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A black and white image of a museum complex with buildings that appear to float over pools of water.
The view of the original central plaza, which hovered above shallow pools, in 1965.
© Museum Associates/LACMA

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LACMA is beloved. Its design never was.

Even the museum’s glorious 1960s vision had its detractors

They arrived in sweeping evening gowns. In the cool March air of 1965, LA’s social and entertainment elite partied at the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard known as the Miracle Mile. Even Vogue was on the scene reporting from the “three marbled pavilions,” surrounding a plaza of gold-lit fountains and a shimmering reflecting pool.

“They arrived at the Wilshire Blvd. approach where at first sight the three pavilions seem to float on reflecting pools,” wrote society columnist Anne Sone, describing one of the week’s many receptions. “Long gowns swept over the gold carpet and teak parquet floors and down the marble staircase to the atrium.”

Among the revelers was architect William Pereira, whose firm had designed this “art acropolis,” LA’s first stand-alone art museum.

Last month, on the campus’s 55th anniversary, cranes began to knock down the Pereira-designed pavilions, piece by piece, to make way for architectural superstar Peter Zumthor’s curvy new museum building. The demolition signifies the end of an era for a museum that promised a new chapter of Los Angeles as a cultural mecca, and invited controversy every step of the way.

LA’s first stab at a museum didn’t come until 1913, when the city built a Beaux-Arts building in bustling Exposition Park, across from the University of Southern California. Named the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Arts, the museum was, in the words of the New York Times, a “ragtag-and-bobtail general museum” featuring third-rate collections and amateur regional art.

“In the early 20th century Los Angeles was a very young city with no tradition of cultural philanthropy,” Suzanne Muchnic, art writer and author of LACMA So Far: Portrait of a Museum in the Making, says. After World War II, the arts department got a boost when William Valentiner, a German art historian, took over. But it was his successor who envisioned something bigger.

“Richard Fargo Brown, an energetic and well-trained art historian who succeeded Valentiner, spearheaded the effort to establish a separate art museum and became its first director,” Muchnic says. “Norton Simon, who began collecting art in the mid-1950s and developed a close relationship with Brown, pledged $1 million to the project. After county land was secured on mid-Wilshire Boulevard, Howard Ahmanson stepped up with $2 million.”

An interior shot of a banquet in a large atrium with super tall ceilings.
An opening reception, April 1965.
Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Fundraising kicked into high gear, under the auspices of the nonprofit group Museum Associates. At the same time, funds were being raised for the Music Center in Downtown, and there was talk of a grand Hollywood Museum (that was never built). These projects were part of a concerted effort to establish LA as a forward-thinking sophisticated and culturally important metropolis, equal to New York or San Francisco. “Los Angeles has lagged in some respects. We have some catching up to do,” Edward W. Carter, president of the Museum Associates Board, admitted to the Los Angeles Times.

According to architect, historian, and preservationist Alan Hess, super wealthy donors spearheading the effort initially championed opposing architects for the project. Norton Simon and Richard Brown wanted modernist Mies van der Rohe, and Howard Ahmanson and others wanted Edward Durell Stone, who popularized, among other things, the breeze block.

Unable to decide, they finally agreed on local modernist powerhouse William Pereira, a charismatic, debonair, and “visionary pragmatist” whose firm is known today for works including the campus of UC Irvine, an addition to Times Mirror Square, Pepperdine University, the Flynt Publications Building, and, in San Francisco, the Transamerica Pyramid.

“William Pereira was a compromise choice. None of the movers and shakers actually wanted him to design the building, but Ahmanson—who had veto power over the choice of architect—hated modern architecture and refused to accept Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was championed by Brown and unanimously accepted by the trustees,” Muchnic says. “They finally agreed to give the job to Pereira, a relatively conservative local architect.”

According to architect and historic preservationist Frank Escher, the board’s choice was an uninspired but efficient compromise.

“Pereira, he’s an important architect. I would not count him among sort of the first tier of modernists who were active in Los Angeles,” Escher says. “He was a very good architect in the sense that he delivered. He had a very large office. He worked for many corporate clients. And the office functioned in a way where different projects would be handled by different designers, which meant that the outcome was very uneven.”

But Hess disagrees, and takes issue with critics who say that Pereira was simply a compromise. To him, Pereira was uniquely Angeleno, and grasped what the city was and could be.

“A lot of people felt that modernism was getting stale, and needed to be revised with new ideas,” Hess says. “And that’s exactly what Pereira did in his design. It’s a design which is very much rooted in Los Angeles at that time, which was arguably the most modern city in the world, with our media, and aerospace, and our suburbs, and cars and all of that. And Pereira’s campus design captures all of that—what Los Angeles was about in that period of time.”

A color postcard of the front of a museum complex with dozens of people milling about.
A postcard from 1965 that read: “The largest art museum to be built in America in the last quarter century... consist[ing] of three pavilion-like structures arranged in a central raised plaza and sits like a gleaming white island in a shimmering pool of water.”
Courtesy of the James H. Osborne Collection, Gerth Archives and Special Collections CSU Dominguez Hills

The design of the gleaming white “art acropolis” which was to be located in Hancock Park, site of the La Brea Tar Pits, started to take shape in 1960. Pereira’s firm began to brainstorm under the auspices of Barbara Gray, head of research. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Pereira said he aimed to create a new type of museum, independent of the traditional European style:

He pointed out that Napoleon opened the world’s first public museum in a palace—the Louvre—and from then on museums were designed to look like palaces. Now new ideas are taking shape. Pereira said great attention will be paid to display techniques, lighting, movement of people, resting places, relating the gardens and outdoor spaces to the architecture. “We will try to find a bloodline that seems natural, not a trick, so that it will be lasting. We will attempt to preserve the historical importance of the tar pits.”

The “floating campus” designed by William Pereira and Associates and landscape architect Thomas Church was to be the centerpiece of the Miracle Mile, which Pereira and other forward thinking Angelenos envisioned as LA’s premier cultural, economic, and artistic boulevard. “He was reinventing modernism, or Los Angeles, in all its glory,” Hess says.

The prestige LA was desperately seeking was in the forefront of practically every discussion of the museum. On November 9, 1962, ground was broken by members of the wealthy Hancock family, who had donated the park in 1924. “It is the responsibility of California to give scientific, cultural and technical information to the world. The museum is making it possible for California to exert this kind of leadership,” UCLA chancellor and LACMA fundraiser Franklin Murphy stated at the event.

Dubbed the “Temple of the Tar Pits” by Time magazine, the museum was completed in 1965. It featured three main buildings. The largest, the Ahmanson Building, held the permanent collection, the Lytton Building (later renamed for Frances and Armand Hammer) housed temporary exhibitions, and Bing Center contained a research library, theater, and children’s gallery. Visitors entered by Wilshire, walking across a wide ramp over a glistening, shallow reflection pool.

City boosters were thrilled, and a laudatory piece in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “A Noble Contribution to the World of Art,” breathlessly detailed the new design:

The new museum consists of three pavilion—like structures arranged on a central raised plaza and set like a gleaming white island in a shimmering pool of water. The buildings, each surrounded by colonnades of slender concrete columns, are faced with tens of thousands of split-face Cippolino marble tiles, all individually hand set. Promenades of aluminum frame topped with clear plastic domes provide covered walks between the buildings as well as sheltered areas for outdoor dining and relaxation.

With the central plaza, Pereira and Associates hoped to design a cultural center for all Angelenos. “What I have tried to design was a place, not just a building. That is the purpose of the plaza,” Pereira told the New York Times.

The pools reflected the gleaming beige buildings clad in gray chipped marble that shimmered in the strong LA sun. “The design responded to the way southern Californians lived,” Hess says. “It was indoor and outdoor. The plazas were a very important part of the museum concept. People could go into the galleries, and then go back out to the terraces in the sun, and there was sculpture there, and there were also these pools of water.”

To Hess, one of the most interesting architectural aspects of the original campus are the skinny cast-stone colonnades on the building’s exterior. “They rise above the roofline of the building. And they have a really wonderful sculptural character, they’re more sinuous. They aren’t just I-beams, like Mies van der Rohe would have used, but they are sculptural. They capture the sun shadow, and then at the top of the building, they’re displayed against the sky as well.”

A black and white image of smiling white men in tuxedos.
William Pereira (center) at the museum’s opening.
Photo by Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Hess also praises the main atrium of the Ahmanson Building, with its grand staircase and its originally open floor plan (which was later closed). “Each of the floors had open walls that looked down into the atrium… the purpose of that was so that when you were looking at Egyptian sculpture on one floor, you could easily look down two stories to see Renaissance art on another floor. So, the whole purpose of the atrium was to visually combine the collection, make it possible for people to see things, and make those connections, through the encyclopedic art collection that the museum had.”

The new museum was a social and cultural smash in Los Angeles, but Pereira’s work was not particularly impressive to national and international critics.

“Most art and architecture critics dismissed Pereira’s work as a fussy, theatrical bauble,” Muchnic says. “Some saw it as Disneyesque—more of a curiosity than a serious museum. The biggest complaint, though, was that it was a missed opportunity for Los Angeles to have a major modern building by an internationally renowned architect such as Mies van der Rohe.”

Regional prejudice also seems to have played some part in the critics’ reviews. The New York Times threw massive shade at the new museum, stating that “the most impressive thing about the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art may be that it exists at all. Interest in art in Los Angeles is a postwar phenomenon that gathered real momentum only about ten years ago.”

Even Arts and Architecture Magazine, an important journal based in Los Angeles, gave the completed product an uneven review. “It praised the galleries very much, but it was critical of the design as well,” Hess says. “And that was interesting because William Pereira was on the advisory board for Arts and Architecture Magazine.”

Escher agrees with the critics that the museum was overall rather average. With the exception of some aspects of the Ahmanson and the Bing Theater, he says the rest was completely forgettable. “There wasn’t any sort of single interesting space in any of the other buildings. It doesn’t help, of course, that those buildings were, time and again, remodeled, and added to, and completely sort of muddled in the end. Certainly, that didn’t help the whole thing.”

The museum’s tepid critical reception had little impact on the average culture-hungry Angeleno. Thousands attended the museum’s March 31 dedication and opening, which featured a significant show by the French painter Pierre Bonnard. “There were 47,000 visitors the first weekend, and 1.5 million during the first seven months,” Muchnic says. “Those numbers, which were huge in 1965, included many ordinary people.”

Peter Bart (then a writer at the New York Times) conceded that the museum was a hit with the public. “Critics charge that Mr. Pereira’s creation is sterile and undistinguished, but they must acknowledge that he has designed a ‘place’,” he wrote. “On almost any day of the week the museum plaza and garden are bustling with thousands of meandering city dwellers who, before now, had no urban focal point through which to wander.”

The original buildings floated over pools.
© Museum Associates/LACMA
The campus, after the new buildings were added, and the original Pereira plazas were paved over, circa 1986.
© Museum Associates/LACMA

But the design in its pure form would not last long. Tar from the La Brea pits began to seep into the reflecting pools, and they were filled within a few years. Alterations and additions further muddled the design. According to Hess, by the mid-1980s, when Pereira died, “his reputation was in the pits.” The construction of the bold, Wilshire Boulevard-skimming Hardy Holzman-designed Anderson Building (renamed the Art of the Americas Building in 2007) in 1986, with its glass striped facade and monumental new entrance, massively changed the LACMA landscape, closing the plaza off and blocking natural light.

For years there has been a contentious debate over what to do with the original Pereira campus. Its deficiencies became more apparent than ever with the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building in 2008 and the Resnick Pavilion in 2010 (which will be incorporated into the new design); both are separated from the original campus by the Chris Burden “Urban Light” installation.

To Escher, demolition rather than renovation was the best option, and Muchnic agrees that Pereira’s LACMA campus has outlived its usefulness as a cultural institution. “LACMA has needed a makeover for far too long,” she says. “It remains to be seen how the current project evolves, but I am not nostalgic about the Pereira buildings. They are worth remembering in the context of LA history, but not as great architecture.”

But preservationists say LA has been careless in destroying Pereira’s buildings. “My feeling is, number one, we’ve ignored Pereira for too long. We have not assessed his career, or his significance,” Hess says. “We haven’t taken a fresh look. We’ve accepted those older criticisms of him, and what we need desperately now is a real true assessment of Pereira’s real significance and what he was doing, and especially with a building like LACMA. Unfortunately, that assessment will not take place before the buildings disappear.”

He points to the original LACMA’s spaciousness, its emphasis on indoor and outdoor spaces and its elegant sculptural terraces as Pereira’s new take on what LA could be as a modern, sun-drenched cultural mecca. “These buildings... they are visually floating above the ground and the water, because of the reflections and so forth,” he says of the campuses original form. “These wonderful pavilions, light and color, floating above the ground against the beautiful sky. I mean, again, completely modern, [and]...completely influenced by his Southern California setting.”

As the wrecking ball falls on the original LACMA campus, LA’s cultural movers and shakers look toward Zumthor’s new design, with its focus on outdoor space and a continuing gallery which emphasizes LA’s beautiful natural light. Walls made of glass will be a prominent feature of the new museum, whose snake-like form reminds one of a Calder sculpture flattened to the earth.

“As you walk around, you will always have a view of the city,” Escher says. “That means that the city will help you orient yourself in the museum. If you are looking towards the east, then you see Downtown, you know where you are. If you’re looking on the west side and you look towards the west, you would know where you are. If you’re on the north side, you see the hills. So, the city actually will help you find your way.”

But, for fans of Pereira and the original LACMA campus, an important cultural institution is being demolished to pave way for the next big thing. “Pereira captured the optimism, the forward-looking, the newness, the modernity, the lifestyle of Angelenos in that incredible period of expansion,” Hess says. “And we’re just demolishing it.”

And so, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is finally getting the big name architect that many culture vultures in Los Angeles wanted all along. But even the new design has been a lightening rod for controversy and criticism. Perhaps, LACMA will never be a universally loved campus in any form, but, hey, it will always be discussed. And isn’t that what good art is all about?

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