Peter Zumthor Redesigns LACMA As A “Black Flower”

Peter Zumthor's Proposal for LACMA

I haven’t quite known what to think about Peter Zumthor’s proposed overhaul of the LACMA campus, ever since I saw it described as a “black flower.” It confused me. I know black flowers exist, but the architect’s nickname for the project doesn’t help me understand this enormous, amoeba-shaped slab of concrete that the architect has plopped down onto the sunny Los Angeles terrain. And aren’t flowers, even black ones, usually delicate? This project is something much sturdier and larger, and when it’s done, will probably smell a lot more like the neighboring La Brea tar pits than a flower.

Peter Zumthor's LACMA redesign, the Black Flower

I also wanted to see the project enough to change my opinion about it a couple of times. And since there are likely several more years for the project to evolve before it breaks ground, I’ll probably change my mind an equal amount of times. As far as I can tell, the project has a lot to do with the tar pits that have been gurgling beside the current museums since before they were conceived. I was delighted when LACMA invited Zumthor to speak about his project and he talked at length about the site and the project’s relation to the primordial tar pits. A video of Zumthor speaking about his proposal can be found here. The first half of the video is tour of Zumthor’s projects that have something to do with either art or exhibition, and the tour is led by Michael Govan. The director of LACMA, Govan has been working with Zumthor over the past six years to imagine what the future of the art museum could be.

With the opening of the exhibition The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA we’re getting the first peek at the museum’s nebulous future. That future currently looks a little daunting, but still sleek and exciting. If you’re in the L.A. area you should go see the exhbition. If you’re not, the video will have to suffice. Zumthor talks in the video about many aspects of the project: his circulation strategy for such an enormous building and how the new building could display art to the public even when it’s closed. The black exterior started to make surprising sense by the time I finished watching the video. I was really surprised initially when I saw the building was so dark (the heat gain on that roof! California is sunny! etc.) but it turns out that the plan is to cover the museum with solar panels so that it produces more energy than it consumes.

Peter Zumthor's LACMA redesign, the Black Flower

And while the six ton model of Zumthor’s proposal is being displayed in the Resnick Pavilion, tons of steel are being hoisted into place along Grand Boulevard for the new Broad Museum. I haven’t seen anyone contrasting the two project’s different ideas about the problem of storage and hierarchy (I would guess it exists somewhere, and probably from someone who knows more than me) but I think it’s at least worth pointing out that Zumthor’s project rejects some of the ideas being cemented into place. If the Broad offers a peek into the vault, Zumthor is hoping that the future LAMCA can successfully explode the vault, spilling more of the collection into the galleries at a time. Maybe the two approaches, dressing up the vault in a veil versus trying to get rid of it are concrete manifestations of how differently the two museums think about larger issues; in which case, LACMA winds up looking more democratic.

Still, Zumthor’s sprawling proposal is slick with plenty of room for surprises. It’ hard to feel too optimistic with a black concrete cloud looming over your head, especially an expensive cloud that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. It seems like it could come crashing down any minute, and the biggest fear for the project is that it will collapse into thin air before it ever breaks ground. But the project is sturdy, and now that it’s out in the open for everyone to see, I hope the black flower doesn’t wither in the scorching heat of the California sun.

Peter Zumthor's LACMA redesign, the Black Flower

Peter Zumthor's LACMA redesign, the Black Flower

Alex Dent

June 13, 2013 / By