An attempt to change elements of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD) $75 million expansion at 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla is stirring controversy in the architecture world mere weeks before the expansion gets underway.
A petition against the plan — approved unanimously by the City Planning Commission last year — has so far gathered 75 signatures, including those of some of architecture’s major players (the chief architecture curators at the Museum of Modern Art, the MAXXI Museum and the Getty Research Institute, and the co-architect of the last museum expansion, Denise Scott Brown).
At least a dozen architecture news organizations are closely following the story.
At issue is the removal of elements of MCASD’s 1996 expansion, since it’s the only project in San Diego County designed by Venturi Scott Brown (VSB), a Philadelphia firm worshiped in the architecture world. Its $9 million expansion created a postmodern entryway by enclosing a courtyard outside the former Sherwood Auditorium. Called Axline Court (after a donor), this grand entrance remains in the new plan, but gets demoted to an educational space. Instead, visitors will enter a new, glass-encased lobby 100 feet to the south.
In addition, all remaining vine-covered fiberglass pergolas, designed and placed by VSB in front of the museum, will be removed. (One has already been hoisted by crane a block north to frame a pocket park for the La Jolla Historical Society.) These pergolas previously guided visitors into Axline Court from another outdoor courtyard where they could admire one of La Jolla’s architectural marvels: South Moulton Villa II, the residence designed in 1915 by Irving Gill for Ellen Browning Scripps, which sits at the physical and spiritual heart of the museum willed to La Jolla following the legendary philanthropist’s 1932 death. (The pergolas emulated those originally adorning Scripps’ house but had thicker columns.)
The petition, also sent as a letter to MCASD director and CEO Kathryn Kanjo, calls the new entrance “formulaic” and maintains that it “thumbs its nose” at the Scripps house, removing the reason for the public to gather in front of it. It also claims the plan “destroys the sense of enclosure” that VSB created for the cultural zone.
Designed by Annabelle Selldorf, principal of the New York City-based Selldorf Architects, the plan will quadruple the museum’s exhibit space from 10,000 square feet to 40,000, add ocean-view terraces and increase parking by replacing a 24-space surface lot — which will be converted into an outdoor sculpture garden — with a 41-space underground garage.
The expansion is scheduled to break ground in the fall and debut in 2020. Earth is already being moved in preparation for the demolition of the adjoining house at 636 Prospect St.
“The MCASD stands on the verge of making a tremendous mistake,” the petition reads. “We recognize the museum’s need to expand, but we ask that it do so without irreparably damaging a cultural landmark and in the process severely weakening La Jolla’s beloved village center.”
Opening a can of Kornblatt
The petition was written and posted by Izzy Kornblatt, a 24-year-old graduate student in architecture at Harvard University, who has neither lived in San Diego nor visited the museum before it closed to the public in January 2017. (He hails from Massachusetts and earned his undergraduate degree in Philadelphia.)
“But I knew the project because I studied it,” Kornblatt told the Light. “And when you spend all your time thinking about architecture, it can sometimes seem like the most important thing. I do get that way about buildings that I really care about, and I really think that the VSB work is amazing.”
Kornblatt said he studied VSB’s expansion for an exhibit of the firm’s work he organized last year in Philadelphia.
“Bob and Denise are these important architects who changed the course of architectural history,” Kornblatt said, “and I think by taking away integral pieces of what they did, it makes the remainder of what’s left into an irrelevant afterthought.”
Though Axline Court will remain, Kornblatt explained, it will lose its role “as this explosion of neon that moves everything out to the spokes — the gallery, the Scripps house — and if you have it as a space that you enter after coming from other galleries, if it’s not a hub anymore, there’s hardly a point in keeping it.”
Kornblatt said he only learned of Selldorf’s plan when she presented it herself at Harvard this winter.
“She made fun of the large colonnade that VSB put there,” Kornblatt said. “Their work gets treated like it’s a postmodern joke that has no purpose. But each part serves an important purpose in terms of relating to the context and expressing the nature of the building. They see architecture as signs and systems and each part of the building as purposeful.”
“That was the first I heard of it,” Scott Brown told the Light during a phone interview. “I was shocked. Axline Court was absolutely planned to make a meeting-place entry. Every medieval town had a meeting place, a meeting of minds and that’s what Axline Court is. It’s a wonderful way of getting where you’re going.”
Scott Brown said that “the delicate connections” she and Venturi created to the commercial district south on Prospect Street “will be severed” by the new plan, “threatening the museum and The Village.”
“If you put the main entrance on the other end, there’s no relationship between the museum and all the other buildings that Ellen Scripps had built,” she said, “and you’re uprooting yourself away from the commercial part of Prospect.”
Scott Brown also called the new entrance “unsafe because it’s only a few feet away from the street, and little children could easily run out into it.”
Scott Brown recalled a voicemail she received in 2014 from former MCASD director Hugh Davies.
“He said he’s doing some renovations — not millions of dollars worth of them!” she said, careful not to let Venturi overhear because she said discussions about the museum disturb him. “We were good friends with Hugh. Then he left. I don’t know if he wasn’t so happy about (the expansion) or what, but he left.” (Davies declined to be interviewed for this story.)
“Our great shock was to see a video of those pergolas flying off somewhere,” Scott Brown said. “It was like I lost a baby.”
The museum contends that relocating the entrance was necessary because too many people didn’t know where it was.
“What we found, over the decades, is that the entrance was concealed and the impulse was to enter through another part of the building,” Kanjo told the Light.
Selldorf adds that the entrance’s relocation brings more attention, not less, to the Scripps house, since it will no longer be obstructed from the street by pergolas, and that it “balances the building” between its older northern and new expansive southern portions. (The Sherwood will be converted to multiple floors of naturally lit gallery space, bringing a much higher percentage of visitors to the southern end.)
This will be MCASD’s fifth expansion since the Scripps house was converted in 1941 into the Art Center in La Jolla. San Diego architects Mosher Drew added dedicated galleries to the home in 1950, the auditorium (originally called Sherwood Hall) in 1960, and more galleries in 1980. VSB added Axline Court and the Museum Café 16 years later.
Each of these renovations added elements to previous renovations, but most also removed elements. For instance, VSB’s exposed the original Scripps house, which Mosher Drew had concealed with a plainer façade. It also destroyed and rebuilt another Mosher Drew façade around the Sherwood.
“The Venturi Scott Brown work gets talked about like it’s a complete building, but it’s not,” Selldorf told the Light. “It’s an addition to other additions that came before, so it starts to be a composite. This is not an act of destruction that intends to take down a masterpiece. It’s a work that’s about the museum — about how the museum can best do what it does.”
So which argument holds more architectural weight?
“Here we have our conundrum,” Can Bilsel, professor of history and theory of architecture at University of San Diego, said in an e-mail. “Can a four-fold expansion of the museum spaces be achieved on the same site while preserving Scott Brown and Venturi’s facade and its intimate scale? If so, would it look less as a decorated shed and more as a pastiche, a relic?
“There is no easy answer to the question you’re asking,” Bilsel wrote. “There is also a greater trend in museum architecture that goes back to I.M. Pei’s addition of a pyramid to the Louvre. The museums, which historically serve their cities and were accessible from their urban context, have grown into institutions of massive culture industry — growing and becoming destinations for mass tourism. Their public face is being replaced with central entrance lobbies with air-terminal aesthetics, which accommodate larger and larger groups of visitors.
“What should (MCASD) do, follow this trend and grow, or cherish the connection to the city Venturi Scott Brown gave it? It is hard to achieve both.”
Timing is everything
At this point, the question is almost certainly moot anyway. As La Jolla Historical Society president Heath Fox pointed out, MCASD did both its legal and ethical due diligence by submitting to “a very extended permitting process and public review process.”
Selldorf’s plan was unanimously approved by the San Diego Planning Commission on March 23, 2017, and before that by an 11-1-1 vote of the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) on August 6, 2015 and a 3-1-1 vote of the La Jolla Development Permit Review (LJDPR) committee on July 21, 2015.
Only a very few voices dissented. Architect Bob Collins recalls being the no vote at both the LJCPA and LJDPR meetings, but said his reason was “a lack of adequate underground parking for the size of the space.” Also at LJDPR, architect Claude-Anthony Marengo opposed the project, but only because he said it would wall off the residents of Eden, the apartment complex next door that he had plans to renovate.
Fox contrasted this to when the federal government proposed selling the La Jolla Post Office on Wall Street in 2013.
“Officials held a public hearing, over 400 people showed up and the La Jolla Historical Society was asked to lead the effort to save the post office,” he said. “The result is that it is still operating and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.”
When Fox’s argument was raised to Scott Brown, she shot back: “I don’t know what’s happened in La Jolla. It sounds to me that the people there have got lethargic. It’s not a good sign that nobody said anything. It’s a sign that says ‘We give up.’ ”
Kornblatt acknowledges how late he is to this table with his opinion.
“My intent is not to enter the debate at the last second and try to ruin everything,” he said. “I realize this is not the ideal time, and I’m regretful for that.”
However, Kornblatt claims that “every single architect” he’s shown the plan to agrees that it’s not a good plan.
“The plan hasn’t been carried out yet,” he said, “so the museum has an opportunity to get all of what it wants, which is new galleries without doing something that damages its buildings and its relationship to the town.”
Agreeing to disagree
Selldorf said she prefers not responding directly to Kornblatt, calling it “an unbecoming conversation” to have.
“They’re entitled to whatever their opinion is,” Selldorf said. “I am incredibly sorry that their reaction is so negative when fundamentally, I feel that we are celebrating the Venturi addition as much as we are celebrating Gill and honoring the different parts that have been added to the museum.”
The museum and Seldorf seem to see the controversy as more a matter of differing architectural opinion and bruised feelings than hard facts about form, function or historical significance.
“I just think it’s disappointing that such a carefully considered plan would come under this type of attack,” Kanjo said. “This petition is coming from a certain portion of the architectural community and I think it’s coming from a more theoretical position as opposed to the experience of having seen how the building functions.
“We live with this museum, so we know how it functions,” Kanjo concluded.
Selldorf said the situation “pains me a great deal because I really do have a lot of respect for (Venturi and Scott Brown) and I feel I have made a great effort to create a circulation that makes the museum function better but also do justice to the rest of the museum.”
She also said she empathizes with how Scott Brown must have felt only learning of the undoing of portions of her work through an architecture student.
“I feel badly for Mrs. Scott Brown,” she said. “I was always told that the museum had reached out to them.”