In 1973, I.M. Pei was engaged to design a new art museum for Long Beach, California in an ambitious effort to revitalize the once thriving city. The museum was to be part of a 6-block, 22-acre complex envisioned as a center of civic engagement, including an already-built courthouse and municipal buildings plus a new city hall, library, convention center and hotel, with integrated retail and a large plaza with stadium seating for outdoor concerts.
The museum had been housed in a Craftsman style mansion since 1957, but the building (1912) was inadequate to serve as a modern museum, with insufficient storage and support, no space for public programs, education or conservation. Most significantly, it was incapable of hosting the large traveling exhibitions that drew enormous audiences (and great economic vitality) to museums in the United States throughout the 1970s. Pei would confront a similar challenge a few years later at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and subsequently at the Louvre and at other historic facilities ill-equipped to meet contemporary needs.
The unique thrust in Long Beach was not simply to create a repository for art – indeed, the museum decided not to build its permanent collection but to concentrate on highly varied traveling shows. The goal was to transform the museum into an active center of community life, a powerful and inclusive agent for contemporary expression offering the widest range of possibilities. The mandate was steeled by recent changes in nearby Pasadena Museum which, under new leadership, had rocked the southern California art world by turning away from contemporary art toward more established masters. Long Beach Museum director Jan Ernst Adlmann recognized Pei’s strategic role in mediating potential community resistance to the predominantly vanguard programming he envisioned. “Now more than ever,” he explained to colleagues, “I am confident that I.M. Pei could make our tight-rope walking less perilous, more daring, and ultimately rewarding.”
Pei designed the 75,000 square-foot building as a geometric matrix of separate, but integrated, parts. Curving out toward city hall plaza amid orthogonal neighbors is an elliptical slice that draws people in. Together with a long reflecting pool and landscaped sculpture court, it takes full advantage of Long Beach’s climate to create a welcoming garden that brings the museum experience outdoors. Housed inside are a ground-floor reception hall, bookstore, and indoor-outdoor restaurant; second floor administration offices; and a third-floor library. The iconic form is linked by skylit public spaces to the square heart of the museum: a quasi-independent art “Forum” for multi-media presentations, exhibitions, banquets, concerts, lectures – anything imaginable – in an endlessly adaptable space. Surrounding the Forum are triangular masses housing exhibition spaces on three floors. As Pei was addressing at the same time in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, a key issue was flexible exhibition space that could be joined for one large show or function as separate galleries for the simultaneous presentation of multiple smaller exhibitions.
Plans for the museum were developed through working drawings and sent out for bid. But the Great Inflation of the 1970s led the project to come in many times over its original budget. As construction would have necessitated a 14% tax increase, a bond issued to build the museum failed.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; W. Stephen Wood, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners