Building Boom

Site as subject and building the big box

By Gretchen Giles

Driving past the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on Highway 101 is not much of a much. An RV sale seems ubiquitously splayed out on the back acres; the spire-spiked fountain in front may have once remarked the heavens but now does little to inspire Julio Iglesias fans; and the large lift of the roof recalls the worst of 1970s sacred design. But as with two other major museums in Sonoma County, the recently renamed Museum of Contemporary Art housed at the LBC may be leading a new charge in the design trends of the North Bay.

Launching its SpaceFace architectural competition, the LBC is soliciting a new design for its Museum of Contemporary Art from some 48 area architects, intending to relocate the MOCA from its current spot off to the east side of the campus to a prominent spot smack in front of the lobby doors, smack in front of the freeway. The first round of proposals will be shown to the public at the “Contemporary Perspectives” auction event on Saturday, May 1, and three finalists will move forward with their designs in a second competition from there.

SpaceFace is the first phase of a capital fundraising campaign that the LBC is launching, looking to update and revamp many sections of this 53-acre arts campus over the next 15 years. Funding has already been secured to open a cabaret room inside and permanent outdoor festival facilities outside. Pending plans include the installation of a large outdoor amphitheater and a 2,500-seat indoor theater with a full backstage fly section and other amenities making it suitable for major ballet and theatrical performances.

“I’m not attached to the current architecture,” MOCA director Gay Dawson says drily of her museum space. “I’m looking for a transformation.” Aiming to more than double its exhibition space to over 5,000 square feet in the new building–which will hopefully open its doors in 2007–the MOCA aims to better attract traveling exhibitions, such as those sponsored by the Smithsonian and other museums, which need more room than the MOCA can currently accommodate.

One of the architects submitting a proposal, who asked that his name not be used in the event that it skews his proposal’s chances of being considered, says, “I think that it has much more to do with the freeway than it does with the existing building. At least, that’s our take on it. The existing building already has some pretty powerful things happening.

“Some architects will probably render [the new museum] like a screen; others will try to make it fit with the existing building. Our strategy is probably more the former. For us, it has to do with trying to create a compelling space for art. In a way, we craft a house and a museum similarly in that it’s about the experience of moving to and moving through a space. That’s how meaning is created: what you see as you approach a museum or a house, what you experience as you move through them and what you see as you move through them–the building as an object, but also the site as a subject.”

In speaking of subject, Sonoma County Museum executive director Ariege Arseguel uses the term “Bilbao effect” to describe what she anticipates will happen once her museum receives its remodel and full-block expansion under the direction of architect Michael Maltzan, whose most recent high-profile project was the remodel of the Queens MOMA in New York. “We intend to blow people away with this building,” Arseguel says, her voice barely contained. The “Bilbao effect,” she explains, is what happened to Bilbao, Spain, after Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was installed. “It took a depressed blue-collar economy and put it on the map,” Arseguel says. “Cultural tourism is off the charts there now. It has completely changed that economy. That’s sort of the model that we’re thinking about. We certainly feel that this county deserves it.”

Fundraising may still be underway for the MOCA and SCM, but the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has already completed its remodel on Broadway Avenue in downtown Sonoma. Formerly a nondescript storefront, the new SVMA, opened to the public last month, is now a yowza example of urban remodeling, designed by Sonoma architects Mark Zall and Michael Ross of Ross Drulis Cusenbery. A huge open space with side doors that literally roll up for the sidewalk, the new SVMA is a box in the best sense of the word, with high ceilings and an industrial stripped-chic that offers its own pleasures to walk around inside of but doesn’t compete with the art.

“We used proportion, scale and rhythm to create a sense of permanence and place,” Zall says. “We have attempted to create a flexible, dynamic, state-of-the-art infrastructure that will allow SVMA to change over time, invite the visitor to enter and support a rewarding museum experience.”

The unidentified MOCA contender muses, “What’s interesting about contemporary art as opposed to other, more classical art is that the form is unknown. Rather than painting and sculpture, it’s installation art, mixed media, video art. [A museum] needs to be more of a blank container that has flexibility built within it for multiple formats, and I think that’s probably the biggest issue for a contemporary museum versus an art museum.”

Whether the North Bay building boom in museums will counter this remains to be seen.

From the April 21-27, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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