Los Angeles is full of glittering art museums that one day will make for splendid ruins. Even after a changing climate forces us to abandon these shores, these treasure houses will still stand above the scorched earth, waiting to be rediscovered after humanity’s recovery. Future archaeologists will delight in them, trying to glean meaning from what was built to showcase the splendor of our very most wealthy.
They’ll wonder at the monumentality of The Getty, the great white mountaintop castle. Even in its ruined state—nay, because of its ruined state—it will still evoke grandeur. The crumbling limestone walls will still stand precariously atop the steep hillside, although the huge glass windows will have long since shattered. Sea breezes will sweep through the empty galleries while the lush gardens creep inside. The archaeologists who study the site will determine it to be some sort of palace complex, one that proclaimed the riches of the city’s rulers to the plebeians who lived below.
Further east, the proud structure that was once LACMA, with its horizontal sweep over Wilshire Boulevard, will be cracked in half. One side will still stand above the old boulevard, while the other will be listing at an angle, slowly sinking into the tar pits. The hundred street lamps of Chris Burden’s Urban Light will sit half-submerged in inky, bubbling asphalt, bent and broken and sticking out of the ground at a hundred different angles. As the former museum slowly succumbs to the tar, it will make for a spectacular and fitting testament to humanity’s hubris in the face of the forces of nature.
Within the remnants of Downtown Los Angeles, a crumbled honeycomb exterior will cover the shattered concrete core of The Broad. At first, the archaeologists will puzzle over the purpose of this building, until the discovery of the rusted hulk of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog will clear everything up; clearly, they will say, this served as a temple built to worship this strange idol. Scant photographic evidence—what little survived the Great Data Purge—will speak to the existence of an “infinite room,” the setting of a bizarre religious ceremony wherein the participants believed they were communing with the cosmos. Future anthropologists will delight, pondering the sacred wonders that must have been held in this structure.
But across the street, the buried galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will sit alone, completely forgotten until someone comes across them purely by chance. Their uncovering will only confound the archaeologists who come to excavate the site, especially after the further discovery of an elaborate network of underground passageways and tunnels. What could these huge subterranean rooms been used for? What was their purpose? Was it a mausoleum? A safehouse? Was it for storage? Storage of what? Eventually, the confounding nature of these underground rooms will fuel wild and delightful conspiracy theories about secret government projects and cities of underground dwellers.
MOCA’s primary building on Grand Avenue is a terrible structure, embodying all of the worst tendencies of postmodern architecture. Designed by Arata Isozaki in the 1980s, it’s a weak appropriation of traditional forms that only manages to sacrifice their functionality. It wasn’t innovative, its layout is confusing, and it has aged poorly.
Many art museums—particularly of the modern and contemporary variety—have followed the “fortress” approach in their architecture. In his 1980 documentary Shock of the New, Robert Hughes referred to these buildings as “culture bunkers” that radiated an aura of security and wealth. He pointed to the Guggenheim in New York City and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. as examples. The past two decades have brought about many more such examples: the Bechtler in Charlotte, the Denver Art Museum, the new Whitney building in New York, and the Broad in Los Angeles. George Lucas’ new museum, under construction in Expo Park, looks like it will only continue the trend.
MOCA also embodies the fortress approach, but in reverse. Unlike the Broad or the Walt Disney Concert Hall across the street, which loudly proclaim their presence to the world, MOCA’s subterranean spaces so effectively guard the artwork inside that the outside world doesn’t even know that they’re there. Many first-time visitors to Bunker Hill see The Broad and the Disney Concert Hall and don’t realize that they’re looking at a museum and a theater, but they at least recognize that these are significant public buildings, which spurs them to inquire as to what’s inside. But even people who know about the existence of MOCA have trouble locating it. At first glance, it looks like part of the adjacent Colburn School or an office building. And strictly speaking, that assumption wouldn’t be wrong because the above-ground portion of MOCA is an office building. The galleries—the part that people think of when they imagine a “museum”—are buried out of sight.
In fact, so desperate is MOCA to announce its existence to the outside world that the entire building was covered in a mural and a separate box office was set up adjacent to the sidewalk. Even still, few make it inside. Those who do manage to successfully locate the museum and purchase a ticket then have to descend a flight of stairs into a sunken courtyard that has all the charm of an off-limits corporate plaza. There they enter the lobby, where an employee has to explain the layout of the museum because the institution apparently can’t be bothered to provide visitors with a map.
And that’s if you’re fortunate enough to be able to use a flight of stairs. If you’re in a wheelchair, a stroller, or use a walker, you’ll have to take a wheelchair lift up to the museum’s above-ground plaza (why was it deemed necessary to have the plaza above street-level?) and use the utilitarian staff entrance to take a slow elevator down to the galleries. Not the entrance to the galleries, mind you; that would be too convenient. You’ll be deposited in the middle of the special exhibition galleries, where an employee has to greet you and explain where you are. (And that’s assuming the special exhibition galleries are open. If they’re installing a new exhibition, you have to travel all the way across the above-ground plaza to the other elevator, which also deposits you somewhere other than the front entrance.) Oh, and the front desk is separated from the special exhibition galleries by a few steps (again, why?), so you have to go the long way around through the permanent collection galleries or use the other wheelchair lift behind the front desk to get there. Oh, and the auditorium is one floor further down, which requires the use of a different elevator if you want to attend one of the events held down there.
Among the building’s many architectural sins, this is the greatest one: housing a public institution while demonstrating an outright hostility to an entire class of visitors. And then there are architectural choices that are just bizarre, such as the pyramidal skylights above the galleries that have been completed covered up so as to not let any natural light in, rendering them completely useless (unless their purpose is to rain shards of glass onto the patrons below when the next major earthquake hits California). Inside the galleries, the light is dim and the air is stale and heavy. Despite being located in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles, no sound or light from the outside penetrate the subterranean spaces. After spending some time in the galleries, you begin to forget that you’re even in a city; you’ve entered an art tomb.
I briefly worked as a gallery attendant at MOCA, so I became quite familiar with the ins and outs of the building. While on duty, I would regularly ponder how the building’s many faults could be remedied. This is a nice way of saying I often fantasized about the building’s destruction, because the problems are too numerous and fundamental for anything less than complete erasure and reconstruction to solve. To make the museum more visible, accessible, and welcoming would take some pretty drastic changes to the entire site, but they could be done. The above-ground plaza could be eliminated and replaced with a new floor of the museum, one at street level that would be attractive enough to draw people inside. Downstairs, the front desk area and the sunken courtyard could be re-purposed as gallery space, with a glass roof installed over the courtyard à la the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The existing skylights could be uncovered or replaced, with the weird pyramidal ones giving way to something more functional that would let more light in (and really, sticking pyramids on top of buildings is so 80s). With enough work, you could turn the building into something more transparent and accessible to the people of Los Angeles.
But the cynic in me doesn’t see this ever happening. Not necessarily because MOCA lacks the resources to do it but because the institution of MOCA seems to prefer its isolation—or to put another way, its exclusivity. If the building is a barrier to entry, an even greater one is the museum’s steep admission fee at a time when free admission is becoming more expected of the city’s art museums (the Getty, the Broad, and the Marciano are all free of charge to visitors). At MOCA, the attendance is too low for the revenue from admission fees to possibly make a dent in the operating budget. But then, the purpose of MOCA’s admission fees isn’t to raise money for the museum; it’s to restrict entry to it. The museum’s audience is older, whiter, and far wealthier than that of the free museums, and MOCA primarily seems interested in catering to this more elite clientele. The bulk of the institution’s funding comes from wealthy donors and occasionally renting the museum out to corporate-backed non-profits, and for these groups the exclusivity of the museum is likely to be a feature rather than a bug.
So for the time being, MOCA will remain largely overlooked on Grand Avenue, held in a building that undermines the museum’s stated mission while quietly reinforcing its current reality. Which begs the question: does the institution determine the building, or does the building determine the institution? When enough time has passed, it’s hard to tell.