L.A.'s bold new museums are works of art in themselves

OFTEN Los Angeles, that haven of popular culture, is disparaged in intellectual circles. But two dramatic new museum buildings here are helping to change all that. The Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill downtown and the Robert O. Anderson Building of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood - each a significant architectural presence - held long-awaited openings in December and November, respectively.

MOCA, as the contemporary museum is called, marks the first major completed work in America by the noted Japanese architect Arata Isozaki (whose newest is a commission from James Stewart Polshek & Associates for an addition to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City). MOCA represents an important personal triumph for Isozaki, who was involved in controversy over, first, his selection six years ago and, then, his design.

Even the way in which plans for MOCA developed were unusual. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency requires that developers spend 1 percent of the total budget for a particular project on public art. Through the efforts of Mayor Tom Bradley, it was determined that the ``art'' monies for the $1.2 billion California Plaza, a large mixed-use project including office towers, hotel, apartments, and retail, could be used to fund a museum. The developers of California Plaza elected to pay even more, and fund the full $23 million construction cost of Isozaki's nearly 100,000-square-foot building. And then the developers contributed another $1 million for acquisitions by the museum.

As a result of this arrangement, the developers insisted on major strictures in the design. The museum's height was limited so as not to impede views from inside the office buildings. An opening between the two major visible elements of the museum was required to allow a vista through to the rest of California Plaza. In addition, the very small site provided for the museum - less than one acre out of 11.2 acres in the project - reduced the available space for the building and for outside sculpture to a minimum. Thus the museum's galleries are below grade, mixed in with California Plaza's complex infrastructure.

Given the space requirements, it is remarkable that Isozaki was able to accomplish as much as he did. As in the architect's earlier work, MOCA maximizes the use of simple geometric forms. Two large, squarish buildings bracket a courtyard. A variety of pyramid-shaped skylights atop the roofs add visual delight, while a long barrel vault, which houses the library and a spectacular boardroom, extends to form a public gateway for the entry, where a small cube serves as the ticket office. The architect sees these forms as resembling ``a small village in a valley created by skyscrapers.'' Rather than compete with the high-rises, Isozaki opted for a humanistic approach that offers an unusual sense of intimacy.

While the various shapes draw attention, it is the rich variety in materials and colors that provides the drama. Isozaki has sheathed MOCA in a glorious, rough-textured red sandstone quarried in India. With the sun low in the afternoon sky, the building glows as if on fire. The deep color is complemented on several walls by green enameled-metal panels set on the bias with bright pink reveals. Glass block faces a large stairwell, and onyx panels cover the library windows, creating grace notes. Finally, a curving wall of the small, lower courtyard and its complementary wall indoors at the gallery entrance are covered with a synthetic white marble composed of crystallized glass. These sinewy forms, says Isozaki with a laugh, are a tribute to Marilyn Monroe.

Although the museum appears small on the outside, this is somewhat deceptive, for the galleries open into often surprisingly large volumes. The first is 53 feet high and set under a large, pyramidal skylight. Circulation throughout is spiral-like, and Isozaki purposely tried to vary the size, lighting, and proportions of each gallery to create a different experience for the visitor, as well as for artists. The hardwood maple floors and plain white walls are the essence of simplicity and do not compete with the art.

Any mention of MOCA, however, is incomplete without reference to the Temporary Contemporary, a one-time police vehicle garage renovated by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry to display art. The facility was opened three years ago to enable MOCA to gain a presence while its permanent quarters were under construction. The temporary facility became so successful that it is now a permanent fixture. Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi was stunned to discover that the same natural skylighting system used to fix police cars ``was good for art, too.'' The raw building, with all its mechanicals and structure showing, contrasts sharply with the pristine simplicity of Isozaki's vision. Yet each provides a delightful backdrop for contemporary art. The Robert O. Anderson Building

For the interiors of the Robert O. Anderson Building at the county museum, architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates took an old-school approach, creating formal galleries off long axes that terminate in windows to offer visitors a sense of place. Says architect Norman Pfeiffer, ``Museums tire people. It is important to be able to look out, to reorient, to take a rest.'' The gallery floors are carpeted and the ceilings coved, just as in the great museums of the past. Juxtaposed with the familiar forms are new elements, such as a cantilevered staircase within a triangular room sheathed in glass.

But the architects' job for the L.A. County Museum was much tougher than just adding more galleries. They had to somehow make sense of a multi-building complex without any entrance and designed in what could be charitably called ``1960s bland,'' around a fountained courtyard. That they were able to bring some unity and order to this mishmash is much to their credit.

Although the result is somewhat ``stageset'' in appearance (not totally inappropriate, given the locale), the result most assuredly gives the county museum a sense of place, which it never had before. An astonishing palette of materials and colors - a yellowish Kasota sandstone, green-glazed terra cotta blocks, glass block, pink porcelain panels with a slight bow and bright pink balcony rails - are used by the architects to sheath the new building and hide the older ones.

But this is much more than the emperor's new clothes. Placing the new wing at the street edge creates an urban building, the likes of which have rarely been seen in spread-out Los Angeles. With the main entrance to the side of the new facility, the circulation path brings visitors into the old courtyard. Now canopied, this space becomes a sort of beaux-arts rotunda, 1980s-style, and visitors are free to roam anywhere, giving sense to the overall circulation for the first time.

Next for the county museum is a pavilion for Japanese art, designed originally by the late visionary architect Bruce Goff. Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Joe D. Price, along with a large collection of Edo-period paintings, it is to open in early 1988. With more projects in the works - Richard Meier is designing a new museum for the J. Paul Getty Trust, Ricardo Legoretta an addition to the Southwest Museum, and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer an addition to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana - Los Angeles is a force to be reckoned with in the art world.

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