Tornado chasers, look no further: climb the vortex spiraling up three floors of the new Orange County Museum of Art and experience the eye of an architectural storm from the inside. It’s what Frank Lloyd Wright would have designed for the atrium of the Guggenheim in New York had he had a computer—a tumultuous passage churning between galleries spinning off a central spiral. OCMA is the exciting must-see building, one that breaks new architectural ground as it creates ideal viewing conditions in airy, 20-foot-tall galleries glowing with reflected light. From its opening day in October, the future-forward building has proved the largest object in the museum’s collection of contemporary art, an energy field at the center of the 200-acre South Coast Plaza, off the San Diego Freeway in Costa Mesa.
In the architectural sweepstakes now playing out between competing arts institutions in Orange County and Los Angeles, OCMA leaves L.A.’s museums—including the underwhelming, pancake-like behemoth being built to great controversy by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard—in the dust. Single-handedly, OCMA is giving culturally imperial L.A. a serious case of Orange County envy.
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
This tempest spinning off the 405 like a force of nature is an unlikely arrival in an Orange County cityscape that feels designed by traffic engineers, where manicured landscaping seems to apologize for the suburban blahs. But the design is no accident: it consummates a long-nurtured vision initiated by Henry Segerstrom, the grandson of a Swedish farmer who had owned what was originally a 40-acre plot of lima beans. Until he died in 2015, Segerstrom liked to introduce himself as the straight-talking farmer he was, but the entrepreneur with thousands of Southern California acres in the family land bank also had an MBA from Stanford and was once married to Yvonne de Chavigny Segerstrom, an accomplished painter, printmaker, and jeweler who introduced him to the visual arts. On his own, he developed a passion for architecture. According to his son Anton, Segerstrom liked to say, “All great civilizations have a cultural component. Without that, you’re just suburbia, without a heart.”
The fields that the Segerstrom family had cultivated since the late 19th century became, after World War II, a sprawling landscape of office buildings and light industrial complexes surrounding a hugely profitable luxury shopping center. Yet South Coast Plaza proves that sometimes a hill of beans does amount to something. Across the street, a mixed-use site that includes land donated by the family has arisen to become a cultural acropolis: the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Segerstrom, who believed in the power of architecture to shape the culture of a community, was the driving force in what has remained a family development enterprise. In the 1960s, the company hired Los Angeles architect Victor Gruen, then a leader in car-oriented postwar urban planning, to master-plan the 200-acre South Coast Plaza site, with its mix of offices, shopping, a hotel, and, perhaps most significantly, a cultural campus.
The roiling 53,000-square-foot OCMA, designed by Thom Mayne, a Los Angeles architect and Pritzker laureate, with partner-in-charge Brandon Welling and project architect Crystal Wang, completes Gruen’s vision and joins its comparatively staid siblings: a performing arts center, a repertory theater, and a concert hall that circle a large public square furnished with a people-friendly landscape of shade trellises and benches. (For more on Mayne, read a preview of his forthcoming monograph, M3: Modeled Works [Archive] 1972–2022.)
An architectural fragment of seating lies declaratively in front of the museum, but it’s Mayne’s surge of energy that gives this South Coast suburb its lively heartbeat.
While the curving glass facade of the concert hall, by New Haven, Connecticut, architect Cesar Pelli, rolls across the plaza like a set of waves, Mayne takes the waves and builds them into a Category 5 hurricane. Fittingly, Mayne, himself an unruly six-foot-plus inveterate nonconformist, wore cuffed jeans, a little like a farmer, to the museum’s inaugural press conference. His design walks on the wild side within an arrangement of buildings that, with the exception of Pelli’s, are cumulatively soporific (though not any sleepier than most other starched, column-bedecked civic ensembles advertising kultur). OCMA injects raw vitality into an otherwise overcontrolled environment where everything has its place, the nearby lawns and hedges clipped to a fare-thee-well.
OCMA is a disrupter. It is passion in steel, concrete, glass, and ceramic. And despite the spectacle, it is nuanced. The building never achieves a sense of completion or state of rest pegged, for example, to a center or axis. The design leaves the eye curious, wanting more. The building, explains Mayne, “is a fragment, not a whole.”
The zero point tethering his design to the square is the monumental Richard Serra sculpture Connector, a 65-foot-tall totem of coiled energy shaped in thick, torqued corten steel plates wrapping around one another. As if translating the twisting plates into architecture, Mayne streams an undulating ribbon of floating walls, surfaced in glistening ceramic tiles, over and across the museum’s facade on the plaza. Just inside, under the compressed ceiling of the lobby and bookstore, another wide ribbon sweeps across the space, twisting toward the vortex of ramps. In the entry area, Mayne teases visitors with a long band of windows offering a tantalizing glimpse of the 25,000-square-foot gallery beyond.
He says that the forms are not just “formalist” (form for the sake of form) but “connective tissue that brings people in.” The swirling staircase rises three stories to the museum restaurant on the top floor, its glass facade looking out at a 10,600-square-foot roof terrace.
Though Frank Lloyd Wright’s atrium at the Guggenheim comes to mind, Mayne has broken out of the regularity of Wright’s spinning top into the nonlinear order of disorder that chaos science revealed a generation ago through the computer. The effect on visitors, voluntary captives of this drama, is dazzling and even dazing, as if they were the wave-tossed survivors in Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa. More locally, the journey recalls the thrill rides at Disneyland, just up the highway in Anaheim.
Unlike Wright at the Guggenheim, Mayne separates the galleries from the spiraling staircase, isolating them from the calm of his 20-foot-high main gallery, just off the base of the vortex. This main gallery, the heart and raison d’être of the building, is currently subdivided into utterly peaceful and visually serene areas. Thick, long walls organized at right angles have a strong architectural presence, bringing the gravitas of their solidity to the space. No outlets, switches, or smoke detectors distract the eye. The ceiling, segmented with louvers, hides uplights that reflect off the bottom sides of them. Spotlights discreetly fixed along the edge of the louvers focus on individual paintings. “We went to work on the ceiling, making it really, really clean,” says Mayne. “The strong architectural gesture is at the front of the house, part of the public space.”
“The facade may be beautiful and awe-inspiring,” comments Anton Segerstrom, “but it’s balanced with these quiet art spaces. So we really are having both instead of either/or. It’s progressive in that way.”
The vortex leads to a second gallery, a lengthy boomerang-shaped room intended for a more intimate viewing experience around photography and smaller works of art and sculpture. The opening exhibition featured a collection of transparent resin sculptures, mostly disks, by Fred Eversley. The curving staircase continues to the third floor, where visitors can step into the climax of the vortex, a classroom with auditorium seating in a torqued volume that, from the outside, cantilevers over the entrance facing the plaza, the culmination of the spin that Mayne started at the ground. Walls inside this long, tall room are fragmented, as if broken up by the formal torsion.
But the major payoff of the vortex’s promenade into spatial wonder—with layered vistas, wall behind wall, railing behind railing—is the rooftop terrace. Serviced by the adjacent restaurant and bar, the roof visually extends the plaza below, an event space where lectures, meetings, performances, and concerts can take place on a regular basis in the Southern California weather, expanding the museum’s program. “The roof is engineered to support heavy sculpture,” says Segerstrom, who worked closely with Mayne in developing the project. “You can put a thousand people up there for a fundraiser.”
The building was 16 years in the making. In 2006, Mayne won the competition to design what was then a mixed-use development that included a 20-story condominium tower intended to pay for the museum’s construction. The financial crisis of 2008 put an end to the idea of condominiums. In the next iteration of the project, Mayne designed a 100,000-square-foot museum, but after a reality check on the $100 million construction costs, the museum board halved the building to its current size, with an original budget of $72 million. Working with Mayne throughout the project, Segerstrom spearheaded the financing (and emerged as the lead contributor).
The art museum itself started out 60 years ago as the Balboa Pavilion Gallery in Newport Beach, focused on contemporary artists from the Southland. Yvonne de Chavigny Segerstrom, a friend of its 13 female founders, was an early volunteer and docent who brought her son Anton to exhibitions when he was young. By contrast, Anton Segerstrom adds, “my father looked to New York and other major metropolitan areas to understand the integration of public art into the city.” His father engaged Frank Gehry to create his first independent project in 1967, a Joseph Magnin store, and hired Isamu Noguchi to design a zen garden, California Scenario, in 1979, behind a high-rise opposite the future cultural district. The sculptor carved a stream through a stone garden spotted with boulders as at a temple in Kyoto; a stand of redwoods forms a sacred grove.
OCMA is at once a natural home for its collection and a blended representation of Segerstrom’s parents’ interests. It’s “a lifelong, multigenerational commitment,” says Segerstrom. “In my opinion, the building is of international quality and probably the most interesting building in Orange County.”
OCMA’s design is iconic; its gestural ribbons of compound curves carve up space inside and out. Like an acrobat tossing off a difficult maneuver with the greatest of ease, the mastery of its execution belies the difficulty of its construction. The ribbons’ ceramic tiles are set in a geometry independent of the swirls. The tiles and ribbons produce two distinct actions at the same time, like a kid rubbing his tummy and patting his head simultaneously.
Mayne overlooks the virtuosity of a building that spins space, preferring to talk about its public role, how it brings the city into and through its floors. If the vortex reinterprets Wright’s famous organizational trope of a museum organized around a helical atrium, another reference is the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, that baroque cascade of stairs and terraces that spills down a hillside in the old city, creating a space of social encounter. From the top of the hill to its bottom, the staircase gathers Romans (and visitors) in a multitiered outdoor room.
Mayne’s Piazza di Spagna streams people together from the bottom of the building to the top. By its sheer power of attraction, the vortex obviates elevators, inducting visitors from the piazza outside to the piazza at the top via the galleries: it’s a continuous public realm in three dimensions on three floors. The building connects form, space, and imagination, engaging the visitor through the experience of the unusual.
Rome, of course, wasn’t built in a day, and if the museum is a success, it is because Mayne, with strong civic support over a long period of time, delivered a building that the city, the plaza, and the museum needed: it celebrates the pedestrian in a car-oriented realm, creating in its singularity a civic focus that dynamizes an otherwise static public square. The ingenuity of so many compounded, curving shapes circling one another may fascinate students of three-dimensional computer programs, but the resulting forms are humanistic, appealing to mind and body, sweeping visitors up into an exploratorium that delivers an experience all the more memorable for being immersive. The building does not direct visitors by moving them through axes and centers but piques and elevates their curiosity so that they embark on a journey into architectural wonder that primes their senses for viewing the art.•