Home Is Where the Museum Is

November/December 2002

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Home Is Where the Museum Is

Courtesy MDA Johnson Favaro Architecture and Urban Design

Some people's houses are so neat, so beautiful, so filled with art that visitors say they look like museums. But Arlene and Robert Oltman’s home is a museum. They live on the third floor of the new Pasadena Museum of California Art, co-designed by architect Jim Favaro.

Robert Oltman, himself an architect, hired Favaro’s firm to help realize his vision of a combination residence/museum in the tradition of the Frick in New York, the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and the John Soane in London. The galleries, which opened June 1, showcase California art, architecture and design since 1850, drawn from the Oltmans’ collection and loaned by other museums.

The $3 million museum is a centerpiece of Pasadena’s historic playhouse district, which is undergoing redevelopment. Simple geometric forms sculpt a white building against the Southern California sky, like Greek whitewashed villages or the majestic Pantheon that inspired the architects. Both the entrance stairway and the lobby are open to the outdoors, “capitalizing on the year-round temperate air and the clear, crisp light,” says Favaro.

The galleries, which make up most of the second floor, are conceived as huge, minimally finished loft spaces. “The idea is that they are not precious, but rather to be messed with—to be manipulated, renovated, tweaked, turned upside down—contingently and as the vicissitudes of the art demand,” Favaro says.

Favaro majored in engineering at Stanford, then earned a master’s at Harvard’s graduate school of design. In 1981, he became one of the youngest ever to win the Progressive Architecture Award; in 1985, he received the Rome Prize, a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He then taught architecture at the University of Southern California and began building and remodeling Los Angeles residences with Steve Johnson. In 1988, the pair co-founded MDA Johnson Favaro Architecture and Urban Design, which has grown to a team of 12.

In their bid for the Pasadena project, Johnson and Favaro “showed the most innovative approach to the program that we proposed: a friendly museum that is memorable,” Robert Oltman says. Although the Oltmans are still getting used to the place—especially the car alarms from surrounding parking lots, which they are chronicling in a sort of bird-book format—Robert Oltman says they already like living in their museum. Says Favaro: “It’s a reminder in a McCulture world that culture begins at home.”


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