Streamlining a Classic:
Los Angeles’ Petersen Car Museum

Designed by Welton Becket in 1962, the building at 6060 Wilshire Boulevard began as a Seibu department store along Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. In the stretch of road bracketed by Fairfax and Highland Avenues, right beside the La Brea tar pits, the Miracle Mile has served as an airport landing strip, an oil field, a successful commercial avenue, an unsuccessful commercial avenue, and most recently, the 1.5 miles have become the epicenter of museum culture in Los Angeles.

L: Seibu Department Store, 1962. Welton Becket, architect and photograph by Martin Rand.R: Aerial view of the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Avenues showing Rogers Airport, 1920. USC Digital Library.

When acquired by the Petersen Automobile Museum in 1992, 6060 Wilshire had sat empty for six years after retailer Orbach’s closed shop in 1986. Good at keeping the classic automobiles protected from damaging sunlight, the Welton Becket-designed retail store building hardly fit the character of a museum, and less one that housed a sizable hunk of automobiling history. It was just a dumb box. Sitting squat and square at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, nothing could be further from the detailed curves and sweeping lines of the Petersen’s collection, which included a 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom and Steve McQueen’s 1956 Jaguar XKSS.

May 1963—Steve McOueen tooling around LA in his Jaguar XK-SS. Photograph by John Dominic / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images.

For twenty-two years after Robert E. Petersen first established a museum to share his private car collection, 6060 Wilshire changed little as the museum grew, and grew. In the fall of 2014, the Petersen was in the position to update 6060 Wilshire into a building that fit better and felt better. The museum needed a facelift. The blank facade, while beautifully minimal, didn’t satisfy the larger objective of having a remarkable building represent the remarkable collection housed inside. The building should announce itself on the Miracle Mile; not blend into the background.

The Petersen board couldn’t build from scratch. They had to re-skin a building that already existed to take advantage of code issues that would otherwise make a redesign take far too long and cost far too much. What began as a constraint—to rebuild a building that is already built—became a huge design opportunity. In a project that could have easily been dismissed as a graphic exercise, the architectural design team, led by KPF Principal Trent Tesch realized the desires of the client, but also captured the historical, physical, and cultural context surrounding the museum in the final design.

Context is anything and everything. Context is material, when factors such as the geometries of the surrounding buildings, or the character of the natural setting, whether they are high and sharp like mountains, or smooth and flowing like a neighboring river, affect the way an architect shapes the final building design. Context is also immaterial, many times a response to the local culture, use patterns of the program, or possibly a political or economic statement.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman put it best when he said, ‘Buildings don’t exist in a vacuum. They may be remarkable looking and innovative, but they’re not sculptures. They have to work. They exist on streets, in communities and cities, in the landscape and our daily lives. They’re inseparable from issues like urbanism and economic development, from politics, infrastructure and questions about social equity, the environment and technology.’1

Note 01

Erika Allen, ‘Michael Kimmelman on Architecture Criticism and the Dangers of Demolition,’ New York Times, March 04, 2015. Accessed June 2015.

The consideration of context is essential in the architectural design of any building because a high-rise office tower built in and for New York City should be very different than a car museum built in and for Los Angeles. When an architect conducts a careful and thoughtful consideration of a building’s context, the resultant design will not only be uniquely suited to the people and place it serves, but also present an entirely new experience of that very same place. The re-design of the Petersen, whether you love it or hate it, is the tectonic translation of contextual elements that include the car museum program, Los Angeles transportation, and the unique history of the Petersen founding and its place in Southern California car culture.

The Petersen museum redesign is highly contextual even though it doesn’t look like anything around it.

Central Park West. Photo by Beverly Goodwin.
Context sketch of museum’s position on the Miracle Mile. The Petersen is at the intersection of S. Fairfax and Wilshire Boulevard.

Firstly, unlike the many other European, Asian, and American cities that are meant to be admired at walking pace, Los Angeles is made for wheels.2 The urban fabric of Los Angles is loose and messy. Sure, the city was planned on a grid, but that grid is imperceptible in the vertical. There aren’t any classical high street walls (like you’d see along Central Park South in New York City, or Michigan Avenue in Chicago) that mark avenues and hold the admiring gaze of the pedestrian. Instead, residents and visitors alike drive through the spread-out city, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in 15, 20, or 30 minute increments. Los Angeles is a city measured in time, not in miles.

Note 02

Wheels are both automobiles and bikes.

In his book, Architecture of the Four Ecologies, British architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote that ‘…the language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement. Mobility outweighs monumentality there to a unique degree…’ Moreover he argues that, ‘…the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently throughout its diffuse urban texture…So, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.’3

Note 03

Reyner Banham, Architecture of the Four Ecologies (Berkeley: University of California Press) pg. 5.
Stills from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972), BBC.

Driving up Wilshire toward the old Seibu department store, the building remained invisible until the driver was practically on top of it, at the moment of turning the corner. In this context, that of Los Angeles, it was not only acceptable, but desirable for the new Petersen to be eye-catching; it had to be over-the-top.

Snapshots of the pre-renovation drive up to the Petersen show how the building remains hidden along the street view for all visitors driving up Wilshire.
Petersen museum today.

Speaking of his aspirations for the building’s design, Petersen board member David Sydorick outlined his three wishes for the new museum. Movement and flow would be an important inspiration, but also the color red, and that the building would break from its orthogonal, right angled box.

For the Petersen, a museum that knew itself to be distinctly Southern Californian, Robert Petersen’s legacy (which began when he started his publishing empire at age 22, selling copies of the first issue of Hot Rod magazine at the nation’s first custom car exhibition) wasn’t represented at all in Becket’s white stucco building, whose classically inspired colonnade and mostly blank facade were designed to be a backdrop to the Japanese designed goods sold inside.

L2: Hot Rod magazine covers: December 1952 and March 1953.R: ‘Interesting and unusual display’ of china and glassware. Seibu Department store. Herald Examiner Collection / Los Angeles Public Library.

The smooth white box at 6060 Wilshire was totally anti-aerodynamic, the building was aloof. It was anathema to the rumbling, roaring, highly individualized and personal nature of car ownership. Today, car technology favors the automated. Even the most basic car models are now filled with computers and electronically controlled operations. Yet, cars weren’t always so complicated. In Robert Petersen’s youth, cars could be tinkered with. Taking matters one step further, enthusiasts could buy a cheap, old Model-T body and remake the entire car entirely. For Petersen and his peers, Southern California, with its endless stretches of dry lake beds, was the ideal place to test out modified hot rods, each racing faster and lighter; made-to-measure cars hacked apart and put back together with larger engines, more horsepower, and untamed paint jobs.

Founded on the mission to ‘concentrate on the best, most interesting and most beautiful cars from around the world, and tell the story of Southern California and the automobile,” the Petersen Museum had to step up.

Note 05

The Petersen Sets the Record Straight: July 20, 2013

Measuring forces such as drag, pitch, yaw, and roll, surface pressure and moments, the imagery of the smoke trails of wind tunnel testing answered the question of how to make 6060 Wilshire an embodiment of the devotion and thrills of the Petersen collection and Southern California car culture, which are savored within. There are a lot of ways an architecture can transmit the experience of power and of speed, but at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, the architects created a building that was utterly dynamic. Against a flaming red backdrop, the arcing ribbons of stainless steel not only evoke the sensation of movement, they literally keep the viewer’s eye moving across and around the entire building.

Wind tunnel testing.Photo from Mercedes-Benz Classic.

In collaboration with Zahner Fabrication, KPF rethought and retooled the construction process. Much of the making of the new Petersen had to be invented. How would the ribbons be supported along the existing building shell? By creating a series of tree-like supports, the architects were able to maintain the free flowing nature of the facade, which undulates as close as 3 inches to as a far as 40 feet from the building surface. Reaching as high as 81 feet, the architects and fabricators wanted to preserve as much lightness as possible. Unlike many buildings that lose some of their original spirit in the move from design to construction, the Petersen design kept getting better, iteration after iteration. The architects removed the harder angles and ‘islands’ that glitched up the overall smoothness of the facades design; they refined the joinery of how the silver and red flat panels would curve and converge, eliminating clumsy seams and transitions; they worked with Zahner to streamline the installation process, condensing the entire installation to five months.

Parts of the Petersen facade expanded.

In Kansas City, hundreds of ribbon sections begin as flat panels of steel and aluminum. First custom cut on Zahner’s water jet machine, the panels are next hand mounted on a rigid frame, individually sanded, and then transported from Zahner’s facilities to Los Angeles on flatbed trucks. With as many as twenty trucks arriving weekly, once the segments reach the site, each piece is slid onto the waiting frame and joined seamlessly together. Much like the automobile assembly process, where the car frame and body are pressed from precision molds and then hand assembled, the Petersen facade also melded hand and digital fabrication processes.

L: Custom-made stainless steel panels arriving by flatbed truck.R: Individual façade components being hoisted by crane and slotted into place.

It’s unclear if the Petersen museum design would actually come out a winner in a real wind tunnel test of time. But, what the museum’s design has done is to take a risk. In the same way that the Chrysler building, which is clad in stainless steel and features facade elements hewn from a corrosion-resistance chrome-nickel alloy replicas of car hood ornaments, posited its own homage to the automobile, the design of the Petersen is a tribute to the museums sincerest ambitions to the be the ‘best storytelling auto museum in the world.’

Note 07

Terry Karges, Petersen Executive Director, via KTLA mission statement.
L: Passenger drop off, which brings visitors directly into the heart of the museum.R: Walking alongside S. Fairfax Street. Across Wilshire, to the left of the photo, is the old May & Co. Department store building, finished in 1939. The building will become the new home to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2017.

For the museum community and the KPF design team, the dream was to reinvent the museum’s identity. It’s risky to follow a dream. During the three-year design and construction process, the project has attracted its share of all kinds of attention. Yet, as the project nears completion, the undeniable outcome has been one of transformation.

The new design shares and shows the enthusiasm shared by not just the museum officials, but the building transmits the excitement and joy felt by every single person who has built, driven, owned, or admired a particular car in the collection. The design would look vastly out of place anywhere else, but at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, its out-of-the-ordinary design invites you to take a look, stop in for a visit, and decide what you think.

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Project Type: Civic + Cultural
Project Location: Americas