Zumthor’s Black Flower

Peter Zumthor’s LACMA proposal promises to be the greatest public building in L.A. since Disney Hall. Like the latter, it’s already loved and hated, going by the comments to news stories. “Beware the blob!” wrote one poster on Curbed L.A. The “blob” refers to the building’s shape from above. Zumthor calls it a “black flower” and uses it to connect to the tar-pit-adjacent site. It will doubtless be the building’s signature. How many buildings are interesting, or even recognizable, from the Google satellite perspective? Pilots approaching LAX will point it out (yielding who knows how much free advertising?) But as Zumthor’s models make clear, the visitor’s experience will involve a lot more than an unusual shape. “The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA,” running this Sunday through Sept. 15, showcases a project that means to reinvent the encyclopedic museum.

• Start with the shape. I don’t see a flower or tar pit so much as a biomorphic abstraction. In the small models, the overall form really does look like an Jean Arp wood relief or a Matisse cut-out or a boomerang motif of mid-century design. It’s an emblem of advanced art at the time that L.A. culture crawled out of the primeval ooze. The very word “biomorph” bridges art and life. (At left below, Arp’s Overturned Blue Shoe with Two Heels Under a Black Vault.)

• Why black? Well for one thing the roof is to be a solar cell, the biggest urban solar farm, generating $5 million worth of electricity a year. Physics dictates that any efficient solar cell must be black. Zumthor’s “black flower” implies rare beauty while recalling the Black Dahlia, touchstone for the hardboiled fictions of Raymond Chandler and film noir. The conceit of evil under a paradisical sun remains influential for L.A. artists or at any rate for curators trying to make sense of L.A. art (“Sunshine and Noir,” “Under the Big Black Sun,” etc., etc.)

Zumthor’s sun-blasted negritude is sexy and cool, like the lair of the most tasteful of James Bond villains. If this gets built, every car company in the world will want to shoot a commercial at LACMA. Think of what that will do for L.A. production.

• It’s a multicultural vision of an encyclopedic museum. At the Metropolitan Museum and its many American knockoffs, you ascend a grand staircase to a grand facade. Once inside, the natural circulation points you straight at European painting. The visitor to Zumthor’s building would enter via a choice of “pods.” These permit ascent, via staircase or elevator, to any of six major rooms in the upper, exhibition level, entering the galleries at different points in global art history. As Michael Govan said, this puts Korean art on a par with European art. In academic-speak, nothing is “privileged.” In plain language, it’s all good.

• By my quick count, there are about 163 galleries visible in the model photo above. That will change, of course, but the takeaway is that the unconventional exterior will hold a lot of different spaces to show art, most of them reassuringly rectilinear. It’s said the building’s overall square footage would equal the buildings it replaces, though with 70,000 square feet more exhibition space and showing twice the art. This paradox would be achieved by moving office space across the street and the use of open storage on the ground level.

The model contemplates large rooms for Tony Smith’s Smoke and the Ardabil Carpet. You’d walk up a staircase to see Smoke looming above you, the opposite of today’s experience.

Conceivably the greatest work in the museum’s collection, the Ardabil Carpet has been shown only at rare intervals since J. Paul Getty donated it in 1953. Its mate in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, though more faded than LACMA’s, is on permanent display and is a major attraction. Here it would be shown horizontally under a calibrated blend of natural and artificial light. Dust rather than light is said to be the greatest challenge in displaying it. Govan suggested it might be periodically swapped out with other large Persian carpets in the collection, and the gallery might motivate future acquistions.

• The early press talked up transparency. It would be a glass house museum with art visible from the street. I didn’t know how they’d manage that. All art is sensitive to light to some degree. I half-wondered whether they were going to tout some new miracle-glass shunting all the harmful rays. Nope. Zumthor simply exploits the power of shadow. The exhibition level is big enough to significantly reduce light levels at the ground level. This would allow all but the most light-sensitive works to be shown, if desired, in the pods’ “shop window” displays.

Early tests imply that even black and white photographs could be safely displayed in the darker ground-floor spaces. “The Presence of the Past” demonstrates the concept with a black-bottom slab suspended within the sunny Resnick Pavilion. Beneath it are historically irreplaceable watercolor drawings of La Brea fossils by John L. Ridgway.

The Zumthor proposal would greatly expand the range of admission-free art at LACMA. The cash-challenged Wilshire flaneur would be able to experience not only the Burden, Irwin, and Heizer mega-installations but also a generous core sample of the museum’s collection in most media.

• Assuming permission can be obtained, one arm of the Zumthor building will extend slightly over the actual La Brea tar pit. Visitors will have a spectacular view of the tar pits through floor-to-ceiling windows. Think of it as Julius Schulman’s photo of Case Study House #22, with a Tim Burton edge.

• For the record, “The Presence of the Past” is not all about Zumthor’s proposal. It features a bigger-than-Guernica masterpiece of twentieth-century painting: the Pleistocene tar pit murals of Charles Knight, master of the paleontological school. It’s a rare loan from NHMLA, as are some fossils. The show then jumps ahead 50,000 years to trace the strange and sometimes miserable architectural history of LACMA, from Pereira to Koolhaas to Piano.

As most of Zumthor’s buildings are in central Europe, he’s still relatively little known to Americans. Photos of his buildings help convey what the models cannot: his ability to create sensuous magic from light, space, and novel materials. Below is his 1997 Therme Vals, a Swiss mineral bath, and the 2000 Swiss Sound Box, created for a world fair. The Sound Box was made almost entirely out of lumber. After the fair, the lumber was sold.

Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals (c) Margherita Spiluttini

Peter Zumthor, Swiss Sound Box, photo (c) Giovanni Chiaramonte

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