LACMA Renzo Piano Photo: James Joel

Renzo Piano’s 2008 master plan for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art expansion included three components, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the Resnick Pavilion and the BP Piazza along with a new underground parking facility. Piano’s design is not the blockbuster signature architectural statement that has come to be the norm for so many museum architects, administrations and museum boards seeking marketing hype for the purpose of attracting visitors and increased revenues.

A subject of much controversy, the Piano complex has been reviewed by some architectural critiques as being less than important and a disappointment in resolving the history of conflicting architecture at LACMA. In this age of ‘grab the eye’ architectural extravaganzas, Eli and Edythe Broad (who funded the main building (BCAM) for post war art and are known for their philanthropic generosity within Los Angeles) chose Renzo Piano as the architect following a competition that initially included Rem Koolhaas. Piano’s design perhaps says more about creating exhibition space for art rather than honoring the architect’s ego with super visual feats. At 60,000 square feet of gallery space for BCAM it adds much needed space at LACMA.

lacma renzo piano

Photo: Diametric

The overall design is a somewhat subdued statement for an architect who has gained world recognition for his museums over the past several decades. Visually calm (excepting the exterior, red circulation structures) it creates flexible exhibition space allowing for differing gallery arrangements able to accommodate changing show venues.

Piano’s approach considered the collection of buildings that make up LACMA’s disparate architecture and site configurations. Located along Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles’ Museum Row, the three story front “boxy” façade was conceived in Italian travertine marble and achieves visual infill along the street that might otherwise been one more gap along Wilshire. It does this reasonably well with the new grand entrance piazza (known as the BP Piazza in recognition of British Petroleum’s bequest) to the complex.

LACMA Renzo Piano

Photo: PunkToad

From the sidewalk the visitor approaches the museum piazza from either side of Chris Burden’s Urban Light artwork composed of 202 restored cast iron light fixtures from around Los Angeles. These antique light fixtures greet the visitor to the museum and are a favorite for children and newlyweds in particular. Unfortunately for many visitors to LACMA, they now enter the museum from the underground parking, not the Wilshire Boulevard entrances and in this regard the Piano entrance may not be so successful.

One of the first things a visitor to the complex experiences is the way in which the buildings are visually articulated. The travertine facades are set off by powder coated steel structures in fire engine that form staircases, the suspended fire escape, the escalator and elevator, and covered walkways. These features become an integral part of the architectural statement and offer visual counterpoints to the neutral travertine facades.

LACMA Renzo Piano

Photo: Joe Vare

Adding a joyful delight to the eye, the design palette is enhanced through Piano’s careful detailing and joinery of elements. Many critics initially spoke harshly of Piano’s lack of color sensitivity for these elements. It is now over five years since the building was opened, plenty of time for architects, architectural critics and the public to form opinions and decide if the project was a success or a failure as some originally thought.

Each floor of the BCAM is composed of two loft-like gallery spaces at 8500 square feet each for a total of six. Richard Serra’s monumental, 200 ton Band sculptures are located in one portion of the ground level gallery and are probably a permanent installation given their size. The remaining five galleries are designed for rotating exhibitions. The top floor of BCAM is roofed with prismatic, iron glass that infuses the gallery spaces with soft north light, a signature design component of Piano’s museum work for which he is so well noted.

The artist, Barbara Kruger was commissioned to install a three-story work (red, white and black) on each of the walls of the BCAM’s enormous elevator shaft that greets visitors as they enter the building from each of the three levels via the exterior escalator and staircase. The glass elevator is for both visitors and for movement of art to and from the galleries.

The open air, roofed canopy that covers the BP Piazza adjacent to Wilshire Boulevard, links the older eastern portions of the museum with the new additions. The plaza is a gathering place for visitors, provides the main museum ticketing facilities, has an upscale lounge and restaurant for indoor and outdoor dining, is used for workshops and outdoor concerts, and provides access to the new underground parking garage. Landscaped walkways lead west from the plaza and gain access to the three-story escalator serving as the top floor main entrance to BCAM and also to the Resnick Pavilion.

LACMA Renzo Piano

Photo: Joe Vare

LACMA Renzo Piano

Photo: Joe Vare

LACMA Renzo Piano

Photo: Joe Vare

At ground level, phase three of the expansion is the Resnick Pavilion to the north of the main walk was also designed by Piano as the third phase of the development. It houses single story exhibition spaces for rotating shows and curatorial space. The media has said it is “the largest purpose-built, naturally lit, open-plan museum space in the world.” It opened in 2010 and completes the expansion program.

It is especially true in the case of Renzo Piano’s addition to LACMA that one needs to walk through and experience the spaces, landscaping, light qualities and people movement patterns as opposed to simply viewing it from afar as an isolated architectural design. Some designers and architects may not agree and perhaps suggest that that’s just an excuse for architectural mediocrity, but there’s simply no substitute for physical presence. Those that have entered and exited, visited to see exhibitions or Friday night jazz, and viewed the structures from blocks away will be the ones to judge the success of Renzo Piano’s much debated LACMA addition.

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