Wednesday, September 15, 2021

On The Schedule: September, 2021

A Visit to the Academy Museum; Conversations with new Cultural Leaders and "Powerful" Women in Architecture


Wednesday, September 29

The Academy Museum has Landed, on KCRW's Greater LA

The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens Thursday, September 30, after an epic journey worthy of -- well -- a movie. It involves a faded star -- the Art Deco May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard -- and an alien being -- a vast concrete and glass sphere that seems to have descended from outer space. The unlikely pair have been brought together in what architect Renzo Piano describes as a “flirt between the old lady, the beautiful, nice, lovely old lady, the May company and a soap bubble.” This is how KCRW host Steve Chiotakis and I open our story of a visit we made to the new museum. You can hear the story on Greater LA or read on for more about the building, which is a puzzling project in some ways, but inspirational in terms of showing how you can hold onto an old building while reinventing it for the future.

The May Company was built in 1939 -- by architects AC Martin and Samuel Marx -- in the Streamline Moderne style and is of course instantly recognizable for its cylindrical corner clad in thousands of 24-karat gold leaf mosaic tiles. Needless to say, that is the perfect emblem for Oscar. 

The building faced demolition and the Los Angeles Conservancy fought to save it. In 1992, the building was declared a Historic-Cultural Monument and two years later, in 1994, LACMA bought it for a song — $18.3 million. But they did very little with it -- except have a few half-hearted events -- and it sat barely used for years until the Academy stepped in and leased the building from LACMA in 2012.

The Academy considered it a gem in their collection and charged Piano -- who had been the masterplanner for LACMA until he was replaced by Peter Zumthor -- with retrofitting the former department store, now renamed the Saban building. That involved adding a new structure at the back, to house the concrete orb, containing the David Geffen theater and a deck with a view of Los Angeles. 

Piano has deployed a strategy you find in several of his buildings, starting with the Pompidou Center: circulation as urban experience. Escalators ascend the West side of the building offering riders a view of Hollywood through a newly built wall of windows, albeit those views are somewhat obscured by the vast sphere. External bridges, freight elevators add to the experience of movement through space.

The sphere -- quickly nicknamed, to Piano’s irritation, the Death Star; he refers to the megaton structure somewhat implausibly as a levitating soap bubble -- is marvelous on the inside, with curving walls decked out in sumptuous red velvet (shown in picture, below, by Iwan Baan). Personally, I thought Piano might have taken some cues from the Aries 1B Trans-Lunar Space Shuttle from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, of which a rare model is on show at the museum (see image, below.)

The public spaces -- a vast, high-ceilinged lobby and the stairwell -- in the former May Company building are unadorned, somewhat spartan in feel, with raw board-formed concrete columns, concrete floor plate and exposed pipework above. This brings to mind a contemporary art space in an old industrial building which is not very Hollywood nor does it reflect the old May Company which was glam outside and in. But this is the way Piano wanted it to be. When I asked his team why they didn’t cover this all up -- with stage make-up if you will -- they said they wanted to show the inner workings of the building just as the museum shows the inner workings of film.

With the exception of the mechanical Jaws shark which hangs over people’s heads in the elevator well, the exhibitions themselves are out of sight, in self-contained rooms. They were designed by Kulapat Yantrasast and his team at wHY Architecture, and they are very colorful and rich and sensual, in contrast to all the bare concrete. There are multiple displays, from vivid displays honoring directors Spike Lee and Pedro Aldomovar and Yayao Miyazaki to rooms filled with the icons of moviemaking: a the melting face mask for The Terminator; a glorious costume from Black Panther.

What stands out though is the retrofit of the May Company building. It involved editing -- removing a portion of the north side that had been added on in the 40s -- and painstaking restoration of the limestone, granite and mosaic tiled south facade.

Take the gold tiles on the cyclinder. There were over 350,000 of them, but over the years many had been replaced with uniform, machine-made tiles rather than the original handcrafted tiles. The restoration architect John Fidler went back to the original makers, the ancient Orsoni glass-making company in Venice, Italy, and wound up replacing 200,000 tiles. 

There were other challenges, like connecting the two unalike structures in a way that they could each withstand an earthquake. The new sphere is sitting on base isolators that allow the building to move horizontally two and a half feet. The May Company, however, is static so they designed the bridges connecting them to be able to slide should an earthquake hit.

This was quite a complex engineering challenge. Luigi Priano from Renzo Piano’s office, explained that they designed the connections so those sliders are visible, reinforcing the “metaphor of a building that flies and the other one that stays still.”

All this specialized work produces a thoroughly modern example of preservation, not simply restoring a building to the way it was, but adapting it highly inventively for a new use. This is a model to follow, for reasons of sustaining cultural memory as well as saving on costs and environmental footprint. 

It is becoming increasingly evident that the construction and operation of buildings is a big contributor to our carbon footprint. Building materials contain what’s called embodied carbon, that is the carbon expended in the manufacture of concrete and steel and so on. And demolition of buildings creates waste, plus it trashes mountains of materials that contain this embodied carbon. So holding onto the existing structure saves waste and carbon. By preserving the building and making sure to use passive cooling and other strategies, this museum building has earned a Gold LEED rating.

It also opens not long after the destruction of the three original LACMA buildings, including the Bing Theater, and the postmodern Art of the Americas building, torn down to make way for a new structure by the architect Peter Zumthor. This is a scorched earth approach while Piano’s design at the Academy Museum shows that you can add, you can modify, and keep some parts of an old building -- and you wind up with something that holds onto the past while beaming forth into the future. 


Wednesday, September 29 

Will A New Generation Of Leaders Shake Up L.A.’s Culture?

Cultural institutions large and small in Los Angeles are ringing the changes, following a year shaken up by the pandemic and reckonings around race and inclusion. New directors have been appointed at MOCA (where a sudden shake-up means Johanna Burton takes the reins as Klaus Biesenbach bows out), at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, at Inner City Arts and at the California African American Museum. Some cultural venues have closed -- Annenberg Space for Photography -- and others have morphed into mobile collectives without a physical home, like the Feminist Center for Creative Work and A+D Museum.

What does this new generation of cultural leadership mean for the arts in Los Angeles? Despite an eagerness to make changes, new directors must still answer to many of the same funders and face the same pressures as their predecessors—to raise money or sell tickets, to scale up, to stay relevant—all while navigating the convulsions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. How will these new faces surmount the challenges while putting a new stamp on their institutions? Will all of the city’s culture centers survive? Should they?  

At an event hosted by Zócalo/Helms Bakery District, I'll talk with Cameron Shaw, Executive Director of the California African American Museum; Shelby Williams-González, president and CEO of Inner City Arts; and Jia Yi Gu, director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. They will share the change they plan to be and want to see in one of the world’s most vibrant cultural capitals.

The event takes place Wednesday, September 29, 6:30 -- 8:30 pm; it is free and open to the public, with Covid restrictions in place. Click here to reserve a spot. If you can't make it, the talk will stream online on YouTube.


Friday, September 24 and Friday, October 1 

Powerful 8 -- Women’s Work: On Our Own Terms

Take a look at the Zocalo/Helms event described above and you may notice an emerging theme. Women are taking the reins. So this may be a good moment to reflect on gender and power within the profession of architecture. 

Consider that in 1958, 1 percent of registered architects were women (such as the pioneering Beverly Willis, above, in picture taken in 1982; she started her firm in the 1950s). Today they make up almost half of the students in architectural programs in the US, but only 17 percent of registered architects. Why the drop-off following school and how to rectify it have been abiding themes underlying Powerful, an annual conference hosted by AIA/LA's Women in Architecture Committee since 2015. Now comes Powerful 8, taking place on Zoom over two Friday mornings, on September 24 and October 1, at 9:00 am to 12:30 pm.

One of the challenges for women architects is doing it all -- moving up the career ladder in a job that demands very long hours while managing a personal life and responsibilities towards partners, family, pets and friends. Oh, and then there's the self, and carving out a bit of time to de-stress and decompress.

Figuring out how to succeed at these many demands while not losing ones sanity is the theme of a breakout session on Health and Wellness that I'll participate in on the second day of the conference, Friday, October 1. It starts at 11am. I'll join my good friend Emmanuelle Bourlier, founder and owner of Panelite, and others to offer up lessons we've learned along the way. Emmanuelle and I both studied architecture and wound up in related fields, so I guess we are part of the drop-off and can speak to the choices we made.

Also taking the stage at Powerful 8 will be some forceful women architects, among them: Christiana Kyrillou, Los Angeles Studio Executive Director, Woods Bagot; Sara Lopergolo, Partner, Selldorf Architects; Toshiko Mori, Founding Principal, Toshiko Mori Architects; Nina Cooke John, Founder, Studio Cooke John; Athenna Ann Lim, Designer, Co-Owner, Studio BarnHaus; Melissa Shin, Principal, Co-Founder, Shin Shin.

It's going to be powerful conference, so I hope to see you there, at least online. Click here for tickets and more information.


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