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LA’s Broad Museum: a downtown destination fit for the Instagram Age

But can it be more than a cultural institution for our digital era?

Photo by Bruce Damonte courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Gefilte fish. Tripas. Cheese grater. Packing material. Scratching post. Coral.

Except for the last, provided by the building’s architect, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, all of these visual allusions suggest that Los Angeles’s new Broad Museum—which houses Eli and Edythe Broad’s 2,000-piece contemporary art collection—is in stiff competition for the free-association sweepstakes waged by its neighbor, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall.

Who can forget the sweeping romanticism of Herbert Muschamp on Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao (the older brother of Disney): ”It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman. It’s a ship, an artichoke, the miracle of the rose.”

Critics searching for what the Broad looks like aren’t searching the skies or the waves, but the supermarket aisles. The museum, which opened September 20, is a three-story box clad in porous panels made of white glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete (GRFC).

It’s not meant to be romantic, organic, or referential—except perhaps to 1960s Los Angeles, when the white, porous concrete facades of Malcolm Leland’s American Cement Building (1964) and Eliot Noyes’s IBM Aerospace Headquarters (1963) attempted to provide shade, pattern, and roadside identity without BIG HONKING LETTERS. Leland and Noyes both started their patterns one story up. Without an office building’s height to play with, Diller Scofidio + Renfro have reintroduced their favorite wedge as an entrance detail, lifting the curtain at each of the building’s four corners, inviting you to scoot inside.

The innovation here is in the variety of the panel openings: The architects used 380 different molds that kiss the sidewalk, diffuse sunlight, suck in to form the “oculus” on the front façade, and wrap up and over to create the roof. DS+R refer to the exterior as the “veil,” but it is closer to a heavy theatrical curtain, digitally pushed and pulled to suggest a textile, but rarely achieving the illusion of fluidity in real life.

Liz Diller once called Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ now-demolished Museum of American Folk Art ”obdurate,” but you could break a tooth on her building, too. What the Broad is is the perfect Brand Architecture™ for the Instagram age, because it always looks the same, whoever is behind the camera, whatever the filter. Unlike Disney Hall, which Diller has said they wanted to contrast and not compete with, there are no changing colors, no overlapping petals, no angles.

The design firm 2x4 created a crimson Franklin Gothic-like word mark for the museum, but the words seem unnecessary against the abstract pattern of the gallery ceiling, which also appears on the interior of my press packet. Trust the architecture.

The Broad museum’s lobby with escalator.
Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

It’s hot out here on Grand Avenue, where DS+R and landscape architects Hood Design (not mentioned at the opening) and have installed only yonic succulent planters, bulging out of the sidewalk. Shade for passers-by is provided in the gap between the veil and the glassed-in lobby; you can walk between the two and look up to where the concrete meets the window at the oculus, admiring the wing-like mirror effect. Inside, through the curved corners, the contrast is more profound.

70,000 of the building’s 120,000 square feet are devoted to art storage. The works not on view or on loan are housed in the “vault,” a dark-gray concrete structure that shades the lobby under a 45-foot cantilever at its foot, and holds the luminous third-floor column-free gallery on its back. To go from light to dark to light again, you must travel through the belly of this beast, either by slanting, suggestive escalator or circular, machined glass elevator. To miss either ride would be a shame. The Hobbit-y design language of the vault reads as an honest and surprising idiosyncrasy, a weird innovation that I wonder if DS+R will ever repeat outside this scenographic setting.

Works by Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons in The Broad’s third-floor galleries.
Photo by Bruce Damonte, courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The black-box installation spaces on the first floor read as caves: enter Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room (2013), currently set in one of them, and you might never return. Urs Fischer’s 2012 wasted-looking lamppost, installed in the lobby en route to the escalator, recalls the more famous fixture marking the entrance to Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The room you slide into is almost an acre, top-lit and pale pale pale, made interesting by the lozenge-shape openings of the concrete roof, which, out of the corner of your eye, actually do seem to undulate. Narrow slivers of sky are visible if you stand just so, but the filtered daylight as a whole is bright and even, making the colors of Ellsworth Kelly, Jeff Koons, and Charles Ray’s pink power suit pop as I’ve never seen them before.

The light is hard on the handmade: A mini-gallery of Rauchenbergs looks fragile and somewhat diminished. A monumental red drape by El Anatsui faces the landing created by nexus of the elevator bank, the escalator, and the stairwell leading down to the the storage caves. The piece’s brilliant combination of hard and soft–it sags like fabric, but it’s made of metal–read to me as a commentary both on the theatricality built in to this museum experience (it is a curtain behind the “curtain” of the veil) and on the ambitions the architects may have had for the Broad’s materials (to create the same frozen waves as coral).

The space carved out between the three modes of transportation and their differently-angled holes might be the most interesting place at the Broad: a scudding sky above you, the suggestion of dark eruption below, and buffed concrete floor spreading all around. I wish the Broads and Broad director Joanne Heyler had trusted the architecture more, letting visitors experience the third-floor gallery as the trip to the moon it’s meant to be.

I’d love to see it with no walls and works like those at Dia: Beacon, but that’s not the kind of art the Broads generally collect. Instead, they chopped it up into a warren of little galleries, the better to show more Koons & Co. The collection is filled with celebrity artists and celebrity subjects, but I couldn’t find much reason behind who went where, or why. I prefer the installation of contemporary art in the far more ordinary downstairs galleries, where the works in the first few rooms suggested an urban conversation between an industrial landscape by Thomas Struth, Mark Bradford’s Scorched Earth (2006) and Ed Ruscha’s paired paintings of the Tech-Chem Building (2005).

Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.

The Broad is a fascinating museum experience, but one which doesn’t quite achieve the ends of its architects or its patrons. I see its design as a move toward a completely artificial, hands-free architecture, but as a construction culture we are not quite there yet.

Various aspects seem clumsy: where the veil wraps the corner, how its panels are gasketed together, even how the unnecessary oculus bulges in, bumps into the window, and continues as a purely ornamental suspended fiberglass oval in the second-floor lecture hall. The plaster underside of the vault is slightly bumpy and without much integral beauty; imagine it in flecked terrazzo and it starts to seem more like a cliff, less like a stage set.

In the bathrooms, the gray penny-round tile has slumped and gapped in the radius corners. It’s exciting to see DS+R try out a largely new bag of tricks (there are no drop-down windows, no stadium seating, no digital readouts) but perfection is just out of reach. Also, while it is definitely a good space for showing art, I’m not sure it’s the best space for showing Eli Broad’s art: only future installations will tell.

Aerial photo of The Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles.
Photo by Warren Air, courtesy of the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Finally, there’s the urban agenda. As many have noted, four-lane Grand Avenue now looks on paper like a boulevard for great art and architecture, with the Broad opposite the Museum of Contemporary Art and next to Disney Hall, which is down the street from the modernist Los Angeles Music Center, which is down the street from Rafael Moneo’s 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

But it’s still not a appealing place to walk around and between, though the Broad did manage to add a crosswalk so you don’t have to walk an extra block to cross over to MOCA. As institutions, these are all block-filling structures, which attempt to bring themselves down to human scale with gift shops and restaurants. But it’s forced: I can’t think why you would go there without a ticket. The Broad has pushed its restaurant to the back of a public plaza that runs the length of the south side of the museum, but this plaza is more of a waiting room than a destination, mostly made up of lawn in a drought-stricken state.

The grove of 100-year old olive trees looks like Middle Earth set dressing, with sculptural trees standing in for design inspiration. To make the Grand Avenue side truly call to the passer-by, the exterior needs to be either more of a blank, like a movie theater and its marquee, or more fun, with the perforations creating street-access troll-doors. It’s downtown, and it’s a destination, but the architecture still seems scaled for drive-by—or drive-in.

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