Michael Maltzan
Photo by Ron Eshel

Michael Maltzan: “That changes the dynamic”

Short Profile

Name: Michael Maltzan
DOB: 10 October 1959
Place of birth: Long Island, New York, United States
Occupation: Architect

Mr. Maltzan, your architecture firm recently finished its renovation of LA’s Hammer Museum, which has taken over two decades to complete. What is it like to spend more than 20 years working on a building?

Well, I don't think any of us went into it thinking that it was going to take over 20 years, so in that sense, there was a little bit of naivete involved! That was a project that was very much about the complete transformation of a museum that had long existed in the city, but had largely fallen out of anybody's consciousness. It was very sleepy, and quite anonymous in terms of the culture of Los Angeles. Ann Philbin, the museum’s director was brand new when we started the project, and she understood inherently that the museum had to change, it had to transform. But this was at a moment where museums were changing from a form that was traditionally a storehouse keeping important artifacts safe, to something that was a destination, more of an experience for people. Much of our work was to try to reimagine how a museum could change its relationship to its audience, how we would go about that, and what that meant for the museum physically.

What did you find out in terms of the answers to those questions?

We firstly focused on trying to open up the museum, to make it more transparent, or at least more physically accessible. So that the museum didn't have such a completely inward focus, but connected to the city around it, and started to blur the line of separation. Then we also thought about how you would add new types of programs that are now thought of as inevitable in most institutions: restaurants, education spaces, multipurpose spaces, and how those spaces needed to be rethought, what new types of spaces might need to be invented for the museum so that artists who were working in non-traditional ways would have spaces to show their work and also have the audience interact with it.

“Even when you’re not physically working on a project, it still affects the way you think about architecture, it’s still a part of your evolving conceptual framework about what architecture is.”

But if you’re working on a project over such a vast period of time — what happens if there’s a breakthrough in technology or an evolution in culture that allows you to achieve your goals in a better way? How do you keep up with the changing times?

I think that being forced to constantly reevaluate your overall master plan is something very unique about the Hammer Museum project, but it’s also the most interesting and profound part of it! Most museums are built as brand new museums, and they happen relatively quickly — which still means sometimes six or seven years. But when they're done, for the most part, they're done, and you hope that they have anticipated how art and audience expectations would continue to evolve. But inevitably, as you mentioned, these things move in ways that are very difficult to predict. And so with the Hammer Museum, we had to keep rethinking where culture was, and how museums were connecting to it. We were in a very contemporary lockstep, a kind of real time design process with culture over the last 25 years. So while the big master plan held the framework, a lot of our basic ambitions from the beginning changed slightly or were tweaked to respond to how everything was evolving.

In that respect, was it difficult to figure out when the building was complete?

Well, at the Hammer Museum, I actually still don't think we're complete! Someone asked me last year how it felt to be to be done, and I think my response was that we weren't finished, because you can already see that there are small things that are starting to crop up where the museum probably will continue to change and evolve certain spaces in a funny way. The ability to keep rethinking the spaces has become in a very deep part of the Hammer’s personality, so I imagine that is going to be the way that it continues to think about its future. It will stay a dynamic entity. And then even when you're not physically working on a project, it still affects the way you think about architecture, it's still a part of your evolving conceptual framework about what architecture is.

The architect David Chipperfield says there’s no real finish line in architecture, that even after a building is complete, it settles into its surroundings and adapts to them.

David is absolutely correct, it's never done. Even when a building is ostensibly complete and you stop working on it, it starts its life in the world and it changes, it evolves, it takes on complexities you couldn't have expected. There's something about buildings that subsume themselves. They become absorbed in culture, in the physicality of the city. And that's interesting: how does a building physically participate in a city? How does it become part of the urban fabric?

That’s an integral point for your practice, right? Your firm is highly interested in buildings and structures that provide a kind of civic infrastructure.

Yes, I mean, taking Los Angeles as an example, we have lots of places and spaces for parallel experience, but not a lot for collective ones. Think of a piazza in a traditional city in Italy, that’s a space for collective experience. We’re sort of all driving on the same highway, but we’re not experiencing together. And I think those spaces are very important, especially for a city that has many cultures, but is divided and spaced apart. So with something like the 6th Street Viaduct, our project called Ribbon of Light, I began to think about how the bridge could become part of that civic and city life. Now there have been a number of large urban city parties held there, people are coming from all over, it's an opportunity for the city to actually be together in a shared experience. People are bringing their families, they’re racing their cars, there are people dancing in the street, others are taking photographs on the bridge. I’m surprised and excited by that kind of emotion taking place there.

Ribbon of Light wasn’t always met with that kind of emotion and excitement though — apparently the initial reaction from the public was quite negative, there was a bit of resistance to the idea.

There wasn’t just a bit of resistance, there was enormous resistance! There was a lot of fear that the bridge that they loved that was such a symbol or icon of their histories within the city was going to disappear. And that was really at the heart of the city's motivation to turn this project from a more traditional infrastructure project to one that changed the responsibility of the new design. Aside from, you know, needing to get cars from one side to another, it was an opportunity to rethink what kind of role infrastructure has in a city like LA. Highways and freeways are a monoculture that only do one thing: they take cars from one place to another. In fact, they do a lot of negative things; often they separate people geographically, creating barriers and walls within the city. We wanted it to be used by bicycles and pedestrians, we wanted to create a web of connections with bridges and ramps that connected. We wanted to make it an amenity that could weave together many relationships, that people could really climb all over.

Sort of like a gathering place, almost like a landmark or attraction in addition to its original uses.

Exactly, I mean, if you think about places like Times Square in New York, or as I mentioned, a piazza in an Italian or Spanish city… One of the goals in my work over the years has been to try to build those spaces. Even the affordable housing that we've done over the years is always built around an idea of a community space at the center. That really changes the dynamic for the individuals living there, but also for the wider community that inevitably becomes much more positive and lively. And that then contributes to the life of the individual. So in that way, architecture can really be an important and integral microcosm of the city.