In Los Angeles, a new museum designed by Renzo Piano marries a futuristic super sphere with an old Hollywood icon.
In early October, the City of Angels saw the unveiling of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano’s latest opus: the newly expanded Academy Museum of Motion Pictures at 6067 Wilshire Boulevard. The architecturally-striking museum features two large buildings nestled in a corner of L.A.’s Miracle Mile district, neighboring a handful of other museums and art installations.
The two wings of the museum are connected by two bridges at the mezzanine and fifth floor levels (bridges being a favorite element of the Italian designer), architecturally serving to connect two related-yet-distinct parts. The original wing of the now-museum opened as the May Company Building in 1939 as a department store designed by American architect and engineer Albert C. Martin, Sr. Over the course of the 20th Century, the building’s iridescent, Streamline Moderne-style facade—clad in 350,000 gold-leaf tiles—became an iconic fixture of the area, resulting in a 1992 distinction as a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument. After two decades, the art deco building was leased to the Academy of Motion Pictures, who in 2014 signed a 55-year contract to transform the space into a museum dedicated to the history, science, and cultural impact of the film industry.
It was in 2012, though, that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson asked Piano to design the 300,000-square-foot campus consisting of the former May Company Building, now known as the Saban Building after philanthropist Cheryl Saban, and a spherical addition to be designed by Piano.
The spherical portion of the building is by and large the most noteworthy addition to the local streetscape for its impressive stature and typical bold integration of glass, in line with Piano’s material signature. Weighing in at 26 million pounds, the concrete and glass marvel evokes a futuristic feeling, having been likened to a spaceship (but please, asks the architect, don’t call it the Death Star). Within the orb is a state-of-the-art theater, outfitted in 1,000 scarlet seats designed by Italian furniture brand Poltrona Frau, and while the interiors carry a rich tune, the exterior feels better seated outside Earth’s atmosphere than within it. And while the science fiction lean may seem an unlikely pairing for its old Hollywood counterpart, a second look at the museum’s mission will reveal some magic in the metaphor.
The Academy museum is the first of its kind to celebrate not only the cultural history of film, but also the evolution of the art, from the technological equipment used to the chemical and scientific genesis of filmmaking, all the while casting sights forward to the future of the medium. It’s this exact duality that infuses a certain thrill to the architecture itself—while the structure itself is impressive and full of energy, the styles, while they seem to contrast with one another, actually go hand-in-hand, superimposing past and future in one campus. It’s that very spirit of time travel that underscores film itself.