Earlier this month, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) released Peter Zumthor’s latest renderings of their ambitious redesign project, many architectural commentators were left scratching their heads. The renderings seemed surprisingly simplistic, and lacking in detail. L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne described them as “undercooked,” suggesting that the schedule for the project’s environmental impact report (EIR), and Zumthor’s distaste for computer renderings resulted in a rush job.
But what if these renderings are exactly what Zumthor and LACMA Director Michael Govan intended? Underdeveloped renderings for an EIR are one thing, but LACMA is all-in with these renderings, launching a promotional website and mailers as the first step in an ambitious fundraising effort to actually get the proposed design built. The outreach is not just geared towards museum neighbors as part of community outreach efforts to support the EIR. Museum members across Los Angeles (myself included) received the brochures touting the new design, with a return-mail card to express support.
As is almost always the case with architectural renderings, these images were not made for those of us in the architectural commentary class. Renderings are made to sell things, and these are no different. But LACMA isn’t trying to sell fancy condos, it’s trying to sell an art museum. This isn’t about safe deposit boxes in the sky for foreign oligarchs, this a building that will require contributions from art patrons and museum donors, and these renderings speak their language. Unlike the slick glossiness of typical architectural renderings, these have a more painterly quality. The flatness of the light and material quality evoke the particular Los Angeles sunshine. More David Hockney than Zaha Hadid, they evoke a feel rather than architectural facts. Maybe that was the point.
Whatever his relationship with computer design tools, Zumthor is not the kind of architect to produce anything “undercooked.” The LACMA renderings seem like a continuation of the rendering style he used in his design for the Serpentine Pavilion in London—renderings that closely resemble the final product, despite their simplicity. Likewise, Michael Govan has been trying to build a Zumthor design since his time at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. He is unlikely to be playing fast and loose with the details of one of his greatest ambitions. Zumthor’s latest renderings do not answer the many remaining questions about this new building for LACMA, but they do provide a welcome alternative to the hyper-realistic architectural images that often overpromise and under-deliver.