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I remember very clearly the first time I heard Renzo Piano describe the new plaza he was planning for the expanded Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It must have been 2005. The Italian architect told me he wanted to create a spacious, classically proportioned space stretching between the museum’s new ticket kiosks and Wilshire Boulevard.
“A piazza,” he called it, with more pride than irony about how such a romantic notion would play in the middle of Los Angeles.
Artist Chris Burden and Michael Govan, who became LACMA director in 2006, came up with a different idea. Burden, who died Sunday at 69, had been collecting cast-iron lampposts from Southern California streets and storing them at his compound in Topanga Canyon. He painted more than 200 of them a uniform gunmetal gray, arranged them in the shape of an abstract, open-air building and called the piece “Urban Light.”
When Govan decided to install the artwork right in the middle of Piano’s completed plaza, the piazza idea was essentially ruined, or at least dramatically undermined. But something else emerged in its place: A public space that no longer tried to ape European precedents but instead seemed entirely home in contemporary Los Angeles. […]