Braking Is Better Than Crashing

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

design by Renzo Piano for the proposed Academy museum

I’ve been reading the news about Zoltan Pali’s departure from the AMPAS museum team. There are a lot of ways to look at this. And it’s important to remember that expensive, high-profile projects like this often take longer and cost more than anyone imagined. I think everyone agrees that the ultimate goal, building a museum dedicated to film history in Los Angeles, is definitely worthwhile. I’m anxious to see it completed, but I also want to them to do it right. I certainly don’t have any credentials that would give me special insight into this process, but I do have a few thoughts to offer….

Renzo Piano is a great architect. With buildings for the Centre Pompidou, the Menil Collection and the Zentrum Paul Klee on his resume, everybody seems to agree that he’s a good choice for the project. But even great architects are human, and therefore fallible. I read this morning that some Academy staff members are concerned about unresolved problems with the design of the new theatre. Movie theatres are technically complex structures that present a very specific set of challenges. No doubt Piano is aware of this, but is he going to bow to the experts who actually have experience in this area?

I used to work at MOCA on Grand Ave.. Isozaki is another great architect, and the building is a beautiful and complex creation. But I was friends with one of the preparators at MOCA, and he was very critical of the design. Sure, he would say, it’s a gorgeous building, but it wasn’t properly planned as an exhibition space. He cited a number of problems with the design that made his job difficult. According to my friend, Isozaki didn’t take enough time to understand the specific challenges of creating an exhibition space. Piano needs to listen to the experts in designing the theatre. Whatever his vision as an architect, it has to function as a place for audiences to see and hear movies.

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

May Company store on Wilshire, photo by Anne Laskey from LAPL archives

Some images of Piano’s design were first made public last year, and then views of an updated version were released just recently. Both versions have been criticized. I don’t have a background in architecture, and honestly, it’s hard for me to evaluate renderings. My impression is that Piano has some great ideas, but I can’t say it totally works for me. I wonder though, if rather than finding fault with Piano’s new building, we shouldn’t look harder at the building that exists on the site already. Many people praise the May Co. building, designed back in the thirties by A. C. Martin. I don’t share their enthusiasm. I love the building because it is an iconic part of the LA landscape. It occupies the corner at Wilshire and Fairfax with a lot of authority, and the gold cylinder rising above the intersection gives it a great presence. But in terms of design, I don’t think it’s very impressive. It’s a big, bland box. Piano is obviously trying for a dramatic contrast with this new addition. Unfortunately, I think starting the project with the May Co. building is like starting the project with an anchor around your neck. I’m glad the Academy wants to use it, because it’s been sitting vacant for years, but Piano faces a real challenge coming up with a design that incorporates it successfully.

The Times ran a piece yesterday by their architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne. He argues that the Academy needs to slow down and make sure this project is done right. I couldn’t agree more. Their public position is that everything’s going great and there’s no reason to reassess the timeline. Nobody’s buying it. Whatever the reason for Pali’s departure, it obviously signals a change of direction.

Rather than pretending everything’s hunky dory and pushing ahead, they need to pause and take stock of the situation. Why rush to break ground this year if the design isn’t right? I’m so glad the Academy is building this museum, but I also really want it to be something special.

A few links for those of you who want to read further. First is Hawthorne’s piece for the Times. Next a post that ran on Arch Daily back when Piano’s original design was made public in April of last year. And finally an article from the Hollywood Reporter that includes quotes from anonymous sources within the Academy. If these quotes give an accurate picture of what’s going on, there is good reason to be concerned about the viability of the project.

LA Times Commentary

Motion Picture Academy Unveils Designs

Academy Museum Architect Exits Amid Tension

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