Academy Museum Architect Exits Amid Tension

Zoltan Pali, left, and Renzo Piano

Zoltan Pali, the L.A.-based designer, has left the $300 million project after clashing with his famous counterpart, Renzo Piano.

Zoltan Pali, the respected Los Angeles architect hired to work on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ future movie museum, has been forced out of the project amid growing tension with Renzo Piano, his internationally renowned counterpart, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

AMPAS declined to comment. Both architects’ offices did not return calls.

Pali’s Culver City-based firm, SPF:a — best known locally for its recent transformation of the historic Beverly Hills Post Office into the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which opened last fall — was working on a renovation of the former May Company department store building on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus when the Academy announced in 2012 that it would use the firm for its $300 million facility dedicated to film.

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The combination of Piano and Pali (often foreign architects – Piano is based in Genoa, Italy, and his closest satellite office is in New York – are paired with local ones to more efficiently complete complex projects) would have seemed to be kismet, as Pali and his wife and business partner Judit Fekete had long admired Piano’s work, even naming the first of their two sons Renzo in his honor. “Now that I’ve actually met the man and am working with him, it’s kind of embarrassing,” Pali told L.A. Confidential magazine in a recent profile.

Yet sources say the imperious 76-year-old Piano, 1998’s recipient of the Pritzker Prize (the highest honor in architecture) who has been an icon in the field since his joint design with Richard Rogers on Paris’ Centre Pompidou in 1971, clashed with 53-year-old Pali over unspecified creative and practical issues related to the project. At root, though, was the fact that Piano hadn’t personally picked his junior partner. “When Zoltan was originally chosen by the Academy, it was not with Renzo’s approval,” says one AMPAS insider. “Renzo wanted Zoltan out and got his way.”

Piano’s determination to oust his partner is said to have been adamant. “Renzo told [Academy CEO] Dawn [Hudson] he’d quit,” says another Academy source with knowledge of the project. “There were always rumors that he threatened to quit LACMA a few times [during the development of Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum and Resnick Pavilion buildings]. But this was taken to a much more serious place.”

Piano’s ideas for redesigning the May Co. building, as well as adding a giant spherical theatre wing abutting it to the north, have come under scrutiny in recent months. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne published a withering review of the latest plan on Apr. 15 that was widely circulated in design circles. Drawing attention to perceived “dramatic flaws” of “one of the more strained designs” of Piano’s career, Hawthorne warned Academy members that they “may well have an architectural flop on their hands.”

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At the same time, sources say that during the past six months, various AMPAS leaders, and most notably Hudson, have struggled to rein in Piano. “There have been many trips to Italy, New York and even Paris to try to corral him,” says an Academy source. “There were big fights in New York about the theater, for example. There are serious issues with audience flow, the projection room, the acoustics, pretty much everything. But pricey materials and ‘the bubble’ are more important than the real needs of the staff or the organization. He has to think he’s in charge and has to think everything is his idea. The fear is we’re going to be saddled with whatever Renzo gives us, not what we need.”

The Academy museum has been a huge priority for Hudson, who was given a new three-year contract in May, as well as for the entire organization that puts on the Oscars each year. Scheduled to open in 2017, the project is scheduled to break ground later this year. THR reported in April that Kerry Brougher of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum has been tapped to lead the Academy Museum. 

Another Academy staffer attributes the trouble with Piano in large part to the Academy's and Hudson’s own auteurist view of what the design process should be. “The Academy never says no to Renzo," says the source. "And I know that the head of the organization feels like she shouldn’t question him because he’s such a talented architect, and the Academy likes the idea of itself as a cultivator of creative talent.”

More generally, this person adds: “Building projects always operate with the same competing questions: What’s it going to cost? Will it work the way I need it to work? And what does it look like? If you’re in charge of the project – if you’re the client – you’ve got to ask those questions at the beginning and keep asking them all the way to the end. Right now the questions of cost and how it actually works aren’t getting heard.”