30+ Years Later, OCMA Is Getting a New Building

Morphosis Architects, rendering of Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa
The Orange County Museum of Art has been planning a new building since Ronald Reagan was President. Last Friday it moved closer to that goal with groundbreaking on a new, Thom Mayne and Morphosis Architects facility at Segerstrom Center, Costa Mesa. Opening is planned for 2021.

How does a museum take thirty-some years to commission a new building? In OCMA's case, the answer was hiring, then firing, one of the hottest architects in the business.

That was Renzo Piano. Now people roll their eyes when they hear Piano is doing another museum—but in the mid 1980s, he was an up-and-coming talent, already famous for the Centre Pompidou. His Menil Collection, Houston, was being hailed as the best new museum building in America. In 1987 the Orange County museum, then known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum, tapped Piano to design a building for a 10.5-acre site in Newport Beach that the Irvine Company was willing to donate. It was a smart choice, even a daring one, for a county whose best-known architectural landmarks were Disneyland and the Crystal Cathedral.
Renzo Piano design for Newport Harbor Art Museum
The site's restrictions required single-story structure(s). Piano drew up a plan for six vaulted halls—"fingers" or "sausages"—arrayed on the sloping site. The museum board fretted that it would be too expensive and not have enough gallery space. Piano responded with a design featuring a parking structure/entrance at the top of the hill and an escalator to a large flat museum building at the bottom. The board was fine with it, until they weren't.

Donald Bren was the Eli Broad of the OC, only more so. As owner of the Irvine Company, it was Bren's land that was being offered. Using his own money, Bren hired another architect,  Kohn Pederson Fox, to revise or redo Piano's design. Bren didn't inform Piano because, you know, architects can be temperamental about these things. Kohn Pederson was a designer of corporate offices that had never done a museum.

Piano learned of Bren's doings only when William Pederson contacted him. Piano was understandably upset, but he contacted the board reiterating his willingness to make such changes as were required. A few months later, in August 1990, the board informed Piano that his services were no longer required.

In May 1991 Piano vented to Cathy Curtis of the L.A. Times. A few excepts:

"This atmosphere of mystery—I have no experience of such things. I thought that was more typical of Byzantium. I thought America was a transparent place, where everything is open and direct. That is my experience of working in Texas.

"I don't ask anybody to explain. I’m just analyzing what happened, and what happened is ridiculous, a joke. It was like a comedy in which you realize that people were joking, but I was not.

"You don’t hire an architect, spend two years with an architect, do this work, raise money, create an atmosphere, use the architect—in the best sense of the word, for his passion—and then throw it away just because you were wrong! My God. An architect is not somebody who you pay… and then after a while change like an old pair of shoes."

As to Kohn Pederson Fox, they too got the old shoes treatment after two years. The project was put on indefinite hold in January 1992. The museum never took title to the Irvine Company site, either. Bren had offered a challenge grant requiring that the board raise $10.5 million (a million dollars an acre, for 10.5 acres). The board raised a total of $10 million… and failed to raise the final $500,000, for 10.5 acres of prime Newport Beach real estate.
Richard Jackson, Bad Dog, 2013, at Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach
The museum remained at its small facility near Fashion Island for nearly the next three decades. The best comment on that architecture was made by a Richard Jackson sculpture (which sprayed the building with yellow pee/paint). OCMA sold the Fashion Island property—it's said it may be developed into an upscale retirement home—and, since last fall, has been organizing small exhibitions at South Coast Plaza Village, Santa Ana.

The building program got back on track in 2008, when the museum was offered a 1.64-acre site in Segerstrom Center. It announced Thom Mayne/Morphosis as the architect, but the subprime mortgage crisis crimped fund raising. Nothing much happened for another decade. As of last week, the museum had raised $47 million towards the $73 million budget.
Morphosis rendering of OCMA gallery, Costa Mesa
The goal of the expansion has always been to allow OCMA to show its permanent collection alongside temporary exhibitions. The Morphosis design is 53,000 sf., of which 25,000 sf. is exhibition space. In comparison the Fashion Island building was only about 22,000 sf. But for the record, Piano's design was 88,000 sf. (and was rejected, in part, for not having enough space…)

A lot has changed since the 1980s. The new OCMA will be a key component of a walkable cultural district in a county that's not so suburban as it once was. Meanwhile Los Angeles is now at the forefront of architectural practice. Given OCMA's focus on California art, an L.A. architect makes a lot of sense.
Location of new OCMA building in Segerstrom Center for the Arts


Anonymous said…
Meanwhile, several miles north, and related to another cultural institution, the LA Philharmonic's CEO several days ago abruptly and unexpectedly resigned after only less than 2 years on the job.

Damn, the voodoo doll got the wrong person. That was supposed to have been the guy in charge of LACMA, not the LA Phil.

Then there's the person in charge of LA Opera. The voodoo doll isn't honing in on the right organization. Damn.
Anonymous said…
Am I the only one who thinks this museum is too small? Why does every museum-- MOCA, Broad (and LACMA's upcoming redesign) -- fail to understand that in a few years, MORE gallery space will be needed once their collections expands. Actually, those 3 museums are already too small for their collections.

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