The Hammer Museum is building a bridge across its courtyard. It seems that many visitors were missing the permanent collection galleries on the east side of the building’s loop. The bridge, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture and named for former Senator and museum chairman John V. Tunney, is set to open February 2015. The Tunney Bridge will help correct a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Edward Larrabee Barnes’ building has always been confusing to first-time visitors. As a 1991 review in the L.A. Times complained, “The whole way one enters the museum is downbeat and confusing.”
In the Beaux-Arts era museums had grand steps leading up to a grand entrance. There is only one museum like that in the region, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. But its grand entrance has not been an entrance for many years. It leads into a rotunda with no provision for ticketing. NHMLA was built in a genteel age when taxpayer-supported museums were free.
NHMLA is now directing visitors to a flashy new entrance (via a bridge).
The County’s other flagship museum, LACMA, has also accreted entrances over the years. Making sense of its campus is one of the main arguments for the Peter Zumthor redo. The Zumthor building will have multiple entrances by design. One might lead to Chinese galleries, another to American galleries, etc. It remains to be seen whether the public will embrace this clever idea or simply want to know which entrance is “best.”
The Getty Center was built in a single billion-dollar campaign and ought to be perfect. Except… Richard Meier doesn’t like signs. This defensible stance is harder to defend in a big complex combining public and private elements. The Getty has helpful folk greeting tram debarkees—and pointing out which building is the museum. It has recently taken to plastic signage underfoot, nudging visitors to the Exhibition Pavilion.
Ultimately, all of this reflects a prevailing architectural and museologic philosophy. Museums should be non-hierarchical. They should not enforce an Alfred Barr circuit; not privilege one type of art, or one experience of art, over another.
This is a libertarian philosophy (even if most espousing it cringe at the mention of Ayn Rand, or Rand Paul). The visitor is given total, existential freedom to invent his or her own experience. But the human reality is that total freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most of us, most of time, welcome a “curated” heads-up—just as long as we can opt out. The Hammer’s bridge might be a modest step in that direction.