March 5, 2008

Visiting BCAM

I had a chance to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new Broad Contemporary Art Museum last week. (LACMA would have us call it "B Cam," not "the Broad.") The new building was was designed by architect Renzo Piano whose most recent museum project was a major addition to the High Museum in Atlanta. 

In a recent post, I dismissed the Time's architectural review as perhaps holding the building to too high a standard. But after seeing it in person, even with more modestexpectations, I too was disappointed. With his mix of marble and bright red steel, Piano seems to be striving for a mix of playful and formal. Theoverall effect, however, is neither one nor the other. The stairways soften the large mass, but also distract from it and I end up wondering"what is this place?"

Fortunately, the two amazing third floor galleries make up for the mish-mash of the exterior. The ceilings are all glass and let in an enormous amount of natural light, which is controlled by the louvers above. Each gallery is a fully open 10,000 square feet, perfect for the large scale pieces on display--and perfect for the parties sure to happen here on a regular basis. The other four galleries (the museum has two on each of three levels) are the same size and height and also offer exceptionally flexible space for installations. Sadly, these other galleries don't have the wonderful skylighting.

Piano's site plan is also meant to tie together the very long LACMA site. Piano's solution does connect the dots, but overall the site still feels like a jumble. The new atrium in the Ahmanson building provides a connection, but seems neither a part of the old plaza above or the new plaza below. More light might help.

I like how the new lamp post sculpture on Wilshire Boulevard defines the new entrance. The covered pavilion that is at the center of the new site organization underwhelms. The flat surface sits about 20' off the ground and feels dark, utilitarian, and somewhat oppressive on a sunny LA day. It is also clearly designed for parties, but offers none of the sophistication evident in so much of Piano's work. As the first experience of the museum, this space should be more graceful and more welcoming. 

The Times was also critical of the museum's opening exhibits, finding them to be not adventurous enough. I am a fan of contemporary art, but hardly an aficionado, and I found the exhibit very satisfying. The Serra sculptures on the f irst floor did seem cramped and could have used another 20' over them, but were still remarkable to walk around and through. The other pieces were in scale with the spaces and offered a rich variety of experiences and prompted interesting discussions with my companion. As a somewhat typical visitor, I found the opening exhibit just right.

Despite my reservations, does it succeed?  Absolutely. The new building is distinctive and well organized.  It is a good, and sometimes exceptional, place to experience art.  The new site organization adds clarity and structure that will be easy to enhance in the future and that visitors will find easy to navigate.  This is a solid step in the right direction with a clear path to the future.

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