Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Discovering BCAM

I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), including the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), designed by Renzo Piano. It's a cool new addition to LA's architectural scene. The basic form of the building is large and rectangular, with sand-colored stone walls, making it coherent with the adjacent Ahmanson Building (the original part of the evolving LACMA campus), but the walls are dramatically sliced by the diagonal lines of exterior staircases and the vertical lines of their steel girder supports, all painted a bright orange-red. These are visually complimented by the greens and organic lines of palm trees and ferns. The extrusion of the structural forms made me think of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where the stairs, plumbing and venting are all exposed on the exterior. But the Pompidou Centre is gritty and industrial looking, while BCAM's whimsical colors and architectural lines render the idea with beauty and charm. (I didn't realize until later that the Pompidou Centre was a much older project by the same architect.)

An escalator leads from the entry plaza right up to the top floor, inviting you to enter the building in an unconventional way, preparing you to expect something different. Upon entering, one of the first things you see is a kind of graphic mural lining a large shaft from the top of the tall ceiling dropping below the floor. When looking down and seeing an orange metal platform way below us rising up, we realized with a small shock of revelation that we were looking at an elevator shaft. The glass-doored elevator car is monumental (21 feet tall and wider than tall), and moves through that artwork. (As my friend Kraig remarked, it's almost worth the price of admission to see the elevator.) The galleries on the top floor were generously large, open, and well-lit, and nicely presented an collection of modern sculpture and paintings. (Many of the works themselves are quite sizeable, so it is helpful to have such an ample space to view them in.) Some of them are amusingly whimsical (like the giant blue balloon dog and the giant cracked red egg shell), some are just odd (a bust of Louis XIV in chrome), some are classic (the Warhols and Lichtensteins), and some are just not my thing (like the blank canvas with plain block letters that said something like "There are no ideas in this painting", to which I thought, "clearly true"). The middle floor of the museum is not open yet, and the bottom floor contained a pair of monumental sculptures by Richard Serra called "Band" and "Sequence". While it may seem extravagant to have a 20,000 square foot gallery dedicated to just two sculptures, they are seriously cool. The sculptures are giant ribbons of brown steel that wind around and in upon themselves, creating surreal spaces and corridors. The curving flow of the steel walls invites you to follow them around to see where they will lead, and the walls lean in at times and out at others, playing with your sense of space. (The curved and leaning walls are reminiscent of the Disney Hall, but on a more intimate scale, and with a softer more organic color and texture rather than gleaming shiny aluminum.) With "Sequence" especially, the continuously curvy corridors were surprisingly long, making us feel like we were walking on some kind of hyper-Moebius strip. That was definitely worth the admission.

The BCAM is connected via a promenade to the old Ahmanson Building, creating a new entry plaza. The plaza is graced by an art installation by Chris Burden called "Urban Light", an arrangement of streetlamps placed unusually close together to form colonnades by their repetition and variation. The Ahmanson Building has been reconfigured to facilitate movement between a new west entrance (from the new campus) to the old east entrance (to the Times Courtyard) on a higher floor. The central atrium now has a grand staircase between those two, and the open multi-floor atrium is now dominated by a cool monumental Tony Smith sculpture called "Smoke". One thing I do miss is that where the upper floors used to all open onto the atrium, they are now closed off. But overall, I'm liking the new additions to LACMA.

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