A personal essay by Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, Hodgetts + Fung
Time was, LA was breeding ‘em like rabbits. Everywhere you looked there was another one of ‘em, surrounded by bright-colored tangerine metal-flake iron. Neon, too, with great big lopsided lettering and sometimes even a bow tie looking roof, popular with the Brylcreem set and their dolls. Serving up fries and shakes and special sauce.
They were gathering places for kids who made their own—stuffing a 283 Chevy into an old Ford, or dropping a Caddy into a Stude. Their own kind of miscegenation, snubbing their nose at the pedigreed MGs, Alfas, and Sunbeams that were beginning to make a claim on their turf.
There was even a name for them. A name named after the one at the end of the Sunset Strip, across from number 77.
Googies (the restaurant) was a striped and angular spot that catered to the four-wheeled extravaganzas cruising by. The ones that Bob Petersen began to chronicle in a start-up magazine called Hot Rod. The ones the Beach Boys sing about and Tom Wolfe writes about. The ones that built an empire out of a new kind of polyglot expressionism that used the belts and springs and pipes, the valve covers and fans, those curling manifolds and gaping intakes, the sawed-off roofs and smoothed out noses to send good vibrations all across America.
Critics didn’t get it. But artists did. Billy Al and Bob Irwin, Chamberlain and Valentine mined it for all they were worth, hanging hoods and crushed parts like hunting trophies on the walls of museums everywhere.
Which brings us to the Petersen Museum, many decades later. Years after McDonald’s abandoned its golden arches for a tepid logo. A long time after good taste ran roughshod over the works of John Lautner and Schindler – good architects all – a vanguard doomed to obscurity and the wrecking ball. Today’s anointed ones, proud in the parametric livery probably didn’t notice when a museum to celebrate the cars of that era was in the making, and shrugged at the temerity of a New Yorker trying to put his stamp on the Miracle Mile. So one can understand the yowls of Main Street, the bewilderment of pundits, and the deer-in headlights consternation of our revered tastemakers.
The shock waves from that fluorescent, zebra striped makeover – redolent of George Barris and pin-stripe shaman Ed “Big Daddy” Roth bounced off the nearby Tar Pits, and promised to tickle the underbelly of Zumthor’s proposal for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sporting flame-like ribbons of stainless steel, and a vivid red sheath beneath, the former Orbach Department Store, now on its third, and hopefully final bout of cosmetic surgery, draws eyes, insults, and parody in equal measure, and reaffirms the prevailing world view that Los Angeles is a careless outlier.
But is that true? It could be argued that the Petersen Museum is a clever rejoinder to the gathering cultural consensus. As the “vulgur” County Museum of Art is poised to be replaced by Zumthor’s restrained monolith, the Academy of Motion Pictures (think Oscar) is readying a glass sphere designed by Renzo Piano, and Frank Gehry is preparing a residential tower, all within a few paces of one another, the mind turns to Hollywood blockbusters—to A Perfect Storm, or perhaps more fittingly, to Godzilla Meets Mothra, the 60s Japanese cult film featuring a duel between outlandish, super-scaled monsters.
To the Petersen’s credit, it provides an usual insight into the mind of its architect, Gene Kohn, a genial partner in the New York firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, which is better known for its establishment credentials than the Petersen’s writhing skin would lead one to believe. That the skin is an exercise in advanced digital fabrication, applied with such élan is, in itself, a proclamation, a sort of late-career renaissance, which thrusts the firm into a next generation spotlight. Whether naively assuming (wrongly) that Los Angeles was ready for a jolt of architectural electricity, or sincerely reflecting a populist genre (rightly), Kohn succeeded in outflanking its neighbors, and disrupting the conventions governing the museum establishment.
And that is no small accomplishment.
One might assess the strategic vision as achieving the maximum visual effect with the least. Less being way more, since the reworking of the existing building is to be found almost exclusively in the metal panels streaming around it—held together by well positioned struts—evoking the painted flames of the classic hot rods while assuming an architectural/installation art posture.
What Kohn didn’t get—what so many of a Eurocentric persuasion haven’t and perhaps are not capable of “getting”—is the creative depth that lurks behind the flashy skins of LA’s reputation for architectural innovation, which leads to an attitude that a skin-deep project is called for, even appreciated, while nothing could be further from the truth.
Here, in a town that invented the close-up, patented the special effect, and perfected lighting, one imagined a display of automotive art bordering on the erotic, with coachwork by Falaschi, Farina and Superleggera, the flowing lines and glossy surfaces of the Petersen’s collection are voluptuous as a 50s starlet—and deserved more than a perfunctory sprinkling of downlights. As early as the 50s, GM design chief Harley Earl and Eero Saarinen dreamed up a perfect, luminous environment so that GM execs could give the nod to advanced design exercises in a secret styling dome, and cinematographers have given star treatment to everything from the Batmobile to Peter Falk’s beat-up Peugeot, so its puzzling that all the flash on the Petersen’s façade is wrapped around the same-old, same-old of auto museums the world over. Lined up like convicts, with little or no way for a visitor to appreciate them in the round, the display of the museum’s incredible collection of magnificent, even one-of-a-kind automobiles reminded me of nothing so much as a CarMax lot, without even the satisfaction of checking out what’s under the hood.
Clearly, this is not a museum for car-nuts. It’s exterior, for all that writhing bravado, quickly devolves into a rude cartoon while, to the cognoscenti—that one percent that view automobiles as the ultimate 20th century art form (think Peter Mullin whose Bugatti shares pride of place with Steve McQueen’s XKSS)—it represents an opportunity to elevate the status of their passion.
To the rest of us. To the looky-loos and lurkers, it’s an obligation, a chance to pay respects, but, sadly, not a chance to really connect.