Visual arts

With a new $94 million building, the Orange County Museum of Art gets its own version of the Met Museum Steps

Architect Thom Mayne of Los Angeles firm Morphosis says in his line of work, “everyone has one”: a construction project that threatens never to finish. In his case, it’s the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), which he began designing 14 years ago and which has only just been completed with a 24-hour opening celebration starting October 8.

The 53,000-square-foot, $94 million building is meant to be the latest major addition to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a cluster of performing arts venues in the upscale suburban shopping destination of Costa Mesa, south from Los Angeles. And it’s by far the most dynamic of the bunch: a bold, curvy building clad in white terracotta tiles, with a sloping, soaring atrium that offers striking glimpses of the sky, galleries and visitors walking on wooden walkways. glass above. The geometry of the atrium evokes the painting of Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which made one early reviewer think of an explosion at a shingle factory.

Another major feature is a set of wide exterior stairs leading to the roof terrace, intended to create a place where people can meet, have a coffee or just relax. “We were really interested in creating a social space like the steps of the New York Public Library or the Met [museum] steps,” says Mayne, 78, who has made a sweeping interior staircase a popular feature of her Cooper Union building in New York. “We wanted to create something very urban for this suburban environment.”

Competing visions

Museum director Heidi Zuckerman compares the new grand staircase to Roman architecture like the Colosseum because of its curved shape. She joined OCMA in January 2021 but has made her mark on the galleries, first by abandoning plans of industrial light fixtures against a dark ceiling in favor of diffused white light in a louver,
ceiling system covered with fabric and on the other hand by ensuring that the switches and sockets in the galleries, which are painted in pure white, remain hidden. She also gained free entry for the next ten years thanks to a $2.5 million grant from Lugano Diamonds.

Museum director Heidi Zuckerman and architect Thom Mayne at the new Orange County Museum of Art Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Leadership changes – three regimes over the past decade – have played a major role in delaying the project. While Mayne is diplomatic about it, he admits there were “competing visions” for the museum building, including an abandoned proposal to create residential apartment towers.

“There were definitely different levels of ambition and desire, with someone saying ‘let’s build something three times bigger’ and someone else saying ‘No, let’s build something we can afford'” , he said. The museum previously had a space in nearby Newport Beach, but it was too small to show the permanent collection.

In many ways, the new OCMA is tied to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, where in 2012 Morphosis created a dazzling atrium and numerous multifunctional public spaces.

The Orange County Museum of Art designed by Morphosis Architects. Photo © Mike Kelley

Zuckerman, who previously ran the Aspen Museum of Art and its Shigeru Ban build, describes the Orange County Museum as “a post-Covid building.” “You enter a graceful, warm and bright space. It’s not suffocating. You don’t feel trapped and you have access to the outdoors,” she says. “You can feel the temperature and you can see the light.”

She is also working to make the museum a place of rest and refuge, acknowledging that anxiety has been a major byproduct of the pandemic. “Addressing creature comforts [was] important. There are tons of benches and bathrooms and there are places to eat,” she says. “Our idea of ​​a post-pandemic museum is not just about the architecture, it’s about the visitor experience. On a hot day we will give you cold towels. On a cold day we will give you hot towels.

Inaugural exhibits include an investigation of Light and Space artist Fred Eversley, a reprisal of the California Biennial (which has been on hiatus since former OCMA curator Dan Cameron bizarrely refashioned it into the California Triennial -Pacific in 2013) and 13 women, an exhibition curated by Zuckerman that winks at the founders of the museum. Sanford Biggers has been hired to create a new monumental sculpture for the rooftop terrace.

Although Mayne is often associated with architects known for their relationship with the visual arts and artists, this is his first art museum. Is Mayne worried that his museum will compete with the artwork inside? “Not at all,” he said. “The atrium is the most dynamic space. But we separated the atrium and foyer from the galleries. When you get to the galleries, it’s absolutely the opposite, completely neutral, so you can focus on the works instead. Your memory of your visit to the museum will clearly be the artwork in the gallery.”