Futuristic home of the $1 billion Lucas Museum rises in LA
By Adam Nagourney
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — It was chased out of Chicago by preservationists, only to become the object of a bidding war between Los Angeles and San Francisco. When George Lucas finally decided to build his $1 billion museum in Los Angeles, its arrival was jeered by some critics who saw it not as a civic gift but a vanity project. The museum is “a terrible idea,” wrote Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Since then, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has been beset by more delays: it is not expected to open until 2025, seven years after ground was first broken on a parking lot across the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a promised 2021 opening.
But even in the haze of construction, a seemingly endless swirl of workers, cranes and girders, the enormous scope of the project is coming into focus as its futuristic new home rises in Exposition Park: a grand homage to one of the nation’s best-known filmmakers, and a massive repository for his eclectic collection of 100,000 paintings, photographs, book illustrations and comic book drawings.
Its huge expanse of curving gray metal hovers over the landscape like a low-flying spaceship, or perhaps the unfinished Death Star being built in “Return of the Jedi,” a fitting tribute to its namesake and patron, who created the Star Wars franchise. It stands five stories high, with enough gallery space to fill 1 1/2 football fields, and it takes 15 minutes to walk across its sprawling campus.
“We are committed to creating an incredibly complicated building,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the museum’s director, on a bright and beautiful Los Angeles afternoon as she led a visitor on a tour that, even after a full hour, did not cover all the corners and crannies of the building. “There isn’t a straight line in the whole place.”
On the one hand, the delays, the latest detours on the project’s long road to completion, are a result of a pandemic that has slowed projects across the nation.
But the slow pace is also evidence of the dramatic construction and design ambitions brought to this legacy project by Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, the co-chief executive officer of the asset management firm Ariel Investments.
That includes more than 1,500 individually fabricated curved panels of fiberglass-reinforced polymer that make up the building’s shell, three starship-like curved-glass elevators, an elliptical oculus, a rooftop garden dotted with full-grown trees and two 299-seat theaters, all resting on 281 seismic base isolators to protect the building — and its valuable collection of art — from a catastrophic earthquake.
It was designed by Ma Yansong, one of China’s most prominent architects; its gardens and parks were conceived by Mia Lehrer, the landscape architect.
“It’s fair to say that the ambition of it has contributed to the time it has taken,” said Michael Siegel, the executive architect. He noted, in particular, the burden of the unique panels.
“So you have to design, engineer, fabricate all those extraordinary unique pieces and create a system for assembling them,” he said. “It’s a monumentally complicated undertaking.”
Despite the name on the door and the pedigree, it will not be a museum devoted to Lucas’ film career, which began when he was 25 and working as an intern for Francis Ford Coppola in 1969 and visited the barn-studio of filmmaker John Korty in Stinson Beach. Both Lucas and Coppola became enchanted with the idea of establishing a rebel filmmaking community in Northern California. They joined with Korty to set up their communal headquarters in San Francisco, a company that would eventually become American Zoetrope.
In 1980, the year that his film “The Empire Strikes Back” opened, Lucas was back in Marin and beginning construction of what would become his corporate headquarters: Skywalker Ranch, in Lucas Valley north of San Rafael. In 2000, he began construction of Big Rock Ranch, an $87 million special-effects, high-tech video complex, close to Skywalker Ranch. Lucas’s Marin County operations would expand beyond filmmaking and special effects to include computer games and animation production.
Then in November 2004 came the shocking news: Lucasfilm Ltd. and its subsidiaries were moving to the Presidio in San Francisco in 2005, taking with them approximately 1,500 jobs.
His company relocated in the Presidio’s Letterman Digital Arts Center, an 800,000-square-foot, four-building complex. Videogame maker LucasArts Entertainment was the first to make the move, followed a few months later by Industrial Light & Magic, which had been in San Rafael.
While the Lucas Museum will display some Star Wars-related pieces and other parts of the Lucasfilm archive, it has broader aspirations.
It is, as its name suggests, a museum devoted to art that tells stories — a rather imprecise label that includes a mix of works by artists ranging from Norman Rockwell to Robert Crumb, along with pieces by Frida Kahlo, Maxfield Parrish, Jacob Lawrence, Judy Baca and many, many others.
Deciding on a site between the two California locations became the source of yet another heated rivalry between the two always-competing cities, with San Francisco offering Treasure Island with its scenic views in the middle of the bay as a home that the museum would have had virtually to itself.
But L.A. seemed an obvious choice for Lucas, not just because of its film industry legacy. He is an alumnus of the film school at the University of Southern California, which is right across the street from the museum site.
The 300,000-square-foot museum stands out even in a wave of cultural construction that has churned ahead in Los Angeles: the $650 million David Geffen Galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, set to open next year; the 24-year reconstruction of the Hammer Museum that will be completed later this month; and the Academy Museum, which opened in 2021.
“It’s a very significant addition to the cultural scene of not just California but to the West Coast,” said Michael Govan, the head of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA. “You can start to feel the impact that such a huge gift is going to have. That’s the big deal. Since it’s not public money — whatever George wants to do he can do. It’s a beautiful thing and you can see it.”
Govan, whose own project is running about 11 months behind schedule, and was financed with private donations and public funds, dismissed questions about the delays.
“My view is — remember with the Academy Museum, when everyone kept talking about delays?” Govan said. “I mean who cares? What you should care about is, is it being done well.”
Its opening has been pushed back twice, to 2023 and then 2025, reflecting setbacks many projects have suffered during this era of work stoppages and supply-chain snags caused by the pandemic. “I came here in January 2020,” Jackson-Dumont recalled. “We walked out the door 60 days later with everyone not knowing when we could get back to the office.”
Lucas and Hobson, who live in San Anselmo, ultimately settled on a part of Los Angeles that is often overshadowed by more familiar destinations like Hollywood and Santa Monica. That gives it its own stage as it seeks to make a mark on the civic landscape of Southern California.
In any event, it seem seems no corner has been cut and no cost spared. Museum officials said that funding from Lucas and Hobson accounted for any potential cost overruns caused by the pandemic or the complications of the design.
“We are not talking about costs, but I will say George and Mellody are committed to creating this museum,” said Jackson-Dumont. “As a legacy project and also a commitment to art history.”
Other cultural construction projects have not been hampered — or as hampered — by the pandemic. The $550 million overhaul of the New York Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center home — resulting in the reopening of David Geffen Hall last fall — was accelerated during the pandemic, as workers took advantage of the shutdown as they transformed the interior of the 1962 building while leaving its exterior intact.
After all these years, people could be forgiven for wondering if this museum will ever be finished. But now, the more intriguing question is whether a project of this ambition can draw the crowds needed to fill its vast halls, and escape becoming an intergalactic version of a white elephant.
Rahm Emanuel, who, as mayor of Chicago, fought unsuccessfully to convince his city to approve the Lucas Museum, said he had always been certain the museum would have been a huge boon.
“I can’t speak to the gain for LA, but I can speak to the loss for Chicago,” Emanuel said. “It was competitive and we wanted it. The museum would have been an incredible contribution.”
“You can see I still get emotional talking about this,” he said in a telephone interview from Japan, where he now serves as the U.S. ambassador.
Jackson-Dumont came to Los Angeles after serving as the chair of the education department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She said she knew the project would be daunting before she arrived, but that the pandemic made it even more challenging than she could have imagined.
“I am not frustrated,” she said. “To open a building that is going to be a 200-year proposition, I think we should take a second to make sure we are getting things right — and getting it right when the entire world seems to be coming to pieces.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.