As part of our Urban Narratives series, we take a look at the new design of the Petersen Museum. Our Los Angeles based contributor Architect Michael Wacht visited the Museum soon after its opening in December 2015 and shares his review.
THE UNFILTERED FACT:
The recently reinvented Petersen Automotive Museum is an eyesore on many levels, and Christopher Hawthorne does an excellent job in his LA Times article listing the multiple ways in which to sourly interpret the building.
Even more, though, I believe that this misanthropic contribution to the Los Angeles landscape is emblematic of two larger issues with Architectural design: the limitations of designing as a purely aesthetic proposition and the grossly overlooked interplay between how culture and technology intersect with built form.
But first, let’s take a tour.
I parked on 8th Street because it’s free and there are lovely food trucks across Wilshire from LACMA to grab lunch during my walk back to the car. Seemingly unbeknownst to the designers of the museum, the Petersen is indeed part of a lively cultural district where people will arrive from various other activities. A metro stop on the Wilshire Line Extension is planned to open at a nearby corner in 2023.
The museum is housed in a former department store, operating as a car museum in this location since 1994. Viewing the building from S Orange Grove Avenue is a great place to start a tour of the building because the view from here captures the simple rectangular form to which the bright red color and shiny ribbons are affixed. This, also is the only moment of restraint. As one approaches Wilshire, the red metal corrugated panels begin, and the shiny spaghetti subsequently follows.
Rounding the corner to Wilshire, one can access that the ribbons range in width from roughly 3’ to 6’. There are innumerable visible rivets holding the panels together to form the ribbons, making for a rather clunky appearance. The architects have generously allowed a pedestrian to enter within their facade, where one can immediately identify that the structure is elevated by a mismatching afterthought of steel tubes, not dissimilar in scale to those one might find at a drive-up bank teller. Oddly, the back faces of the ribbons are red, seemingly redundant. But, perhaps using the metallic finish was too costly.
As one moves further west along the Wilshire facade, the ribbons bump out to hide a pedestrian street entrance. By employing such architectural acrobatics to hide the entrance, the design seems to willing offend a passerby. I decided to take the hint, so I chose to bypass this entrance. I’ll enter the building later from the vehicular entrance at the south side of the museum where it meets the parking garage.
Crossing the street, one encounters the view that tens of thousands of Angelenos are most likely to recognize from driving past this busy intersection. There is no signage for the museum or any visible detail to announce that within this jumble is a car museum.
Set within the Fairfax facade is a nook for the museum restaurant. Angelenos will remember this formerly housing a Johnny Rockets. As a shield to traffic in this location, the ribbons serve a mighty and welcome purpose. I don’t want to imagine how expensive all this metallic fettuccine may have been, but this future cafe is realistically the only place to pause for enjoying it. Further along Fairfax, the metallic spaghetti ends with a whisper somewhere around the entrance to the garage, though the ribbon spends no effort to identify this opening as a probable entry either.
I found the sign right next to the garage entry, though, oddly, scaled for a pedestrian to read it. I imagine if one were in a car looking for a sign, they might cruise past this one. The material, font, and attachment seem alien here, encouraging an interpretation that it may be an afterthought. This ribbon adheres directly to the red surface, is designed to be obviously hollow, and subscribes to a completely different concept of linearity and curvature. It has just one “dip curve” in its otherwise straight length, disavowing the vocabulary of the fettuccine.
The parking structure is shielded from Fairfax with this perforated sheet metal. It works rather well for covering a parking structure. The opaque moments are an extension of the curvy ribbon aesthetic, translated here into a two-dimensional graphic form. (The southern and eastern sides of the parking structure are painted a simple white, with minor red detailing, a soothing welcome for the neighboring residential community).
Ah, here we are, the automobile entry. The architecture speaks clearly here: “Welcome to the Petersen. Please take your parking ticket.” What about the romance of a porte-cochere? Arrival by automobile is potentially an elegant affair. There also used to be a physical distinction between the programmatic building and its adjacent parking structure, separated before by this vast entry space. At the least, perhaps they could have configured the entry so that parking tickets were obtained within the parking structure itself (to the right in the image)?
The first-floor interior has the look and feel of a suburban Audi dealership (including the 4 clocks above the visual display which has the immediate recognition of the Audi logo), which is an entirely appropriate if unoriginal scheme. All of the drama of the ribbon structure has vanished. There is instead a polished concrete floor, metallic walls, and red accents. This corridor/lobby leads to the pedestrian entrance from Wilshire that I had skipped. The reception desk is inconspicuously tucked away along the eastern side of the corridor, which in my case as a non-paying visitor, was easy to ignore.
Looking back from the Wilshire entry, there is a strange laziness of layout presented, as if the different consultants in the design team – architect, interior designer, exhibit designer, museum operations – had never collaborated, leading to an incongruous experience. For example, the interior designers have created a curving wall which ignores all the existing columns, and the exhibit designers then seemingly started to add vehicles indiscriminately. In this corridor, we have a Jeep, a garbage can, and a bobsled competing for my visual attention. It’s a bit haphazard for a museum that had opened a few days before.
The view out towards the street is restricted by the red backs of the metallic linguini (which, if you remember, had bumped out to hide this doorway). It feels more like a cage from this standpoint, which could be the design intent. But, is it too much to ask Architects to think simultaneously about what entries feel like to humans both from the outside-in and from the inside-out? This doorway is notably the only opportunity to have shed daylight into the interior of the first floor.
I’ll let the museum first defend itself with intentions. From the Petersen’s website:
David [Sydorick, Board Member] proposed the idea of doing a wrap on the original Welton Becket-designed structure. . . David suggested using colors and materials that would speak to automotive enthusiasts. This idea is now evident in the museum’s use of “hot rod” red and brushed steel, assembled with rivet-like fasteners. The overall effect evokes both the feel of early 20th century rivet-bodied coach built cars and stripped-down hot rods and racecars from the 1950s or 1960s.
Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) was the architecture firm hired for this exterior renovation project. They are a very competent corporate architecture firm, specializing in elegant – if anonymous – high-rise glass and steel skyscrapers. They build efficient non-controversial towers and were perhaps under the misguided notion that they had the capability to construct a contextual low-rise cultural institution.
Terry Karges, Executive Director of the Museum, has an interview with the LA Times where he mentions the intent of the design to be one of two iconic structures in Los Angeles, the other being Disney Concert hall. Does his vision for “iconic” include only metallic curvy buildings? Has he seen the Griffith Park Observatory, Santa Monica Pier, or the US Bank Tower? The Getty Center, the Broad Museum, or City Hall? He may be referencing the idea of “spectacle” rather than an icon. If so, that is an ever elusive goal for a design project and a potentially impossible task for a corporate architecture firm that has never spent any published efforts on cultivating progressive design.
Karges describes that the KPF design “emulates speed and motion.” But how? If one were to attempt to encapsulate how cars move symbolically, it wouldn’t be with a dozen stacked ribbons. What about analyzing how cars move to create a facade, by studying things like turning radii or acceleration? Could something on the facade actually move tectonically? Paradoxically, the ribbon facade serves to become an obstruction, a pattern of stagnation rather than one of movement.
This building looks like what a 3rd grader would draw if they were asked by a teacher to imagine what “vroom” looks like. Or, is that the smoke that comes out of the tailpipe of a car? Is it really a pollution cloud covering the building? If so, that is an appropriate emulation of what motion means for most automobiles.
If the symbolism of the automobile was key, then an analytical study of how a car is shaped would uncover that the body of an automobile is sculpted to house many elements, including windows, doors, and wheels. Why isn’t there a reference to any of these elements of architecture?
Aesthetics Of Meaningless Body Sculpting
Car design has become a meaningless expression of the over-articulated skin. Many cars come to mind, including current BMWs and Hyundais. This building is an exaggeration of this body sculpting to simulate some implied expression of movement and aerodynamics. It doesn’t work for a building.
There seems to have been little thought of how one would approach the building, either for people or for automobiles. There is no window or door visible from the outside, there is no detail on the facade that one might recognize. In complete contradiction to the design of the Petersen, an automobile is an object designed in harmony with human scale: the seats, the pedals, the steering wheel, the air vents, the radio buttons, etc. That seems to be another lost opportunity to have created a building that is symbolic of the car.
Restraint can be a Virtue
It may be the cliche of architecture cliches; but, often, “less is more.” Perhaps the designers could have considered utilizing only half the number of ribbons. Or, utilize half of the ribbons instead on the inside the museum. Restraint also implies a process of editing, whereby a hierarchy of ribbons could contribute to a better understanding of motion utilizing a greater variance of width or density, for example.
When there are roughly 5 or more items in an artistic composition, our eye tends to treat that whole group as a pattern. This is a basic neurological understanding of graphic forms, any first-year art student can tell you about this compositional tool. If the goal is to create a sense of motion, then creating a stagnant pattern will not arrive at such a result.
The curves that form the ribbons have no obvious organization to them, nor do they have any legible flow to their curviness. A designer at KPF seems to have indiscriminately laid out the curves using a computer program, most probably Rhinoceros. How the software forms the curves is a relatively complex process, and Rhino constructs lines based upon “degree.” Architects who have graduated from schools in the past decade will know what I’m talking about. But for those who don’t, consider that curves are actually being controlled by points adjacent to the actual curve, and the route of the curve is determined by how aggressively these outside points control the line. This creates the difference between a more jagged curve and a more sinuous one. The curves employed at the Petersen are visibly jagged in many locations, which either means that a degree “2” curve was employed, or that there are too many adjacent points controlling the route of the curve. Either way, there are several moments where the intended emulation of “motion” was interrupted by a crookedness in the curve itself. In other words, the fluidity of the ribbons was compromised by an immature usage of a computer algorithm.
Let’s discuss the red box separately. Putting the ribbons aside, was there no opportunity to vary the box? Allow a window or a pattern to emphasize motion? As a 3-story rectangular box, red can be a little violent. What if the metallic and red textures were reversed? Red is sexy on the body of a sports car, seemingly harmonious with the car’s sculpting to create an aerodynamic effect. Perhaps the ribbons could have been red, and the building metallic, a metaphor for the body paint and mechanical interior of a car? Or, what if one were to imagine the metallic ribbons over, for example, a glass box? I believe they might begin to make sense, and a visitor inside would begin to register the curvy noodles cast upon the display cars. Somehow, instead, the chosen combination creates a visual friction.
Can History be a Lesson?
The prior incarnation of the building’s facade was criticized for its oversize symbolic reference to the fins of a Cadillac. As Hawthorne notes in his critique of the newest incarnation, the 1994 redesign “borrowed shamelessly from the iconography of car design.” It has subsequently been deemed ugly to emulate what was then contemporary car details upon the facade. Why would symbolic representation in architectural form be more appropriate now?
What if it is Sculpture?
As a work of sculpture, I’m sure this is all fine. In fact, the Petersen may actually look fascinating if sitting idle within a suburban office park. That’s where automobile aficionados and manufacturers romanticize themselves to be, so why not just fantasize that this catastrophic urban endeavor is really just misplaced after all?
The building does serve as a metaphor, but I imagine not in the way intended by the architects and museum directors. It is a metaphor for the demise of the fossil fuel automobile: it’s waste of resources, its abundant pollution, and its obliteration of pedestrian urbanism. This extravagance will aptly symbolize a period of human history that emphasized excess, as we encroach upon the future of mobility as a resource and not as a product. Shared autonomous cars are in our near future, so perhaps it is the right time to create a clunky museum that is a rear view mirror, signifying our transition to a more intelligent, responsive, and resilient future.
photo credit title: Christina House / For The Times
photo credit main article: Michael Wacht