We’re not religious. But museums are our cathedrals, our churches and temples, our shrines. MoMA may be the modern art world’s Vatican, but in terms of pure open space, MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles comes closest to a giant cathedral like Notre Dame with its massive, cavernous structure. We’re not saying that this museum is equivalent to Notre Dame as far as degree of architectural achievement and historical significance. We’re saying that it is a big fucking space and one that invites reflection and a kind of awe.
The Geffen was kind of a happy accident. The building wasn’t purpose built to be a contemporary art museum. The structure is in LIttle Tokyo in Downtown LA and was originally built in the 1940s for the city as a warehouse and LA Police Department garage accommodating hundreds of vehicles. At the time, MoCA’s use of the space was purely practical.
While the main landmark MoCA branch was being built on nearby Grand Avenue in the early 1980s, the warehouse/garage in Little Tokyo was used as a temporary exhibition space dubbed the “Temporary Contemporary.” Its purpose was to host art shows until construction of the new main MoCA would be completed. The acquisition of the building made sense. The Temporary Contemporary was a success.
It was repurposed as a permanent exhibition space and extension of MoCA. Architect Frank Gehry led the effort. The Geffen’s location is walking distance to the main MoCA location in Downtown LA, and the former LAPD garage offers the kind of space that allows for sprawling exhibitions and epic, large-scale sculptural artworks and installations that might be more diffciult or impossible to mount in other museums.