Academy's New Movie Museum Designers: 'Don't Call It a Museum'

Renzo Piano Zoltan Pali Split - H 2012

Renzo Piano Zoltan Pali Split - H 2012

Noted architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali, who have been tapped to renovate the old May Company building, want to create a space for visitors to get lost in the process of filmmaking.

With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement Wednesday that it has chosen noted architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali to renovate the old May Company building on Wilshire Boulevard that will house its new movie museum, the question of what the museum itself should be called moved front and center.

With a goal of raising $100 million in donations by October – and with plans to open the museum’s doors by early 2016 – Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said that the only name that the museum will carry will be that of the Academy itself. However, within the building’s interior, there will be naming opportunities for its individual components.

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The two celebrity architects – whose very names by themselves should attract donor interest – meanwhile argued that the museum shouldn’t necessarily even be called a museum.

“When you go into a movie theater, you are supposed to forget you are in a movie theater,” Pali explained. Similarly, rather than offer up static displays, he said that he and Piano, in their first collaboration, hope to create a space that will allow visitors to get lost in the history and process of making movies just as if they were losing themselves in an actual movie. “Our mission here,” he said, “is simply when you come to this place, which we don’t really want to call a museum, we want to call it something else, it makes you forget that you are in such a place."

Both Piano and Pali are intimately familiar with the structure and its possibilities. The Pritzker Prize-winning Piano designed the recent expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which owns the May Co. building and struck a preliminary deal with the Academy to turn it into a movie museum last year. Pali, who has designed the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, also had previously studied LACMA West, as the May Co. building also is known, when it was being considered for other uses.

“The great part of this, both architects know the LACMA campus, they know the building incredibly well,” Hudson said. “So we have not just gained talent but we have gained a lot of experience with this dream team of architects.”

Rather than use the word museum, Pali said, the renovated structure should be regarded as “a cultural center” for the movies. “A museum gives you the sense that this picture is hanging on a wall or a sculpture is standing in the middle of the floor,” he explained, “but this is going to be something different.”

Both architects praised the existing building, designed by Albert C. Martin and S.A. Marx in 1940, and said they would keep its existing facades largely intact.

“I think it’s a great building,” said Piano, noting that from its fifth floor he had looked north to the heart of Hollywood itself. “So we don’t have to touch too much of it. You have to respect the existing layers. It’s a fantastic piece of history.”

“We’re planning to keep it all intact,” Pali added of the building’s exterior. “The façades are historical monuments to the city. It is our goal to retain and restore them. We may be planning some things we may add to tie it together [with the existing LACMA buildings]. Those things we don’t know yet. But we have had conversations about doing some things, very light touches to tie it together with the rest of the campus. But the real goal of it is to bring it all back to its glory of the ‘30s and the ‘40s, to really make that piece shine on that corner.”

While Piano and Pali are just beginning to work on the general concept and design of the building, they eventually plan to bring in an exhibition designer and also consult with Academy members about the museum’s contents. “But first we have to get our hands around the bigger ideas,” Pali said.