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It is hard to find good things to say about the architecture of the Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center in Westwood. Unfortunately, the combination of incompetence in planning and desperate, empty gesturing in appearance is nothing new in Los Angeles cultural architecture. Our most visible museums – MoCA and LACMA both suffer from these traits (“I’ve seen the hallways, now where’s the museum?” Philip Johnson remarked after viewing MoCA.) Those are our architectural showpieces, the kind of monumental public institutions that are the traditional bulwark of architecture. It is no surprise that lesser, private institutions with much less interesting collections, and even less of a public message beyond sell aggrandizement, are even worse.

Even so, the sheer abyss of marble-clad confusion into which this building falls is quite astonishing. A building enlarged through the parking garage, with no clear entrance, no clear progression and no clear focal point, this adjunct to Occidental Petroleum (both the building and the funds) has at its heart a series of scaleless public spaces that zigzag, first in section as a series of staircases, and then in plan, as a “courtyard,” around the whole site, desperately trying to fill space with more space. The actual galleries are left over as bland affairs that are strangely disconnected from each other, as if expressing their own alienation. The one public feature is a sagging version of a triumphal arch , gesturing vainly from its pompous costume of striped marble, marooned on a back street, caught without anything to lead you to (the security gate it shelters is exit only) or anyone to address.

It is easy to blame this complete waste of natural resources on the client. Hammer built the museum as a mausoleum to enshrine himself through his collection. His ability to pick all the worst paintings by all the best artists, combined with a modus operandi that left the museum in charge of family members and former assistants with no expertise in art, insures that his legacy will be fitting. The speed with which the museum had to be erected and the continual infighting within the corporation left the architect with little chance to ply his trade with any degree of due diligence. Yet even granting those circumstances, the building is such an unmitigated disaster that it promises to only increase the bad name of architecture in Los Angeles. This city seems to have a great talent for taking good architects and, like Hammer, getting their worst work out of them. Because these buildings are intended solely to enable the client, they are meaningless as carriers of cultural significance. We should be enshrining a legacy we will use to build a better future in these buildings, rather than erecting monuments of personal vanity. Our museums are either mausoleums or shopping malls, drifting in a context seen as empty by the architects and built around fragmented collections.

The answer is not to build better museums. Rather, we should recognize the fact that the status of such men as Armand Hammer, Fred Weisman, and Eli Broad as the most powerful patrons in the city and the alien nature of the whole idea of Western Humanist culture sanctified in imported, static forms, precludes the possibility of creating the kind of institutional focal points of public memory that cities like London, Paris, or Chicago have. I would propose instead that local architects, art professionals and politicians should think of culture as a living, breathing, multiethnic resource to be housed in interdisciplinary places for study and contemplation distributed throughout the city. Appropriate private and quasi private collections, create a municipal design team, and build focal points for communal self-examination all around Los Angeles. Combining adult education, science fairs, art collections, libraries and places for contemplation, these cultural centers would form the public counterpart to shopping malls as the focal points for our communities. We could leave all the most revered Old Masters in downtown, where they can be an international counterpoint to the worldwide network of Major Cultural Institutions. We can create a kunsthalle out in Palmdale for the big blockbuster shows. Then we can build culture at the scale where it makes sense in the patchwork of communities that make up the Southland by building more accessible, decentralized institutions. Ban the cultural bomb, build better culture. Then the Armand Hammer Museum could fulfill its true destiny and become a combination shopping mall and memorial to the wasteful bombast of unfettered collectionism.

Aaron Betsky

Back to March/April – 1991 Newsletter