LACMA: Suicide by Architecture

UNTIL ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, announcements by Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, were always reassuring: don’t worry, the new structure replacing the four existing gallery buildings on the East Campus would equal their total square footage, though the gallery space might be a wee bit smaller.

Then the bombshell exploded: the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) released in late March slapped Angelenos to attention when they learned they would be paying $650 million to get a building that would be 105,108 square feet smaller than the originals, with 53,000 square feet less gallery space.

Using a strategy of self-protective denial, Govan cheerfully wrote an open “Dear Friend” letter declaring that from an environmental point of view, the shrinking museum was the best of news, because the ever-smaller structure bridging Wilshire would lessen the environmental impact, the point of the EIR process.

For Angelenos, however, that was like learning someone was taking away half your house even as you were paying full market price to construct its replacement.

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The Wrong Design
The Wrong Design © Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner/LA Review of Books - The whole strategy of bridging Wilshire is predicated on a deception smothered by showmanship: the bridge is pure Cecil B. DeMille, a show-stopping cinematic extravaganza sure to appear in high-speed movie chases and TV car commercials. The sensationalism distracts from more basic issues, such as sensible land management. The scheme turns out to be a spendthrift, land-gobbling project. 

Now, as the Final Environmental Impact Report lands on the desks of the County Supervisors (and later the City Council), the project is entering a critical yes-no moment. The Supervisors, who have the right of approval over capital improvements, will decide whether or not to release a $125 million construction grant by accepting, or not, the EIR.

The County Board of Supervisors, the body with financial leverage over Govan and Museum Associates, has largely just rubber-stamped the project so far. No Nancy Pelosi with equivalent cultural power has emerged in Los Angeles to challenge this specious idea based on provably deceptive facts and figures. Even the new County Supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, seems to have drunk from the goblet of Kool-Aid passed to her by her predecessor in the 3rd District, Zev Yaroslavsky, without publicly, at least, asking serious questions: a strange passivity for an activist Supervisor.

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... if Museum Associates raised $175 million in cash for the building, as the current pledges seem to indicate they have, the County would issue a $300 million bond, which would augment LACMA’s debt load to a staggering $643 million, among the highest if not the highest in the United States. (MOCA, by comparison, has zero debt.)

The annoying little thing about bonds is that they eventually have to be repaid, and even at three percent, the interest adds about $19 million per year to the expected $3.6 million rents needed for off-site offices. Together the interest and rent erase $23 million from the $40 million income LACMA typically earns from donations and membership dues. The financial stress will put LACMA at long-term financial risk, mortgaging LACMA’s future.

Meanwhile, during a decade that the unrushed Zumthor has spent perfecting a fundamentally weak idea in his Swiss village, construction costs in Los Angeles have risen about 35 percent, according to a prominent Los Angeles architectural office. So if the purported costs remained magically constant at $600 or $650 million, the building has lost $225 million in construction value and space as Zumthor has kept LACMA waiting. The project has been shedding footage even as Zumthor has earned huge fees, with compromises in quality: the building is beginning to look thin and cheap.

“The real bills come in after construction, with increased operating costs and interest,” cautioned a second Los Angeles developer, one with considerable civic experience. “Govan will leave Los Angeles with a huge amount of debt, especially with interest rates increasing and projected off-site expenses.”

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