The New Look of the Petersen Automotive Museum is Really Really Bad
The last ribbon was wrapped around the Petersen Automotive Museum's exterior last month, and with reopening scheduled for December, we need to talk about what is happening on Wilshire Boulevard. Is it fair to critique a building before construction is done? If I haven't been inside the revamp? Probably not, but this particular jeremiad is JUST about the mostly completed exterior design. (I have no doubt there will be plenty more to come once the museum reopens.) I realize I'm treating the building purely as a visual phenomenon rather than as an experience and I pray the interior redesign helps me get over my misgivings about the exterior—because it's bad. Like, really really bad.
Think back to just a year ago, before the extensive, $125-million remodeling began in October 2014. The museum had just completed a largely under-the-radar and controversial sell-off of about one-third of its classic car collection (a move that would be anathema for an art museum) to prepare for its overhaul. The liquidation also prepared the museum for a shift to feature more French automobiles and motorcycles—another controversial move for a museum whose stated mission was a focus on car design in Southern California.
Was its building back then, designed by mid-century architect Welton Becket to house a Seibu department store in 1962, great? No, not compared to other projects his firm designed, such as the Capitol Records Building or the still-shuttered Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It had some nice if overly-subtle touches, like the giant tailfin columns (the architect made them more palatable to the museum's conservative board by claiming they were an "homage to the colonnades of Classical architecture"). I don't fault the Petersen for wanting a bright, shiny new building, but the museum seems to have overcorrected.
Because this remodel is anything but subtle. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox (who also worked on New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Covent Garden refurbishment), the new design adds a red, corrugated aluminum screen overlaid with a series of angel-hair stainless steel ribbons. The steel ribbons will eventually be underlit, recalling the oh-so-tasteful and elegant 1980s trend of putting colored neon lights on the undercarriages of Camaro IROC-Zs.
According to the architects, the façade is meant to "evoke the imagery of speed and the organic curves of a coach-built automobile." And this will no doubt attract attention from passing motorists. But we're getting a Vegas-esque distillation of every bad architectural trend. Corrugated aluminum? Check. Steel cladding? Check. There is an old axiom in design, "If you can't make it good, make it big. And if you can't make it big, make it red." The redesign seems to have taken this dictum literally.
Many museums need to be windowless boxes controlled for both temperature and light in order to preserve the artworks within. However, a car museum doesn't have those same constraints. Given the auto industry's innovation in tempered glass design, the museum had the opportunity to open up its design to let in more light and more air, yet still pay homage to car design.
Instead, the Petersen is giving us the Guy Fieri of buildings. Obnoxious, loud, and, ultimately, sure to be inexplicably embraced by the public.
This article originally appeared on Curbed Los Angeles.