30+ Years Later, OCMA Is Getting a New Building
|Morphosis Architects, rendering of Orange County Museum of Art, Costa Mesa|
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|
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 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|
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|