Academy museum exterior showing sphere-shaped building connected to  old building.

Renzo Piano’s Academy Museum Is a Two-Part Ode to the Movies

Embodying Hollywood’s past and future, the museum reuses a historic building while making a dramatic addition.

Los Angeles’s new Academy Museum, a shrine to the art of filmmaking, has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s gone through multiple rewrites, cycled through a couple of directors, and was in turnaround for a while. But it finally overcame the odds to make its red-carpet debut in September. And after a seemingly endless run of star-studded opening events that attracted boldface names like Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Nicole Kidman, the $484 million Renzo Piano Building Workshop–designed museum is now at last open to the plebeians. 

The drama behind its construction rivals any celluloid epic. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has wanted to build a museum for the film industry since the 1960s, when it hired the now-former architect of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) William Pereira to create an ultimately failed proposal. In 2007, the Academy tapped French architect Christian de Portzamparc to design a facility near the 101 Freeway in Hollywood, but the Great Recession scuttled that plan. By 2012, the scheme had shifted to a new site: local firm AC Martin’s 1939 May Company building, a former department store sitting just west of LACMA at the entrance to what’s known as Museum Row. 

LACMA acquired the site—saved from the wrecking ball by preservationists in the 1990s and now landmarked—for a paltry $18.3 million in 1994. But it never fully occupied the May Company building, as plans to include it in Piano’s larger master plan for the LACMA campus fell by the wayside. Nearly a decade ago, the Academy entered into a long-term lease agreement with LACMA, putting Piano back in control of the long-neglected property. His museum consists of two buildings: one is a thoughtful adaptation of the existing five-story landmark and the other is a new, monumental glass-and-concrete sphere that floats above the ground. 

Aerial view of Academy museum. the renovated May Company building is in the foreground, the glass ad concrete orb is in the background.
Much of the museum is contained inside the renovated May Company building, alongside of which hovers a glass and concrete orb containing the David Geffen Theater and Dolby Family Terrace. The fins of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion (also designed by Piano) can be seen behind the orb. COURTESY IWAN BAAN

Dubbed the “Death Star,” (much to Piano’s consternation), the orblike structure hovers about a story above a pedestrian plaza and is connected to the main building via several enclosed walkways. The plaza provides a physical connection to LACMA, including two Piano projects on that campus: the Resnick Pavilion and the Broad Contem-porary Art Museum (BCAM). 

The 45,000-square-foot edifice—150 feet in diameter—houses the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, which is equipped to screen 35mm, 70mm, and digital projection movies as well as accommodate a 60-piece orchestra. It’s also one of only a handful of theaters in the country with the ability to screen nitrate-based films, a material used in the early 20th century that is so unstable it is flammable even under water. 

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Sitting on four concrete plinths, the orb’s bulky bottom half is contrasted by a translucent steel-framed shell over the rooftop Dolby Family Terrace. Its external steel staircases resemble scaffolding, but lack the trademark red used to signify movement in prior Piano projects like the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the adjacent BCAM.

Interior of david geffen theater
The Geffen Theater can seat 1,000 people and a 60-piece orchestra. COURTESY JOSHUA WHITE
exterior of may company building
Many of the gold-leaf tiles adorning the limestone-clad May Company building’s cylinder have been replaced. COURTESY IWAN BAAN

While the sphere is the showstopper, especially when lit from below at night, it’s the renovation of the Streamline Moderne May Company building that truly shines. Like the finest facelifts in Hollywood, the structure, now known as the Saban Building, has undergone a transformation that restores its best original elements while subtly updating it. 

A 1946 extension on the building’s north side was demolished to bring the structure back to its original form, and its exterior elements were refurbished, including the limestone panels and the signature golden cylinder that sits at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. One-third of the cylinder’s 350,000 gold-leaf mosaic tiles have been replaced with updates from the original manufacturer in Italy. The interiors also make good use of the cylinder, on one floor showcasing Oscar statuettes encircling a gleaming Deco-inspired nook. 

The Saban’s interior is relatively muted compared with the nearby Death Star. Piano, known for exposing industrial elements, stripped multiple layers of paint and plaster left by ad hoc renovations over the years to expose original concrete floors and board formed concrete col-umns. (Piano discovered the columns during the restoration process, deciding to make them a highlight of his design.) 

Electrical and ventilation systems are visible, and escalators have been relocated to the north side of the building, now facing a glass curtain wall, with a direct view of the orb. Hanging precipitously above the escalator spine is the only surviving full-size shark model used in Jaws

The 250,000-square-foot building includes four stories of exhibition space plus a tearoom for the top story and a lower level that includes an education space and the smaller 288-seat Ted Mann Theater. The ground floor lobby, christened the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby, includes publicly accessible gallery space, a gift shop, and a restaurant designed by local firm Commune called Fanny’s, named for silent film (and Broadway) star Fanny Brice. 

diagram in section of both buildings
This section drawing outlines the museum’s varied program. COURTESY RENZO PIANO BUILDING WORKSHOP

Like a local multiplex showing the latest Marvel movie alongside an A24 indie, the museum aims to mix the most highly accessible parts of moviemaking (expect to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers and life-size C-3PO and R2-D2) with scholarly dives into the work of filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki, Pedro Almodóvar, and Spike Lee. 

The permanent collection is chronologically expansive, stretching from the early days of film to contemporary movies. It offers both the film buff and the casual fan a comprehensive and insightful tour of every aspect of moviemaking, from costumes to production to sound design. The only thing missing is a master class on Hollywood’s creative accounting and how to cross-collateralize two movies to avoid paying out net profits. 

While Hollywood may be known for its onanistic tendencies, self-congratulation has been (mostly) shelved here in favor of a more transparent and honest look at how moviemaking has enabled and sustained decades of harmful stereotypes based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Exhibitions, for instance, confront the history of blackface via makeup artifacts and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in animation. Indeed, since the Academy began planning its museum, the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements as well as larger racial and sexual reckonings have forced the film world to reexamine its history. Fortunately, the curators here are meeting the moment. 

The museum building, like the industry it represents, is both a look back at the past—with a sensitive update of a classic Los Angeles structure—as well as a look into the future—via a glowing orb. If the Saban Building is The Fast and Furious, consider the sphere its final car chase. With the aggressively steroidal Petersen Automotive Museum across the street, and architect Peter Zumthor’s upcoming reimagining of LACMA traversing Wilshire next door, the Academy Museum may prove to be the most understated of the new structures in that particular quarter mile. 

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