L.A.’s Academy Museum Will Be a ‘Flying Vessel’ According to Renzo Piano

The bombastic new temple for film history, set to open next year, will be a cinematic experience in itself, says Piano.

Academy Museum Renzo Piano
The Academy Museum is distributed across two separate buildings, the former May Company department store, and a futuristic sphere. Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop/A.M.P.A.S/L’Autre Image

The first time architect Renzo Piano met Steven Spielberg, the legendary filmmaker pointed out to him that a movie, like a work of architecture, “is a sequence of light and shadow.”

Spielberg’s dictum, recounted by Piano at a media briefing yesterday at the Plaza Hotel in New York, is a guiding principle in his studio’s dramatic design of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, now under construction on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Piano’s scheme, designed in collaboration with Gensler’s Los Angeles office, is unadulterated Hollywood showmanship: From a renovated Streamline Moderne landmarked building, visitors will pass into the museum’s most sensational element, a futuristic 45,000-square-foot concrete-and-glass sphere that Piano refers to as a “flying vessel.”

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The renovated ‘30s-era portion (formerly the May Company department store) will house special exhibits and showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection, which boasts nearly 200,000 films and videos, more than 12 million photographs, and memorabilia from the collections of Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, and Katharine Hepburn.

Academy Museum Renzo Piano
Operable panels in the sphere’s glass dome will facilitate passive cooling. Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop/A.M.P.A.S/L’Autre Image

Visitors, moving from the old building to the gigantic sphere via bridges, will “embark on the spaceship and go on a journey,” said Piano. This floating volume (supported on a series of piers that isolate the building seismically) chiefly hosts a 1,000-seat movie theater capable of multiple film formats, from laser projections to nitrate film. “It’s the best movie theater in the world for sure,” said Piano.

A domed observation deck above the theater will provide views out to the surrounding Hollywood Hills and across Los Angeles, creating the sensation of floating above the cityscape.

The Academy Museum joins an increasingly eccentric “Miracle Mile” museum district, including KPF’s bombastic (and bombastically maligned) Petersen Automotive Museum, and the ever-morphing LACMA campus, which includes Piano’s own 2008 Broad Contemporary Art Museum (a critical ‘meh’) and his 2010 Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, as well as a future addition by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Like it’s neighbors, the Academy Museum—which opens in 2019—will strive for star power on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. But that might just be precisely the point, according to the architect.

Said Piano, “It’s a cinema, it’s a movie.”

You might also like, “Q&A: Renzo Piano, Master of Museum Design, on the New Whitney.”

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