Petersen Automotive Museum's Polarizing Facade Mirrors Its Cutting-edge Cars

L.A.’s new museum avoids expected routes with its controversial building.

L.A.’s new museum avoids expected routes with its controversial building.

“How do you make history interesting? You can educate people, but it you’re not entertaining them, then they won’t be coming back,” says Terry Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. He’s not talking animatronics or foam-board dioramas. Having led a $125 million capital campaign that saw the 21-year-old institution embraced in a ribbon-like steel façade, Karges will inaugurate a wholly revamped Petersen this December. Galleries have been revamped, pedestrian flow rerouted, 175 flat screen displays wired up, and some of the world’s rarest automobiles given sumptuous new parking spaces.

When automakers redesign an iconic model, they must weigh careful iteration against overhaul. The Petersen’s transformation is staggering, turning what was once a drab, poorly lit redoubt of car-geekery on L.A.’s Museum Row into a state-of-the-art facility for a broader cross-section of L.A. museumgoer. Indeed, Karges sees the Petersen in league with new cultural institutions such as the Diller Scofodio + Renfro-designed Broad contemporary art museum, in L.A.’s revived downtown. (The two buildings, it mist be noted, bear absolutely no resemblance.)

“What we set out to do was create a 21st-century museum,” Karges says. ‘We went around the world, trying to learn how to best present the information and objects we have.” The field trip comprised 30 museum visits, including stops at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Louvre, the Delugan Meissl-designed Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, the BMW Welt in Munich. Despite the Petersen’s focus on the automobile—that most ubiquitous if fiendishly complex object of industrial design—the exercise taught the museum team “not to over-tech things,” Karges says. “Otherwise you rise losing the warmth.”

About that warmth: There’s the Mullin gallery, which presents 19 cars under the permanent exhibition name “Rolling Sculpture.” Peter Mullin is perhaps the world’s foremost collector of pre-war French automobiles (as well as chairman of the Petersen’s board), and the gallery will count at any moment 10 of his sensuous Delahayes, Bugattis, and Talbot-Lagos. Two floors down and roughly 85 years removed, students from the ultra-prestigious Transportation Design program at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design can be observed using CAD software, 3-D printers, and clay modeling knives under the direction of Stewart Reed, the program’s longtime director. In between, museumgoers may be distracted by one of 10 Forza Motorsport racing simulators. Or Saddam Hussein’s glossy black 1978 Mercedes-Benz 600 Landaulet limousine, or a children’s educational exhibit virtually guided by Pixar’s Cars personalities.

That is, presuming people get past the front doors. “Polarizing” is a diplomatic descriptor of the new exterior design, though far less charitable things have been levied against it. “The Guy Fieri of buildings,” wrote Curbed. “The Edsel of architecture,” noted an Instagram user quoted by the Los Angeles Times, a reference to a notoriously unloved-but now collectible—Ford from the ‘50s. Karges doesn’t welcome the controversy, but he isn’t shaken by it either.

“Take a Ferrari Testa Rossa,” he says. “Some people might say its uncomfortable. Well, those people don’t get the Testa Rossa or what it was meant for. We needed to make a change. It used to be that you could drive past our building and not notice it. It needed a facelift. It was pretty ugly.”

Singular Edsels have brought more than $100,000 in recent years. The Petersen may just be, like some of the cars in its care, ahead of its time.

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