Not All Sweetness in a Honeycomb Museum
Published: January 11, 2011
Experience tells us that it would be unwise to build up expectations for Eli Broad’s proposed new museum, whose design was unveiled at a ceremony in downtown Los Angeles last week.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Despite the tens of millions he has poured into the city’s art institutions, Mr. Broad’s reputation as a cultural patron is, to put it politely, subpar. Among architects he is known as someone with a gift for getting the worst buildings from the most highly regarded talents — a reputation that was pretty much cemented with the opening of the $50 million Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a bland, uninspired travertine box by Renzo Piano that ranks somewhere near the bottom of that architect’s achievements.
Just as bad is his failure, in the view of many (myself included), to grasp the peculiar beauty of Los Angeles, its oddly hypnotic blend of flimsy houses and muscular freeways, raw nature and metropolitan grit. His urban ideal, to the degree that he has one, seems to be based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or on central Paris — models that, however attractive, have little to do with Los Angeles’s sprawl.
Some of us saw the new museum building, which will be called the Broad Art Foundation and will occupy a site on Grand Avenue in the city’s downtown, as this 77-year-old philanthropist’s best — and perhaps last — chance at redemption. And there is something alluring about the design, by Diller Scofidio & Renfro. Its honeycomblike exterior is a smart counterpoint to the swirling forms of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall next door. And the sequence of spaces that leads you through the building makes subtle but important nods to the city around it — not only to other, nearby cultural institutions, but also to the Latino community a few blocks to the southeast, which many of those institutions historically ignored.
But too many critical aspects of the design miss the mark. The galleries, in particular, are deeply flawed; other important elements were either scrapped during the design process or never fully thought through, so that the overall impression is of a project that falls, with an unpleasant thud, well short of its potential. As in so many of Mr. Broad’s architectural adventures, early promise gets lost in a muddle of bad or careless decisions — and the city loses.
The museum is likely to be the final component of a kind of cultural acropolis conceived for this hilltop stretch of Grand Avenue more than 50 years ago by Dorothy Chandler, the powerful wife of the Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler. That vision involved bulldozing hundreds of Victorian houses to make room for a chain of cultural monuments and corporate fortresses, and by the late 1980s the area was an emblem of the city’s social polarization, an enclave of faceless towers and windswept plazas barricaded against the vibrant Latino shopping corridor just down the hill.
Since then an army of civic leaders, urban planners and architects have struggled for ways to draw wary Angelenos to the avenue and reverse its elitist image, with varying degrees of success. The delirious stainless-steel exterior of Mr. Gehry’s Disney Hall, opened in 2003, added some desperately needed vitality to the street, but the chiseled concrete of Rafael Moneo’s 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels created a sacred precinct walled off from the avenue.
Other projects have dragged on for years, like a new park that would extend from Grand Avenue several blocks down to the foot of City Hall, and a vast Gehry-designed retail-and-residential tower complex, which both have the potential to begin breaking down the physical and psychological barriers between the culture mavens who visit the top of the hill and the residents of the neighborhoods at its foot.
On its surface, at least, the Diller Scofidio design seems a thoughtful addition to that story. Its subdued square form is not only a nice contrast to the exuberance of Mr. Gehry’s hall; it is also in keeping with the mood of the avenue, which over the years has developed its own kind of eerie stillness, especially at night, when it is mostly barren. A porous steel skin wraps around the building, pried up from the ground at two corners to create the main lobby entrances on Grand Avenue. The relatively straightforward interior layout — a 35,000-square-foot, column-free gallery space on top of a floor of art storage, a ground-floor lobby and three levels of underground parking — allows for an elaborate architectural narrative. Visitors arriving from the direction of Disney Hall will cross the lobby and ride a 97-foot-long enclosed escalator that cuts diagonally through the storage floor on its way up to the top-floor galleries.
Once they are through looking at art, they will funnel down a broad staircase with big windows that overlook the racks of paintings and storage containers — a kind of back-room view of the curator’s process — before they are deposited back in the lobby.
It’s a seductive sequence — and one as controlling, in its way, as Wright’s Guggenheim spiral. By orienting the main escalator from the Second Street entrance, the architects are not only striving to link the museum to the string of cultural institutions that extends from Disney Hall to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum; they are also seeking to connect with the mainly Latino shopping strip along Broadway, which lies two blocks down Second Street to the east. At the other end, the staircase points departing visitors toward the entry of the Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution of which Mr. Broad was the founding chairman.
But as attractive as some of the ideas behind the overall narrative are, they tend to fall apart once you begin to examine them one step at a time. The porous skin, which covers the roof as well as the four sides of the building, is intended to fill the top-floor galleries with sunlight. But the main windows there face southeast toward Grand Avenue — and the harsh morning light that is anathema to viewing art. (The northern walls, which would let in the kind of indirect sunlight artists and curators love, are largely blocked by mechanical systems and a freight elevator.)
What’s more, the perforations in the skin will make the sunlight mottled and uneven. And forget hanging art on most of the exterior walls. My guess is that after the first show, the entire wall will simply be boarded over, and you’ll never see it again.
Then there is the descent on foot. Opening the back of the house to public view has become a fashionable idea since the 2003 opening of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Schaulager museum in Basel, Switzerland, where visitors can schedule private viewings of storage rooms organized by individual artists. But in the Diller Scofidio design you will have no direct connection to the art itself, and it’s doubtful that snapshot views of artworks arranged on racks will be compelling enough to merit the length of the walk (or, alternatively, that repeat visitors will want to wait in line for the single, overcrowded elevator).
Finally — and as critical to the design’s overall success — there is the relationship between man and car. In their original proposal, Diller Scofidio included a parking entry at ground level along Second Street, which would have cut underneath the lobby and spiraled down to the underground parking. This entry added a crucial dimension to the narrative: the interweaving of pedestrian and automotive life that is central to the experience of Los Angeles generally, and of Grand Avenue in particular, with its views onto nearby freeways. But the entrance was removed during the design process, and what was once a more complex reading of urban mobility has been reduced to something more banal.
This isn’t just bad news for Mr. Broad.
Grand Avenue has never really worked as an idea — not only because it was elitist but also because the idea of a singular, dominant cultural hub runs so counter to the city’s nature.
Still, in many ways the avenue’s fortunes have also come to embody Los Angeles’s continuing struggle to define its civic identity in an era when its cultural status continues to rise. A successful Broad museum would go a long way toward cementing that status, which makes the possibility of its failure that much more of a blow.