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Robert Venturi's columns tucked behind La Jolla bungalow

Museum of Contemporary Art ready to demolish them

The columns of the colonnade behind the bungalow are strangely out of place, with the words ‘Contemporary Art’ in red letters jumping out from the white woodwork. Is it a Jeff Koons piece?

The other half of the columns – bearing the words ‘Museum of’ - is now behind a construction fence.

Well no, not really. The corridor of columns are half of the pergola design by noted 20th Century architect Robert Venturi , the other half of which – bearing the words ‘Museum of’ - is now behind a construction fence.

The columns remaining at the museum are scheduled for demolition soon. The La Jolla Historical Society was able to find room for the one behind its bungalow just down the street from the museum. It will be formally open to the public next month, the group’s executive director Heath Fox says. But they don’t have room for the other pergola.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla intends to move forward with an expansion that will dismantle Venturi’s work with partner Denise Scott Brown, despite a petition signed by nearly 70 architects from Italy to Israel, along with deans of Harvard and Penn schools of architecture, many designers, teachers, and historians.

The museum’s $75-million makeover, which will take two years to complete, is going to replace the pergolas with more gallery space, build two levels of underground parking and add space behind the curtain for curators and restorers.

Venturi and Scott Brown did the existing design in 1995. Venturi's museum work is his only San Diego project. Both Venturi and his wife, Scott Brown are retired.

(Earlier this month, another of the couple’s designs in Pittsburgh, seemed headed to demolition.)

“We think they could think of creative ways to maintain all the things the Venturi-Scott Brown portion does,” says Jeremy Tenenbaum, director of marketing for Venturi Scott Brown.

Behind the scenes, people are muttering that this is just another place where Jacobs family money (from Qualcomm) is pushing history out of the way. In 2016, Paul Jacobs became the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. Earlier this year, he was booted out of the Qualcomm board chair in the wake of a hostile takeover attempt by Broadcom blocked by the Trump Administration.

Though the museum’s director of marketing and communications Leah Straub declined to identify contributors, the Los Angeles Times mentions that Irwin and Joan Jacobs put up a $20 million challenge grant that helped raise the $75 million for the expansion. The elder Jacobs couple have been up to their eyeballs in restructuring public spaces in San Diego’s city center – Balboa Park and Seaport Village.

Paul Jacobs was co-chairman of the committee that selected architect Annabelle Selldorf to design the expansion that will take the museum from 52,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet. It’s rumored that the Jacobs couple may be looking for a new home for their art collection – the expansion will add 30,000 square feet of exhibit space to the existing 10,000.

Paul Jacobs spoke at the San Diego Planning Commission in March 2017, when the project was approved with a mitigated negative declaration – essentially agreeing that the project would have no more effect on the environment than not doing the project.

The museum was founded in 1941 in the former home of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, a house designed by noted architect Irving Gill and completed in 1916. It has been expanded several times since then, with the last expansion by Venturi Scott Brown completed in 1996.

The VSB design aimed to create a visual and experiential link between the La Jolla Village and the museum, and to show off Irving Gill’s original design, now surrounded by expansions.

“VSB’s design, unlike that of the proposed expansion, arises from careful study and understanding of La Jolla’s urban form. Its street frontage, museum store and café extend the rhythm of Prospect Street’s lively storefronts, celebrating the museum’s location in the village commercial center and drawing visitors toward the building,” the petition says.

It goes on to say call the Selldorf design “a formulaic glass lobby that thumbs its nose at Gill’s architecture” and calls it “a slap in the face to Gill.”

Indeed, the focus does shift, because oceanfront terraces get more attention than Prospect Street, and galleries are going to be built so visitors can step out on the terraces and enjoy the bluff-top views.

“The petition asks that the museum value its existing building and devise a plan that is sensitive to the village of La Jolla. Selldorf Architects accomplish precisely that,” said Kathryn Kanjo, the museum director. “Selldorf’s expansion gives greater visibility to the original Irving Gill structure, underscores Robert Mosher‘s geometries, and preserves Robert Venturi‘s signature built spaces, most notably the exuberant Axline Court.”

Not-so-polite people comment that this is a bunch of traditionalists fighting to preserve fiberglass columns that were inspired by Gill's actual wood columns, now long gone.

“Anyone who argues we are fighting for post-modern columns is misstating our concerns,” Tenenbaum says. “The pergolas created an entry sequence that connects the museum entry to the community, so the way the museum interacts with the community is being fundamentally changed.”

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Why not sell off the columns for a fundraiser? That's much better than destruction.

Aug. 28, 2018

Maybe some well-placed member of the staff or board has plans for taking them and using them elsewhere, without paying anything for them of course.

Aug. 28, 2018

I recall that the Venturi addition/modification of the MCA building was not particularly well received when it was first completed. I also recall there was resistance to removing the large sycamore trees that were in the way of Venturi's vision. (The trees provided a friendly and welcoming aspect to the earlier version of the museum.) There was confusion in how to both enter the museum as designed by Venturi, and where to go once you got in. All of the theoretical discussion about the pedestrian/community experience associated with the Venturi addition seems to be just that, theory.

Also, its aggressive aesthetics seemed to dominate the art put inside the lobby. And the cartoon-like columns in question sort of made fun (in every sense of the word) of the Gill facade. I'm not sure it ended up really working that well in reality. But it is serious and thoughtful architecture, maybe just not successful. Or at least that is how it was discussed when it was first complete.

I know the Seattle Art Museum designed by Venturi's firm (at roughly the same time) had similar problems and a similar cool response from both the public and architectural critics. (and was destined to a similar fate of semi preservation). In a way these projects ended the momentum for the architectural firm.

The facade of the Irving Gill building is a re-creation from the time of the Venturi remodel. It had been obliterated in a previous remodel. I heard that at the same time they were recreating the Gill facade they destroyed some original interior bits of the Gill house that were intact.

Preserving architecture is difficult. In a sense its the most ephemeral art form, as land value tends to outweigh preservation. I don't know if the flawed Venturi addition to the site worth preserving in its full. In a sense it mars the Gill house facade. But Venturi matters in architectural history. But enough to justify the various aesthetic and other costs of preserving it?

I'm not sure there are any bad guys or heros in this story. The powers that be didn't end up with a masterpiece with the Venturi addition. My sense is they are not aiming for a masterpiece with the upcoming one. I think its highly possible they had one with the Gill house. But it was in the way of becoming a big museum. Seems to me its all some version of architectural ephemera at the service of all the big egos that create and support art museums.

Aug. 28, 2018

And now they are going to re-do the LA County Museum of Art, at a huge cost and with some building razing I think. Will it be better? Who knows?

Aug. 28, 2018

This whole "debate" is -- you should pardon the expression -- trumped up. The puffed-up Venturi project basically only created a vaulted lobby for the Museum of Contemporary Art that was used for vinous social wing-dings and a small cafe. Not an inch of art exhibition space was added at that time. Venturi columns that held up the pergola across a patio were out-size artifacts without function and actually blocked the museum's entrance, which always seemed to me like an unfriendly architect's swipe at museums, if not a simple design mistake. The Venturi plan added a charming in-and-outdoor cafe to the north side of the building along Prospect Street and arched windows along the south face along Prospect which fronted the museum gift shop. Those arches gracefully echoed part of the original Irving Gill-designed Ellen Scripps house that was obscurely located somewhere in the middle of everything.

It's true the new look of the greatly expanded museum is bland-to-nondescript, and the building's face has turned away from other Gill buildings in the area, but there will be more wall space to show the permanent collection, which is, after all, the point of a museum. Significant losses are not ridiculous Venturi pillars, but the disappeared places for social gathering that were offered by Sherwood Hall and the small sidewalk cafe. It will be a tall order -- I miss both Sherwood and that little cafe -- but we can hope the art gains will compensate for the losses.

Aug. 28, 2018

I think the timing of this is partly why its being discussed. Post Modern architecture is starting to be looked at through the lens of history at this time, which is a great thing. It will be interesting to see if Horton Plaza gets the same courtesy as Venturi's columns. In many ways it is a more significant and important example of Post Modern architecture. It is sadly ironic that its current fate is to be turned into bland modernist revival architecture, which seems to be what everything getting built now has to look like.

Aug. 29, 2018

I also think enshrining a one-off mish-mash partial remodel from 1995, executed by unhappily-constrained local architects as stand-ins for absentee Robert Venturi, is phony-baloney false veneration. Who funds these schemes and why is probably more important to speculate about. As I said, much has been lost now in rare, human-scale, well-used gathering spaces. Those cartoonish fiberglass "columns" are expendable. Also, speaking of expendable, let's not forget to name Venturi's full partner, Denise Brown.

Aug. 29, 2018

Sure, while I don't know about the design process for the Venturi/Brown addition, I am willing to believe there is a cynical read on what happened. My experience of both architects, having seen them speak about their work, is that they are/were not cynical, and had good ideas, but just unable to get their ideas into the actual built buildings. Probably not that atypical, but kinda weird when the architects are famous. Regarding the money aspect of both this institution and the entire art world, that is a hugely interesting huge issue. I suppose the horror show that is the art world is worth putting up with for good art. But geez........

Aug. 29, 2018

Horton Plaza will be renovated extensively, and there's is nothing there to show "courtesy" to. The whole shopping center was a failure from the beginning. The original design was amusing, but impractical and awkward. The new office-usage planned there sounds promising.

Aug. 29, 2018

Fantastic that at least one half of the pergola is saved. The other half should be as well. I have been to this museum and was surprised and impressed by the wonderfully choreographed entry sequence, the generosity of scale of those columns, the balance and propriety of the jazzy Axline atrium with the more functional and commodious gallery spaces, the harmony of the pergola with the original Ellen Scripps House, again balancing due deference with its own identity. It was an exhilarating experience. I was similarly surprised and DEPRESSED to hear of the inexplicable renovation plans which not only run counter to the thoughtful and delightful VSBA design, but would irrevocably destroy it! With all due respect to Annabelle Seldorf, she should know better. Though I see in her office’s design a representative of an architectural hegemony in New York City, which still has not come around to understanding, let alone appreciating, the nature of Complexity and Contradiction in architecture, which, once absorbed, results in unique beauty which grows out of site, program, client and in this case, building and history. As opposed to the simplistic and formulaic design that committees and many architects still seem to prefer, which excludes the particular, in favor of the general, risking, as in this case, banality.

Oct. 27, 2018

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Is it worth preserving fiberglass columns that were inspired by Gill's actual wood columns, now long gone?
Is it worth preserving fiberglass columns that were inspired by Gill's actual wood columns, now long gone?

The columns of the colonnade behind the bungalow are strangely out of place, with the words ‘Contemporary Art’ in red letters jumping out from the white woodwork. Is it a Jeff Koons piece?

The other half of the columns – bearing the words ‘Museum of’ - is now behind a construction fence.

Well no, not really. The corridor of columns are half of the pergola design by noted 20th Century architect Robert Venturi , the other half of which – bearing the words ‘Museum of’ - is now behind a construction fence.

The columns remaining at the museum are scheduled for demolition soon. The La Jolla Historical Society was able to find room for the one behind its bungalow just down the street from the museum. It will be formally open to the public next month, the group’s executive director Heath Fox says. But they don’t have room for the other pergola.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla intends to move forward with an expansion that will dismantle Venturi’s work with partner Denise Scott Brown, despite a petition signed by nearly 70 architects from Italy to Israel, along with deans of Harvard and Penn schools of architecture, many designers, teachers, and historians.

The museum’s $75-million makeover, which will take two years to complete, is going to replace the pergolas with more gallery space, build two levels of underground parking and add space behind the curtain for curators and restorers.

Venturi and Scott Brown did the existing design in 1995. Venturi's museum work is his only San Diego project. Both Venturi and his wife, Scott Brown are retired.

(Earlier this month, another of the couple’s designs in Pittsburgh, seemed headed to demolition.)

“We think they could think of creative ways to maintain all the things the Venturi-Scott Brown portion does,” says Jeremy Tenenbaum, director of marketing for Venturi Scott Brown.

Behind the scenes, people are muttering that this is just another place where Jacobs family money (from Qualcomm) is pushing history out of the way. In 2016, Paul Jacobs became the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. Earlier this year, he was booted out of the Qualcomm board chair in the wake of a hostile takeover attempt by Broadcom blocked by the Trump Administration.

Though the museum’s director of marketing and communications Leah Straub declined to identify contributors, the Los Angeles Times mentions that Irwin and Joan Jacobs put up a $20 million challenge grant that helped raise the $75 million for the expansion. The elder Jacobs couple have been up to their eyeballs in restructuring public spaces in San Diego’s city center – Balboa Park and Seaport Village.

Paul Jacobs was co-chairman of the committee that selected architect Annabelle Selldorf to design the expansion that will take the museum from 52,000 square feet to 104,000 square feet. It’s rumored that the Jacobs couple may be looking for a new home for their art collection – the expansion will add 30,000 square feet of exhibit space to the existing 10,000.

Paul Jacobs spoke at the San Diego Planning Commission in March 2017, when the project was approved with a mitigated negative declaration – essentially agreeing that the project would have no more effect on the environment than not doing the project.

The museum was founded in 1941 in the former home of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, a house designed by noted architect Irving Gill and completed in 1916. It has been expanded several times since then, with the last expansion by Venturi Scott Brown completed in 1996.

The VSB design aimed to create a visual and experiential link between the La Jolla Village and the museum, and to show off Irving Gill’s original design, now surrounded by expansions.

“VSB’s design, unlike that of the proposed expansion, arises from careful study and understanding of La Jolla’s urban form. Its street frontage, museum store and café extend the rhythm of Prospect Street’s lively storefronts, celebrating the museum’s location in the village commercial center and drawing visitors toward the building,” the petition says.

It goes on to say call the Selldorf design “a formulaic glass lobby that thumbs its nose at Gill’s architecture” and calls it “a slap in the face to Gill.”

Indeed, the focus does shift, because oceanfront terraces get more attention than Prospect Street, and galleries are going to be built so visitors can step out on the terraces and enjoy the bluff-top views.

“The petition asks that the museum value its existing building and devise a plan that is sensitive to the village of La Jolla. Selldorf Architects accomplish precisely that,” said Kathryn Kanjo, the museum director. “Selldorf’s expansion gives greater visibility to the original Irving Gill structure, underscores Robert Mosher‘s geometries, and preserves Robert Venturi‘s signature built spaces, most notably the exuberant Axline Court.”

Not-so-polite people comment that this is a bunch of traditionalists fighting to preserve fiberglass columns that were inspired by Gill's actual wood columns, now long gone.

“Anyone who argues we are fighting for post-modern columns is misstating our concerns,” Tenenbaum says. “The pergolas created an entry sequence that connects the museum entry to the community, so the way the museum interacts with the community is being fundamentally changed.”

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Comments
10

Why not sell off the columns for a fundraiser? That's much better than destruction.

Aug. 28, 2018

Maybe some well-placed member of the staff or board has plans for taking them and using them elsewhere, without paying anything for them of course.

Aug. 28, 2018

I recall that the Venturi addition/modification of the MCA building was not particularly well received when it was first completed. I also recall there was resistance to removing the large sycamore trees that were in the way of Venturi's vision. (The trees provided a friendly and welcoming aspect to the earlier version of the museum.) There was confusion in how to both enter the museum as designed by Venturi, and where to go once you got in. All of the theoretical discussion about the pedestrian/community experience associated with the Venturi addition seems to be just that, theory.

Also, its aggressive aesthetics seemed to dominate the art put inside the lobby. And the cartoon-like columns in question sort of made fun (in every sense of the word) of the Gill facade. I'm not sure it ended up really working that well in reality. But it is serious and thoughtful architecture, maybe just not successful. Or at least that is how it was discussed when it was first complete.

I know the Seattle Art Museum designed by Venturi's firm (at roughly the same time) had similar problems and a similar cool response from both the public and architectural critics. (and was destined to a similar fate of semi preservation). In a way these projects ended the momentum for the architectural firm.

The facade of the Irving Gill building is a re-creation from the time of the Venturi remodel. It had been obliterated in a previous remodel. I heard that at the same time they were recreating the Gill facade they destroyed some original interior bits of the Gill house that were intact.

Preserving architecture is difficult. In a sense its the most ephemeral art form, as land value tends to outweigh preservation. I don't know if the flawed Venturi addition to the site worth preserving in its full. In a sense it mars the Gill house facade. But Venturi matters in architectural history. But enough to justify the various aesthetic and other costs of preserving it?

I'm not sure there are any bad guys or heros in this story. The powers that be didn't end up with a masterpiece with the Venturi addition. My sense is they are not aiming for a masterpiece with the upcoming one. I think its highly possible they had one with the Gill house. But it was in the way of becoming a big museum. Seems to me its all some version of architectural ephemera at the service of all the big egos that create and support art museums.

Aug. 28, 2018

And now they are going to re-do the LA County Museum of Art, at a huge cost and with some building razing I think. Will it be better? Who knows?

Aug. 28, 2018

This whole "debate" is -- you should pardon the expression -- trumped up. The puffed-up Venturi project basically only created a vaulted lobby for the Museum of Contemporary Art that was used for vinous social wing-dings and a small cafe. Not an inch of art exhibition space was added at that time. Venturi columns that held up the pergola across a patio were out-size artifacts without function and actually blocked the museum's entrance, which always seemed to me like an unfriendly architect's swipe at museums, if not a simple design mistake. The Venturi plan added a charming in-and-outdoor cafe to the north side of the building along Prospect Street and arched windows along the south face along Prospect which fronted the museum gift shop. Those arches gracefully echoed part of the original Irving Gill-designed Ellen Scripps house that was obscurely located somewhere in the middle of everything.

It's true the new look of the greatly expanded museum is bland-to-nondescript, and the building's face has turned away from other Gill buildings in the area, but there will be more wall space to show the permanent collection, which is, after all, the point of a museum. Significant losses are not ridiculous Venturi pillars, but the disappeared places for social gathering that were offered by Sherwood Hall and the small sidewalk cafe. It will be a tall order -- I miss both Sherwood and that little cafe -- but we can hope the art gains will compensate for the losses.

Aug. 28, 2018

I think the timing of this is partly why its being discussed. Post Modern architecture is starting to be looked at through the lens of history at this time, which is a great thing. It will be interesting to see if Horton Plaza gets the same courtesy as Venturi's columns. In many ways it is a more significant and important example of Post Modern architecture. It is sadly ironic that its current fate is to be turned into bland modernist revival architecture, which seems to be what everything getting built now has to look like.

Aug. 29, 2018

I also think enshrining a one-off mish-mash partial remodel from 1995, executed by unhappily-constrained local architects as stand-ins for absentee Robert Venturi, is phony-baloney false veneration. Who funds these schemes and why is probably more important to speculate about. As I said, much has been lost now in rare, human-scale, well-used gathering spaces. Those cartoonish fiberglass "columns" are expendable. Also, speaking of expendable, let's not forget to name Venturi's full partner, Denise Brown.

Aug. 29, 2018

Sure, while I don't know about the design process for the Venturi/Brown addition, I am willing to believe there is a cynical read on what happened. My experience of both architects, having seen them speak about their work, is that they are/were not cynical, and had good ideas, but just unable to get their ideas into the actual built buildings. Probably not that atypical, but kinda weird when the architects are famous. Regarding the money aspect of both this institution and the entire art world, that is a hugely interesting huge issue. I suppose the horror show that is the art world is worth putting up with for good art. But geez........

Aug. 29, 2018

Horton Plaza will be renovated extensively, and there's is nothing there to show "courtesy" to. The whole shopping center was a failure from the beginning. The original design was amusing, but impractical and awkward. The new office-usage planned there sounds promising.

Aug. 29, 2018

Fantastic that at least one half of the pergola is saved. The other half should be as well. I have been to this museum and was surprised and impressed by the wonderfully choreographed entry sequence, the generosity of scale of those columns, the balance and propriety of the jazzy Axline atrium with the more functional and commodious gallery spaces, the harmony of the pergola with the original Ellen Scripps House, again balancing due deference with its own identity. It was an exhilarating experience. I was similarly surprised and DEPRESSED to hear of the inexplicable renovation plans which not only run counter to the thoughtful and delightful VSBA design, but would irrevocably destroy it! With all due respect to Annabelle Seldorf, she should know better. Though I see in her office’s design a representative of an architectural hegemony in New York City, which still has not come around to understanding, let alone appreciating, the nature of Complexity and Contradiction in architecture, which, once absorbed, results in unique beauty which grows out of site, program, client and in this case, building and history. As opposed to the simplistic and formulaic design that committees and many architects still seem to prefer, which excludes the particular, in favor of the general, risking, as in this case, banality.

Oct. 27, 2018

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