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Critic's Notebook: How to build a better shortlist

June 22, 2010 | 12:45 pm


Artcenter So far, as I reported in Sunday's paper, Eli Broad has kept a tight grip on the private architectural competition he has been overseeing for the new museum he hopes to build on Grand Avenue, alongside Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Prodded by The Times and other publications, however, Broad earlier this month publicly confirmed the six firms invited to take part in the competition. Topped by Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron and the Japanese firm SANAA, the group is stuffed with talented architects. But it is also rather conservative in its reliance on well-established star power -- the architectural equivalent of casting a movie by picking only from lists of recent Oscar winners.

It's possible, however, to imagine a very different group of contending architects for the museum -- one that might not only have produced a successful design for Broad but also given exposure to talented younger firms and helped cultivate a civic conversation about the future of Bunker Hill and downtown.

The recipe for such a list is straightforward. Start with a few Los Angeles architects, for two reasons: to ground the competition in its location, perhaps unearthing clues along the way about the peculiar Bunker Hill museum site that foreign architects might overlook, and to give the public a chance to see how the priorities of younger and emerging firms differ from those of Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and other well-known local figures. This list could include Michael Maltzan Architecture; wHY Architecture; Frohn & Rojas; Daly Genik Architects; or Ball-Nogues Studio.

Next, add some similarly talented emerging firms from abroad. This group ought to have an emphasis on architects from South America and Asia, to reflect the increasingly vital cultural traffic between Los Gram Angeles and those parts of the world. It might include Sou Fujimoto from Tokyo; Minsuk Cho from Seoul; Ben van Berkel from the Netherlands; and Alejandro Aravena or Smiljan Radic from Chile.

Finally, compile a list of masters who are under-appreciated or have had few opportunities to build in the United States. This group could include Tokyo's Toyo Ito, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and Portugal's Alvaro Siza.

Pick two from each of those three categories and you've got six firms.

Want to add one more firm with significant museum experience, to cover your bases? Fine -- go, as Broad did, with SANAA or Herzog & de Meuron. Or ask Steven Holl or Thomas Phifer from New York, Dutch firm Mecanoo Architects or London-based David Chipperfield.

Then you’ve got a surprising, dynamic list of seven firms.

But don’t stop there. Pay each of the competing architects to produce a fleshed-out design, and then arrange to exhibit the results at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is just a few steps from the proposed museum site. If MOCA's new director, Jeffrey Deitch, can arrange in a matter of weeks to add a Dennis Hopper retrospective to the museum's calendar, putting a handful of architectural models and drawings on prominent display shouldn't be difficult.

To complement the exhibition, organize debates and panel discussions about the designs, about contemporary museum architecture and about the future of Grand Avenue and downtown Los Angeles. Invite the participating firms to join the conversations, along with planners, policy makers, artists, curators and scholars. Make these discussions free.

Once those pieces are in place -- once the public nature of the project has been fully embraced, in other words -- choose your architect, strike your deals with city and county officials and move forward with your museum.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos: Top, the South Campus of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, designed by the firm Daly Genik Architects. Above, the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, designed by wHY Architecture. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; Steve Hall for Hedrich Blessing.

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