The Petersen Museum: What’s Under the Hood?

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The Petersen Museum: What’s Under the Hood?
The Petersen Museum before its facelift

Googies (the restaurant) was a striped and angular spot that catered to the four-wheeled extravaganzas cruising by. The ones that Bob Petersen began to chronicle in a start-up magazine called Hot Rod. The ones the Beach Boys sing about and Tom Wolfe writes about. The ones that built an empire out of a new kind of polyglot expressionism that used the belts and springs and pipes, the valve covers and fans, those curling manifolds and gaping intakes, the sawed-off roofs and smoothed out noses to send good vibrations all across America.

Critics didn’t get it. But artists did. Billy Al and Bob Irwin, Chamberlain and Valentine mined it for all they were worth, hanging hoods and crushed parts like hunting trophies on the walls of museums everywhere.

Which brings us to the Petersen Museum, many decades later. Years after McDonald’s abandoned its golden arches for a tepid logo. A long time after good taste ran roughshod over the works of John Lautner and Schindler – good architects all – a vanguard doomed to obscurity and the wrecking ball. Today’s anointed ones, proud in the parametric livery probably didn’t notice when a museum to celebrate the cars of that era was in the making, and shrugged at the temerity of a New Yorker trying to put his stamp on the Miracle Mile. So one can understand the yowls of Main Street, the bewilderment of pundits, and the deer-in headlights consternation of our revered tastemakers.

The shock waves from that fluorescent, zebra striped makeover – redolent of George Barris and pin-stripe shaman Ed “Big Daddy” Roth bounced off the nearby Tar Pits, and promised to tickle the underbelly of Zumthor’s proposal for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sporting flame-like ribbons of stainless steel, and a vivid red sheath beneath, the former Orbach Department Store, now on its third, and hopefully final bout of cosmetic surgery, draws eyes, insults, and parody in equal measure, and reaffirms the prevailing world view that Los Angeles is a careless outlier. […]