‘An unfinished Frankenstein’s monster’: the disastrous new Orange County Museum of Art | Architecture

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‘An unfinished Frankenstein’s monster’: the disastrous new Orange County Museum of Art | Architecture

There is a critical point in the creation of contemporary, computer-aided architecture where the elaborate forms conjured up on the screen must be translated into physical reality. The sweeping, seamless plains of gravity-defying digital matter are transformed into substantial pieces of steel and concrete, usually clad with a thin decorative shell to give the illusion of a solid, sculpted mass. It’s a process that relies on extreme levels of precision, careful thought about how the multi-dimensional jigsaw will fit together, and exactly what forms of bolting, welding and fastening are needed to simulate the flawless vision.

Sometimes it goes wrong. What seemed like a feasible joining of multi-curved panels on the screen turned out to be an impossible thing to achieve with human hands, power tools and the laws of physics, in the face of immovable deadlines. The panels of steel and glass and terracotta do not always bend and sway as the architect had hoped.

Cracking and splintering in more ways than one… Some of the OCMA building’s defects. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

Nowhere is the gulf between digital promise and physical fact more spectacularly evident than at the new Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in California, which stands as a $94m (£77m) ode to the difference between rendering and reality. From a distance, its sinuous white flanks bend and flex with the signature fractured geometries of its architects, the Los Angeles practice Morphosis. The facade rises around a corner and folds in on itself to embrace a roof terrace, with a similar wayward energy to the twisted steel sheets of a rusted Richard Serra sculpture standing outside.

But, as you approach the building, you see that the cracked, splintered aesthetic goes beyond the sculptural movements alone. Sheets of bent steel are screwed crookedly to the edge of the undulating facade, hastily cut tiles are fitted with wobbly abandon, while other parts of the building are literally held together with duct tape. A makeshift clamp keeps part of a soffit from falling, while glass balustrades lean at precarious angles, their oversized steel fixing plates bolted with Frankenstein glee. The shop of horrors continues inside, where sheets of painted foam board stand in place of steel trusses, cracked glass floors line steep skyways, and suspended ceilings look like they’ve been cobbled together from whatever scraps were lying around. The American construction industry is not known for its attention to detail, but this is something else.

Refusing to have an edge... the Orange County Museum of Art.
Refusing to have an edge… the Orange County Museum of Art. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

Thom Mayne, the 78-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning founder of Morphosis, has always had an interest in the tentative, accidental nature of architecture. “I have no interest in completing projects,” he said in a recent interview. “A lot of our stuff just keeps moving; it refuses to have an edge, a border; it is constantly changing.” In Orange County, he seems to have taken his passion for leaving projects unfinished a little too far.

“The museum had to open in October, before it was ready,” says Brandon Welling, partner in charge of the project, “which was not ideal. Normally there is an acclimatization period, with time to go through the ‘punch list’ of things to complete, but we are still going through that process now.” Every project goes through a process of “snagging” at completion, when small defects are addressed, but it’s rare to have such a long list.

The builders, Clark Construction, say the project has been affected by the supply chain delays. “There are no defects,” they maintain, “but rather a delay in certain supplies to complete custom elements of the design. The project reached completion and was delivered to the client on time.” They say that the broken and bent pieces, along with clamps and tape, are “temporary placeholders, as not all personal materials could be replaced before the museum’s opening.” Workers are currently undergoing a tortuous process of replacing numerous pieces of cladding, coping and glazing overnight and on Mondays, when the museum is closed, at a rate of about two pieces per day, with the aim of completing the work by the end of the year. This is an optimistic deadline, to say the least. Still, the museum is cheerful.

'Beauty in Imperfection'... inside the Orange County Museum of Art.
‘Beauty in Imperfection’… inside the Orange County Museum of Art. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

“It doesn’t bother me,” says a cheerful Heidi Zuckerman, director of OCMA. “I believe in wabi-sabi – I think there is a beauty in imperfection. Sometimes you can only appreciate a finished thing by experiencing it unfinished.” She joined the museum in January 2021, halfway through construction, inheriting a project that already had a long and tortured history. “There were 17 designs,” she says, “over 14 years.”

Morphosis won the competition in 2007, when the museum was to more than double its size, and have a luxury apartment tower sprouting from its roof. The financial crisis of 2008 put paid to the wisdom of museums engaging in speculative real estate ventures, and the project was drastically scaled back. The design originally featured a wide staircase leading from ground level to a public roof terrace, but discussions about tickets and security scrapped that idea. Instead, an obstructed remnant of the staircase now lies in front of the museum, cut down like an abandoned fragment of another project, blocking the view of the ground-floor cafe and shop, and generally confusing visitors.

“Do you know where the entrance is?” ask a retired couple, as I stand with Welling at the orphan stairs, where an aggressively angled glass balustrade seems intended to keep out many lingerers. Above, out of reach, another broad staircase ascends to the second floor roof terrace, cut off from the ground level stairs, like estranged siblings never to be reunited. Just to rub it in, the museum is now free and ticketless, so the staircase could have continued from the plaza to the roof terrace after all.

OCMA is the latest addition to an arts campus in downtown Costa Mesa, located just off the San Diego Freeway, where a hotel, offices and stucco apartment blocks blend with the air of a suburban business park. The late Henry Segerstrom, a local developer who spent his billions building one of the country’s most profitable shopping centers nearby, in what used to be the family’s butter bean fields, founded the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 1983. He started with a gigantic pink granite opera house, its mighty stone arch exuding 80s power-dressing, followed by a rippling glass-fronted concert hall and theater in 2006, by César Pelli. Segerstrom donated the last corner lot to OCMA in 1998, when the museum planned to relocate, having started in 1962 as a pavilion in Newport Beach, six miles south. It took until now, with multiple changes of leadership, to see this materialize.

If you come by car — as most people do in Orange County — you have a choice of five parking garages, the closest of which, for $20, deposits you in an office forecourt at the rear of the museum. So you don’t arrive at the entrance, but at the loading bay, where a long blank facade of gray metal grates offers an inauspicious welcome. A locked, unmarked door, with a sign reading “no roof access,” leads to the public roof terrace, which the museum hopes to open as the primary daytime route to the terrace. It has less of the feeling of climbing the Spanish Steps in Rome, as Mayne imagined, and more of the feeling of moving a fire escape up the dumpsters.

Whirling… the atrium of the Orange County Museum of Art.
Whirling… the atrium of the Orange County Museum of Art. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

Once you’ve walked around the building to find the entrance, and as long as you don’t look up, things start to improve. From the swirling atrium, a shallow slope leads down to the main galleries, a pair of large, six-meter-high rooms that can be subdivided, where angled ceiling fins flood the space with artificial ambient light. To the side, a long street window faces a corridor gallery, where a colorful mural provides a jazzy billboard, and the pavement runs inwards to form a bench. A staircase leads to a crescent-shaped mezzanine gallery, which spits you back into the atrium, and the uneasy vortex of clashing panels. The floor above houses a restaurant (open but also unfinished) and a bar, where a glass bridge leads to an education space – prominently housed in the large swinging hump that leans over the square below. Another couple stands at the bar, hopefully asking if there’s more art up there, but it turns out the enticing glass bridge above is just for maintenance access.

It’s easy to see why they might be disappointed. It’s a blessing that this place is free (for the first 10 years, thanks to a donation by Lugano Diamonds), but in the end the museum didn’t get much bang for its buck. Cladding kinks, stair accidents and entrance swirls aside, the building is still missing. Like many projects from the Morphosis stable, this resulted in a very elaborate and expensive envelope, which screams its rollercoaster acrobatics at full volume, enveloping a series of interior spaces that have little to do with the performative shell. Almost a generation in the making, it feels like the last death rattle of a bygone century, the last gasp of an era preoccupied with novel form for form’s sake. Perhaps it is fitting that this flimsy, paper-thin architecture is held together with duct tape.

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