and code compliance.

The Thermal Vals, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo from arcspace.com)

Somehow, project after project, Zumthor keeps his conceptual visions alert and alive from the first day of the design process to the final day of construction. Take for example some of his concepts, such as this one for a hotel in Chile. The presentation appears to be no more than twigs, rocks and debris—literally. Yet , Zumthor addresses the mundane necessities of things like bathroom plumbing and air conditioning, or budget and constructability, and time after time, his final building parallels the essence of his first idea.

Presentation models for Zumthor’s Nomads of Atacama Hotel, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (photo Peter Zumthor, Buildings and Projects, Volume 5)

If we common architects delivered such a presentation as the hotel above, in what seems like no more than a teenager’s effort, we would be laughed out of our client’s conference room. The genius of Peter Zumthor is almost Warholian. Not only are the ideas of Zumthor artistic in nature, but he is able to artfully convince a Board of Directors that his ideas are artistic and worth pursuing at all costs. As often critiqued, Andy Warhol’s genius was most profound not in the work, but rather, in how he convinced everyone that he was a genius.

Peers would not take this kind of cynicism with Zumthor. As the media discouraging called Zumthor’s LACMA scheme the “ink blob,” reminiscent of the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits, we had faith in our hero. This architect of poetry and practicality will work in the fire escapes and exit signs,  the desert sun beating through the enormous panes of glass, and the structural engineering to bridge over six lanes of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.

Proposed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (photo from dezeen.com)

With recent museums in Los Angeles, such as The Broad , the Petersen , the above mentioned Renzo Piano buildings at LACMA, and the in-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures also by Piano, each of these projects will look like what happens when talented architects try too hard, yelling like a child for attention. And then, Zumthor walks in the room with grace and calmness.

Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo by Felipe Camus)
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