The Swiss architect talks about his plans for a massive extension to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and his love of LA
Peter Zumthor‘s studio in Haldenstein, a small village in the Swiss Alps, is dominated by a model of the architect’s design for a new campus for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A larger version of it was made and exhibited at LACMA last year but, too big to get out of the building, had been broken up.
The 400,000 sq ft museum is raised thirty feet from the ground on glass cores. The blobby plan, which Zumthor refers to as the “black flower”, alludes to Hans Arp’s paintings and echoes the surrounding Le Brea Tar Pits. As we discuss Zumthor’s plans for what will hopefully be his first building in America, the architect’s assistants are busy studding the model with palms, their fronds made of ripped paper.
ICON: I know you’ve spent some time in Los Angeles. Do you like the city?
ZUMTHOR: In the Eighties I was invited to teach at Sci-Arc, so I spent months there teaching. It was a beautiful experience. I was prepared – maybe determined – to go there and hate the city, but after a short time I found that I did the opposite. I really enjoyed it; it’s unpretentious, its free, it has a nice slow pace and isn’t so tense as New York, Chicago or London.
ICON: Obviously your design takes inspiration from the nearby tar pits, which bubble up through the concrete of LA and are, somewhat surreally, surrounded by lifesize models of woolly mammoths. Can you tell me a bit about how you took inspiration from the surrounding geology?
PZ: One thing about LA is the big horizon, that it’s flat. This horizontality is a main theme in LA for me. This goes well with a museum as I think the best museums are on one floor. The architecture on the site has completely grown by chance, there is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but the oldest part of it is the tar pits, and I have to make an intervention there.
I also had to avoid all of these forms that are already there; for example, there is the Pavilion for Japanese Art that they want to keep. So I created a form that, like in nature, goes back and forth and respects and redraws.
I didn’t start out planning to make an organic form, it came out because it is the only possibility to address all these things. Then comes the moment when you realise that this is the same principle as water or tar, because it also flows where it can, so this was a nice discovery. From then on it became really easy, but before that there was a year of despair.
ICON: Tar is a favourite material of yours. The Serpentine Pavilion was coated in tar, as is the mining museum you’re completing in Sauda, Norway (ICON 133). What is the importance of tar as a sensuous material for you?
PZ: Yes, those structures are covered in hessian that is painted with layers of black pitch. Tar speaks of history, it comes out of the earth, it is to do with vegetation and biology, and has a specific kind of natural quality.
Images: Atelier Peter Zumthor
ICON: You’ve also spoken about how you were inspired by the idea of a forest with LACMA. You say all the best museums are on one floor, and have designed one raised on glass cores that contain Niemeyer-like access ramps.
PZ: We tried to organise the whole thing in cores, like if you were to make a cross-section of vegetation or wood, or an organism or mineral. Each core is dedicated to a different subject and produces an address and entrance at ground level.
So it’s not one big museum with one big entrance where you go in and follow a lot of signage. Here you can discover, at the shop front level, where there will be displays of art, what you are interested in. If these cores are sort of like the tree trunks, up above is the top of the trees, which are much wider and they touch.
That’s how we are working on this kind of organism, coming up and spreading out and touching, maybe not really merging, but touching. Visitors can wander through these exhibition spaces, moving from Ancient America to Asia, Japan to California, creating interesting juxtapositions.
ICON: There is an émigré tradition in LA with Schindler and Neutra, and the beautiful Case Study Houses. I know you’re designing a home there for Tobey Maguire, with a blobby plan that resembles an artist palette and seems to have much in common with LACMA. Does that Californian tradition of domestic houses interest you?
PZ: The good buildings of LA are 90 per cent private residences, not public buildings like in Europe. The house I’m building should be an easy-going house, it should be elegant and light and non-pretentious.
It’s not a show-off piece. There should be vegetation because, as you know, I love gardens and the city’s a beautiful place to grow things. What it has in common with LACMA is LA and the architect, but as for the rest I hope they are completely different.