Zum! Zum! Zum! Zumthor!

Zumthor proposal for Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

Zumthor design for Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

The forces of architecture in Los Angeles are clashing over the latest proposal, by Swiss architect and Pritzker prizewinner Peter Zumthor, for the new LACMA. What is the LACMA? A lengthy critique of an even lengthier critique of Zumthor’s design does not deign to inform the previously uninformed reader. But I looked it up. It stands for Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Zumthor has proposed the swoopy doopy platform above, which bridges Wilshire Boulevard. Anything goes when it comes to designing an art museum these days – no holds barred! And Zumthor delivers.

The Case for Zumthor” in The Architect’s Newspaper by Frank Escher, a principal of the architecture firm Escher GuneWardena, attacks a series of pieces by critic Joseph Giovannini in the Los Angeles Review of Books that attack Zumthor’s museum design. Escher’s piece links to Giovannini’s pieces. Giovannini thinks that the project should have gone to celebrated Angeleno Frank Gehry. An earlier LACMA proposal by Rem Koolhaas was selected a few years ago but tanked before the shovels hit the ground.

Here is an example of Escher’s insulting and condescending tone:

The insulting and condescending tone of [Giovannini’s] articles make them difficult to read. His platitudes become tiresome: the “monkish architect coming down from a village in the Alps with promises of architectural simplicity,” the “Alpine prophet” who “has come off the hill to levitate our expectations,” or the “ayatollah of elementalism” expecting us to make “the hajj to Haldenstein.” Accusations of plagiarism, the inane comparisons, or Giovannini’s advice to study the New York Guggenheim make the articles impossible to take seriously.

Towers proposed for Los Angeles in 2006 by Richardson Robertson. (Robertson Partners)

Towers proposed for Los Angeles in 2006 by Richardson Robertson. (Robertson Partners)

It is difficult to get up a bolus of indignation at this because there’s so little there there at risk in L.A. Back in 2006, Richardson Robertson III proposed two new towers there on the same day that a project for two new towers there by Frank Gehry was announced. The publicity for Gehry sucked all the air out of the publicity environment, even though the Robertson plan was the real news. He was proposing two very tall traditional towers in the style of the great skyscrapers of prewar New York City. It was something different! Man bites dog! So it was ignored and the buildings were not built. (See my 2006 column in the Providence Journal, “Angeleno inspiration for Providence.”)

Los Angeles doesn’t really want to be a real place, just a fantasyland enigma, a series of projects that are little more than billboards proclaiming the “genius” of their silly designers. The Zumthor LACMA is no different. So when a pair of local architecture critics start going at it hook and tong, the basis for disagreement seems vague and the charges hurled back and forth seem like a sort of arcane literary watusi: more entertaining than enlightening.

You may enjoy the sort of critical sparring that takes place between Escher and Giovannini. If not you may find Escher’s conclusion sufficient:

It is clear … that the new LACMA may just be too quiet for some, not offering enough entertainment or spectacle. Or, as Giovannini concludes, “Zumthor represents one end in architectural debates currently polarized between complexity and simplicity. In choosing Zumthor, LACMA has taken sides in a broader polemic, becoming both a testing ground and a battleground.” Our architectural world, though, is more nuanced. Let us distinguish between architecture that is complex and architecture that is complicated. There are enough examples of architecture that pretends to épater la bourgeoisie — an important cultural position one hundred years ago — and instead manages only to amuser le bébé.

Complexity in art may be expressed in a simple form, a complex idea in a simple phrase. It is precisely the tension between conceptual complexity and formal simplicity — the absence of noise — that makes Zumthor’s work so good.

Complexity versus simplicity, oh my!

Amusing, to be sure, but if this truly is what the debate in architecture has come down to, then it has not come down to anything at all. It is still up in the clouds, dizzy and pointless, out of touch with the ground, with reality, with the public, even with L.A. In short, what else is new?

[Hats totally off to Kristen Richards and her indispensable (and free) ArchNewsNow.com for highlighting this exciting L.A. contretemps!]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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