There is no dog so ugly that somebody doesn’t love it. Case in point: the movement to save LACMA’s mixed-up east campus.
A new Facebook page, “Save and Restore the Original LACMA Buildings,” seeks to counter Peter Zumthor’s proposal to replace the original William Pereira buildings and the mismatched 1986 Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer addition with a new, integrated building. It’s not surprising that Zumthor’s innovative design has its on-line haters. What is surprising is that 327 people have clicked “Like” to what’s there now.
To quote the late Robert Hughes, Pereira’s original LACMA was “probably the worst of any large museum in America.” Pereira had been a last-minute compromise to resolve a deadlock between lead donor Howard Ahmanson and director Richard Brown. Brown wanted Mies van der Rohe, and Ahmanson favored Edward Durell Stone. The trustees settled on Pereira, the sequester option.
LACMA curator Jim Elliott called the Pereira design the “first tract house museum.” About the only notable who had something positive to say was comedian Bob Hope. At the 1965 LACMA opening, he said the Pereira building was “the most magnificent tax deduction I’ve ever seen.”
The postcard at top is the Pereira campus in its brief moment of glory. It’s as “classy” and dull as a Hilton hotel. The one notable thing about it is the extensive use of fountains and reflecting pools. Almost immediately La Brea ooze began seeping into the pools. They were drained and paved, the fountains shut off.
Back to Robert Hughes. “When the time came, in 1981, to expand LACMA, the proper response to [Pereira's buildings] would have been the bulldozer.… [Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer] obliterated the old museum like the giant foot in Monty Python.… The architects have so overdone their contextual homage to Hollywood Deco-Babylon that the effect verges on camp.”
The Monty Python foot squished whatever third-rung charm the Pereira campus might have once had. So why do average citizens want to save the always bland and now ruined Pereira? (By the way it’s Pereira and not Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer that gets most of the attention on the Facebook page. HHP is They Who Must Not Be Named.)
The social-net postings speak to nostalgia. A pdf brochure has retro fonts, period photos, and a Time magazine cover of Pereira—from Sept. 6, 1963. It touts “Pereira’s signature style, known for its stark and sterile appearance, owed largely to the science fiction era during which the Race to Space and the Atomic Age occupied the mind of most Americans.” (These brochures have been printed, and there are plans to distribute them outside LACMA’s Zumthor exhibit, “The Presence of the Past.”)
Christopher Hawthorne has suggested that Pereira nostalgia may owe something to to Pacific Standard Time. The infusion of Getty money has rehabilitated the reputations of neglected L.A. talents, including a few whose neglect might have been somewhat merited. Several Pereira projects are featured in the Getty Center’s “Overdrive.”
Perhaps one should add the Mad Men factor. The TV series has channeled, and amplified, a current of semi-ironic appreciation for the banalities of 1960s modernism. Weldon Becket’s 1964 L.A. Music Center, about as boring as Pereira’s LACMA, subbed for a Roman cafe in a 2009 episode of the series. But aren’t better memories-of-the-future being formed right now at Gehry’s Disney Hall? In the real Rome, residents can wax nostaglic for magnificent buildings of any age. That’s what Los Angeles ought to aspire to.
Zumthor’s building is projected to cost $650 million. That price tag figures in many of the Save-the-Pereira postings. Why not buy art instead, to augment an uneven collection? Or why not donate the money to the poor?
In today’s wacky art market, $650 million could barely buy a dozen great paintings by Song masters, Cézanne, Klimt, Kahlo, Pollock, or Johns. Throw in a Rose period Picasso or a famille rose vase.
By U.S. poverty guidelines, there are 40 million poor people in America. Were a $650 million windfall apportioned among them, it would amount to $16 each, enough to buy a ticket to Fast & Furious 6 and a small popcorn.
Most of the 1 percenters who might plausibly fund the Zumthor plan are already broad-based philanthropists, giving to the poor and to education, medical research, churches and synagogues, and many other causes. They set their own priorities. All a non-profit director can do is to make the best case for his or her own cause and hope to persuade. The wealthy folk on LACMA’s board are also mostly art collectors spending millions a year on their own collections. It’s tough for a curator or museum director to say, “Give us your money and we’ll buy art for you.” The collector is likely to respond, “I’ll buy exactly what I like, and maybe I’ll donate some of it down the road.” There’s no good comeback to that.
A new civic museum is necessarily a collective project. It is consequently easier to raise funds for a new museum building project than for that museum’s art acquisitions. Realistically, the best way to encourage future donations is to have an architecturally renowned building with ample display space.
The weirdest thing about the “Save and Restore” Facebook page is that posters invoke Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire as an emblem. I’m just the guy who ripped off Ruscha’s title for a blog—I don’t pretend to know what Ruscha meant by his painting, or whether he “meant” anything at all. But if you assume that Ruscha intended a comment on Pereira’s architecture, it sure doesn’t look like an endorsement.