The recently opened Orange County Museum of Art (“OCMA”) is an architectural cautionary tale. When the $94-million-dollar new museum opened its doors in Costa Mesa, California, in October 2022, the building itself was unfinished and revealed construction so shoddy that panels were held together with tape and clamps.
If you look at OCMA in person and squint your eyes hard enough, from a distance, it essentially looks like the shiny, seamless, almost utopian, architectural renderings of the buildings OCMA shared with the public during the planning phase. In reality, the building’s surfaces look unfinished, uneven, cheap and half-assed, and the layout is confusing in terms of way-finding.
In a recent review, the Guardian newspaper’s architecture critic described the building as “an unfinished Frankenstein’s monster.” The situation has a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering, What happened? How could the execution go so wrong?
We like OCMA’s architectural concept. It’s ambitious and — for staid, conservative and ultra-suburban Orange County — it’s comparably edgy and attempts to establish some legit art-world credibility. The building was designed by the esteemed and boundary-pushing firm Morphosis. We’ve been fans of their design for a long time.
But the scale for this design, and for a museum, feels smaller than its ambitions. It feels as if it should have been twice the size. And we can’t help but think that somewhere during the years-long process of bringing this building to life, OCMA ran out of money and the architects and builders were left trying to modify, scale back and make do with what resources (time and money) they had to complete the project.
We’re not architects, of course, so it’s easy to utter our hot-takes as armchair critiques and miss some important insight into what it takes to conceive, architect, design and construct a building like OCMA. We don’t know the specific behind-the-scenes details. But as the Los Angeles Times reported, the design itself was “complicated,” further explaining that the building is “a ruptured box with a spiraling atrium clad in custom tiles that had to be extruded in dozens of dimensions to accommodate all the twisting” of the building’s form.
Nevertheless, we hope that at least some of OCMA’s superficial construction issues can be solved. It’s great for this museum to finally have a stand-alone home for its formidable art collection and curated shows (its old location was more or less an artsy warehouse in neighboring Newport Beach). The vision for the museum is applaudable though the execution has clearly been imperfect.