Jay Merrick visits Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s anti-icon in Los Angeles
Photography: Iwan Baan, courtesy of The Broad & Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The late morning light falling on Grand Avenue seems as perfectly arranged as the Morning Glory blue sky and the evenly spaced, regularly shaped clouds – standard props department matériel for a Los Angeles ambient background in September. In the foreground, 100m from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the architecture of The Broad art museum emphatically denies the most ubiquitously idiotic word in 21st century design: iconic.
The Broad is an architecture of parts, and of qualities, that transcend the clarity of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s conceptual rationale. The design has delivered a successful, physically striking, and experientially unusual art container, yet the architecture also triggers suggestions that seem anomalous. A ‘correct’ description of its form or structure doesn’t give any sense of what actually confronts and absorbs you. The way the building works on the imagination is more significant.
In essence, the design wraps a steel-braced GFR concrete veil around a raised vault containing the bulk of Eli and Edythe Broad’s 2000 modern and contemporary artworks. (A proportion of these works, dating back to masterpieces from the 1950s, is always on loan to other eminent galleries and museums.) Above and below the vault, on the ground and third level, are two galleries.
The design has delivered a successful, physically striking, and experientially unusual art container
The structural grid of the veil – whose angled slot perforations suggest a vast five-sided designer cheesegrater – creates a column-free upper gallery that covers virtually the entire 61 x 61m square building plot. Thus, an art curator’s massive dreamscape sits above a warehouse that is itself an architecturally curated object.
It’s a brilliant formal and programmatic conceit whose translation into a structure was challenging. The $140 million building required 14,000 tonnes of concrete, and 2,500 veil modules in 380 variations, made by the German fabricator Seele – the originally selected fabricator ‘wouldn’t do it for $30 million’ according to Eli Broad.
The veil’s tonnage hits the ground at three points, via two shear-walls and a touchdown on the Grand Avenue elevation that is a seismic rocker-beam. The veil is a separate structure to the vault, which takes up 40 per cent of the museum’s total volume, leaving 40 per cent for art, and 20 percent for offices and support functions.
The natural daylight passing through the true-north canted light slots of the veil’s roof section, with top-up LED lighting, creates an absolutely even, if slightly chill, lucency right through the 7m depth of the volume of the upper gallery. This space was carefully modelled during the design process (using Digital Project software and 3D printing) and the risk of creating a visually overwhelming ceiling loomed; but the 3.7m-deep grid seems calm in a glacial way.
The most engaging aspects of the architecture lie in the seductions and contradictions of the design’s reasoning in relation to the compelling qualities of its volumes, physicality and fine detail. Cue TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men: ‘Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.’
The shadow, in this case, concerns intentional language. Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner Liz Diller suggests, for example, that The Broad’s veil absorbs the light reflected by the Disney Concert Hall. Not at all: The Broad radiates a righteous effulgence; in the same sunlight, Gehry’s swerving metallica has the soft, vague quality of an artfully smudged graphite sketch, or the dull matt wings and fuselages at the Davis-Monthan aircraft boneyard in the Arizona desert.
The lifting of The Broad’s veil at the corners of its Grand Avenue facade creates two elegant main entrances, which are deemed to be in civil dialogue with Grand Avenue’s street life – ‘the street would leak into the lobby, cinematically,’ as Diller put it. But what kind of film is this, and what kind of street life, in any European (or New York-cum-Chicago) sense? This is autopia. In the engrossing Prestel DelMonico book of the project involving Aaron Betsky, Joe Day, Paul Goldberger, and Iwan Baan, Diller describes LA as ‘an enigma to me, unbearable and brilliant and unfinished’.
Which allows the paradoxical thought that The Broad is a perfectly finished enigma. The building generates nominally conflicting conditions of formal type, texture, graphic quality, and atmosphere. Most obviously: how can its perforated veil have anything to do with the extraordinarily soft, sepulchral greys of the polished concrete cave – the underside of the expressed base of the art storage vault – that greets you when you enter the reception area?
The walls and ceiling rise with fungal vagueness to form a 23m cantilever, which sweeps across to the full-height glass wall behind the veil. ‘There’s a choreography here,’ muses partner Rick Scofidio. ‘The moment you walk in, you want to go up the stairs or the escalator. It’s a little bit like going into a forest.’
The staircase and escalator vanish upwards into the charcoal gloaming of angled gullets. The escalator delivers visitors directly to the upper gallery; the stairs coil upwards asymmetrically in plan and section, passing through the back-of-house segment of The Broad’s mid-level, and giving glazed glimpses into the vault. There is also a lift tube like a giant glass syringe that Fritz Lang (or Nick Grimshaw) would covet.
It’s an almost hallucinatory tableau, but intensely satisfying spatially and texturally. The veil, on the other hand, is about light and layer in a Baroque sense. It lets radiance come into the building from the main facade, roof, and short sections of the side elevations, but you can’t always see the sky or the pavement through the perforations; and, from outside, the oblique runs of the veil’s latticing can’t be read as a simple pattern once you’re close to the building.
The fact that the utterly different characters of the veil, the cave, and the arctic quality of the upper gallery are not an aesthetic or atmospheric train-crash seems remarkable, and not quite explainable. As for the occulus-cum-navel indented in the Grand Avenue facade to give a street view to those in the mid-level lecture hall, it’s perverse, admits Diller – ‘a punctuation of the facade’. The dimple recalls Victor Vasarely’s Vega series of Op Art works.
There is one other perversity in the scheme, a grove of century-old olive trees transplanted on to a rectangle of hard landscaping along the western side of The Broad: an et in Arcadia ego moment that oscillates between satire and mortal tragedy. The shade of Mr Joyboy, the embalmer in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, is here; so too is Jo Stoyte, the millionaire seeking eternal life in Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer. It’s no surprise that Liz Diller refers to ‘the odd relationship between nature and culture here’.
From the shade of the tired olive branches, The Broad’s exquisite veil suddenly triggers the hallowed line from Marx’s Communist Manifesto: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life.’ Except that Grand Avenue is a four-lane overpass, and The Broad sits on top of a three-storey car park. Only in LA can all that is air melt into a compelling architectural solid that presents itself, rather wonderfully, as both real and unreal.
Sited on Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, the design of The Broad presents two challenges: how does one build the storage facility required by the brief on such a prominent location; and how can a much smaller building hold its own next to a formidable neighbor such as Walt Disney Concert Hall. To exploit the opportunities latent in these challenges, we developed the design around two main architectural elements, the veil and the vault.
The vault stores the 2,000-work collection, but instead of being relegated to the basement or back of house, it becomes the protagonist of the design, a hovering opaque mass, which shapes the lobby below and provides the literal ground for the galleries above. It’s counterpart, the veil, a five-sided structure nested over the vault, acts as a foil to Disney’s exuberant form. Where Disney is reflective and metallic, the veil is matt and mineral; absorbing and controlling light through its coral-like apertures. All of the museum’s public spaces exist in the space between these two elements; all public circulation moves under, around and through the veil and the vault.
The public are welcomed from the sidewalk through the lifted corners of the veil into the lobby. An escalator, penetrating the vault, carries visitors to the third-floor gallery, arriving into nearly an acre of column-free exhibition space immersed in natural light. On completing their visit to the galleries, visitors exit via a meandering stair through the vault, which offers glimpses into the ‘pre-curated’ collection, providing a contemplative coda for the museum.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Beyond Frank Gehry’s transformational contribution of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Broad extends a growing list of significant Grand Avenue architecture. It joins The Music Center by Welton Becket (1964–67), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles by Arata Isozaki (1986), The Colburn School of Music by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (1998), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Rafael Moneo (2002), and the Ramón C Cortines School of the Visual and Performing Arts (2008) by Wolfgang Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au. The scope of art and culture that can be experienced today on Grand Avenue is unmatched anywhere else in LA.
The design of The Broad deliberately departs from the majority of its architectural neighbours, who, through entryways set high on plinths above the street, or set low on decking beneath street level, have disconnected themselves from the essential urban pedestrian experience. The Broad’s dramatic lobby at sidewalk level, and its veil lifted at its corners welcomes and connects to passersby. Its green plaza to the south, also designed by DS+R, and which The Broad will use for public programming, is also contiguous with the streetscape. Furthermore, the plaza’s two restaurants and neighbouring residential buildings engage with The Broad’s plaza and bring the prospect of Grand Avenue as a place that can be experienced beyond isolated cultural encounters.
With the design of The Broad, Diller Scofidio + Renfro has encouraged a more nuanced, pedestrian-friendly Grand Avenue, where people can live, dine and enjoy a dynamic urban environment day or night, inside and outside, throughout the year.
Joanne Heyler, director/chief curator of The Broad Art Foundation
Conceived as the fifth face of the veil, the ceiling system of The Broad produces the vast column-free gallery space bathed in diffuse daylight. The Los Angeles street grid is approximately 45° to true north, setting the distinctive geometry of the ceiling grid, which ensures that all skylight monitors face true north, and which in turn sets the overall veil geometry as it rolls onto the facade.
The apparent simplicity of the design belies the complexity of its design and execution. Besides the daylight systems (composed of UV blocking, high color rendering glass and 2.7m-tall GFRG shells which reflect and amplify the light) , it contains the1.8m-deep plate girders necessary for the 61m-deep span, the fire and life safety systems, the infrastructure for the electric lighting and exterior sun shades to control the daylight levels. In addition, in order to guarantee that no piping exists over the artwork, 460mm of roof slope had to be accommodated within the system all while maintaining a 1.8-2.1m bottom profile. To construct the ceiling to the necessary tolerances, the dead load deflection had to be removed from the steel as the skylights were installed. To achieve this, a system of 30 hydraulic jacks was used to pull the girders down at forces up to 36 tonnes.
All of this has led to a highly tuned and controllable system, which allows the maximum amount of diffuse daylight and excludes all direct sunlight while maintaining the conceptual reading of the veil.
Kevin Rice, project director of The Broad
Start on site March 2012
Completion September 20, 2015
Gross Internal Floor Area 11,148m²
Form of Contract or Procurement Route Guaranteed Maximum Price
Total Project Cost $140 million
Architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Executive architect Gensler
Client The Broad Art Foundation
Structural engineer Nabih Youssef Associates, Los Angeles, California;
Leslie E Robertson Associates, New York, NY.
M&E consultant Arup, Los Angeles, California
Civil engineer KPFF Consulting Engineers, Los Angeles, California,
Lighting design (daylighting and galleries) Arup, London, UK.
Lighting design (exterior and public spaces) Tillotson Design, New York, NY.
Vertical transportation Lerch Bates Associates, La Crescenta, California
Collection storage Solomon + Bauer + Giambastiani, Watertown, Mass.
Security Ducibella Venter + Santore, North Haven, Conn.
Waterproofing Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Los Angeles, California
Graphic design 2X4, New York, NY; KKD, Los Angeles, California
Land use JK Land Use Consulting,
Survery, zoning and mapping PSOMAS
Traffic Crane & Associates
Project manager Robert P Goodwin Consulting
Main Contractor MATT Construction, Santa Fe Springs, California
CAD Software Used AutoCAD, Digital Project, CATIA