Piano, Pali to Convert Moderne Landmark into Movie Museum

May 30, 2012

By Fred A. Bernstein

Historic May Company Building
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

In Los Angeles, the historic May Company Building (1939) will be turned into a museum for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali
Photo © A.M.P.A.S.
The Academy announced today that architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali will design the museum.
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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has owned the Art Deco building at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue—home of the May Company department store from 1939 to 1993—for almost 20 years, but has never quite known what to do with it. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying to build a museum for decades. The two institutions have now formed an alliance to solve those problems.

On Wednesday, the Academy announced that it has hired Renzo Piano Building Workshop, which has designed much of the LACMA campus, and Zoltan Pali, principal of spf:architects, a Culver City firm, to convert the historic landmark into a movie museum. The Academy will lease the building—designed by Albert C. Martin and S.A. Marx and completed in 1939—from LACMA. The facility could open as early as 2016.

Piano said that he treasures the building, not least because it’s roughly the same age as he. (The architect was born in 1937.) Piano said the challenge will be to create something new inside while keeping the building’s façade intact. He noted that the edifice represents a golden age in Hollywood: It opened the same year that Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz were released.

The project is a breakthrough for Pali, who had already been working on a plan for the May Company building for LACMA before Piano was hired. Pali has renovated several important performance venues in California and worked with Machado and Silvetti on the restoration of the Getty Villa in Malibu, for which he served as executive architect. This time, Pali will be a full collaborator. “We’ve joined forces,” Piano said. “If Zoltan did not exist, he should be invented. Design is like playing ping-pong.”

Piano said he doesn’t like calling the new institution a museum because “a museum is place where you preserve things,” and the goal of this project is to create an experience rather than a mere display. The Academy’s CEO, Dawn Hudson, said an exhibition designer has not yet been chosen. She added that the museum’s contents would be determined, in part, by the by the “geniuses in the Academy”– meaning, among others, directors and production designers, who are also likely to be donors.

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