The sturdy, cheap and highly manipulable properties that made corrugated metal the building material du jour for architects in the '90s also gave condo developments and home remodels an air of loft-living bohemianism that personified design-savvy Santa Monicans and their arty enclave. But today its utilitarian chic has run dry and the unfortunate Santa Monica Museum of Flying is a testament to how tired the look has become.
Things have not been easy for the museum. Originally founded as the Donald Douglas Museum and Library in 1974, it moved to the north side of the Santa Monica Airport in April 1989 as the re-established Museum of Flying, but remained hampered by financing and internal staffing problems. It even shuttered its doors in 2002, but in 2009 signed a new lease with the City of Santa Monica for the current location at 3100 Airport Ave. For all the planning and fundraising involved, the recent renovation was a hurried one, from February 2011 to now (they've just planted landscaping in the past few weeks).
The existing building at 3100 Airport Ave. was increased in size by a whopping 8,000 square feet with a prefab-steel building extension brought in to join the main building to an existing strip of hangars at the back of the lot. Needless to say, the challenge -- to visually unite all the different sized hangars, roof angles, boxy buildings and curving parking lot -- was a steep one, but it is that problem exactly that a good architect would see as an opportunity.
Sadly, this brand-spanking-new renovation (though you'd never know it from out front, except for maybe the construction pylons) offers very little besides vast, gray walls of rippling metal that melt into the sky on a gray day and make the building a pallid backdrop for the cars parked in the front parking lot. Initial renderings by Anaheim-based Solberg Architects showed a slightly snazzier color scheme that has failed to materialize. It's a shame, and makes you want to slip this metal-clad, snooze-fest some Zoloft.
Architects using industrial materials is nothing new -- the history stretches all the way back to the 1920s. L.A.'s "industrial" phase began as a spinoff from the deconstructivist style -- which the French started in the 1970s. L.A. architects like Gehry (first) and then followers Morphosis (in the '80s before Michael Rotundi left the partnership), Frank Israel and Eric Moss incorporated hefty metals, big bolts, rivets, even sewer pipes into their designs as signifiers in a new mode of thinking about building buildings. All of them were working toward a dismantling of conventional architectural traditions, and when applied to a house, a gallery, an office space or a piece of furniture, industrial materials and techniques firmly separated their designs from those of the past.
But that's not what's happening at the Museum of Flying. This building is not taking a stand against convention, it's wallowing in it. The biggest mystery here is why would an institution pay an architect to design an industrial building that's just an industrial building. Everyone knows you can buy those online, and, in fact, the museum is built with a variation of these buildings. If the intention was for the museum to look like other hangar-type buildings on the grounds of the airport, it failed to accomplish that goal, too. It's closer to a cheaply built office park.
Making an industrial building that looks and acts like an industrial building isn't very hard. Maybe budget restraints are still to blame, and so we're left wondering, in these hard times: Is the severed, FedEx airplane hull stuck on to the front a desperate attempt at branding sponsorship?