The Broad opened on Grand Avenue Downtown Los Angeles in September 2015. Michael Wacht visited the contemporary art museum shortly after its opening and presents his observations and analysis of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro design.
I highly anticipated visiting The Broad, and the experience did not disappoint. Architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s literal and diagrammatic translation of the programmatic requirements pairs beautifully with their remarkable attention to detail. The formal strategies employed by the architects parallel aspects of my personal research into architectural form making. While I may not agree with all aspects of the final execution, the building communicates effectively to visitors and provides an exceptional space for contemporary art.
IMPLEMENTATION OF DIAGRAM
The building appears to support an architectural theory that I have classified as “Diagramism”. The theory suggests a propensity of contemporary architects to produce work based on dynamic or volumetric diagrams, and the literal conversion of diagrams to form geometries conforming to these experiential ideas.
In the case of The Broad, the diagram is singular and simple – that of the “veil and the vault.” The two primary programmatic requirements posed for the museum were the storage and display of artwork. To resolve this the Architects make a very precise move in embedding a concrete “vault” within a “veil” of brise soleil. The “veil” forms a perforated concrete skin covering the core “vault” designed to contain artworks storage, laboratories, curatorial spaces and offices.
As a visitor, one is almost always aware of their location within the diagram. In addition to bold geometric forms, the Architects employ complementary material selections to simultaneously distinguish and reinforce their diagrammatic ideas: the vault is expressed in grey concrete and the veil in a white patterned concrete shell.
The below grade parking facility serviced by an elevator deposits visitors outside the building along a new park, ensuring street level entry into the museum for everyone. Once inside, there is a moment of disorientation, only to be resolved by a seemingly infinite escalator beckoning you. With the escalator one proceeds upwards and through the vault to arrive at a vast day lit gallery on the top most floor of the three story building.
The three modes of vertical circulation – stair, elevator, and escalator – all arrive at exactly the same central opening on the top floor gallery space. This is an important correlation for visitor orientation, and a deliberate move to parallel the experiences of different visitors. In addition there is no downward escalator, immediately making one aware of the staircase back through the vault, for eventual descent to street level.
The concrete skin makes an elegant element, but should be discussed as the separate entities of roof and facade. The designer’s decision to break the transition from facade wall to ceiling with a recessed cove for the vertical glass panels has the unfortunate result of severing their relationship. I don’t know what decision making went into this design detail, but I am left to wonder if a protruded concrete channel may have afforded a better solution to receive the top of the glass. According to some reports the budget for the concrete veil was a point of contention between the designers and Eli Broad.
Visually however the ceiling maintains as awe-inspiring. There are no visible joints and the ceiling’s coffers exhibit an unprecedented smoothness. The necessary inclusion of pragmatic elements, such as light fixtures and sprinkler heads, is practically invisible. Amazingly, the filtered north facing clerestory windows provide such a consistent and substantive amount of sunlight, that artificial lights were not used during my visit. Intelligently, the diagonal orientation of the roof panels is a result of the rotated street grid of downtown LA , so that the clerestory windows are aligned along an east-west axis, so they never take direct sunlight.
Unfortunately, most of the first floor experience weakens the diagram. There’s an additional 50% gallery space buried here, forgotten below the vault, and without any use of the veil. There is also 50% more storage space, not visually contained within the geometry of the vault sitting directly above. This appears to be a kind of purgatory space, not defined as either vault or veil. Closer examination of the diagram would certainly make one wonder, what happened here?
The confusion of first floor galleries has two visible effects: they were more crowded (unresolved circulation issue?) and creation of a gallery hierarchy – art installed on the relatively noisy ground floor was effectively housed in the basement, whereas the art on the top floor was in an ethereal penthouse.
I also believe there is an unnecessary direct adjacency of the concrete skin and the vault. The crevice between the two elements is only a couple of feet, which makes the diagram more difficult to read. Why not create an amorphous vault in whatever shape necessary to house that whole program, and allow the galleries to navigate around that central core? I see it more like a peach with a pit. Maintaining the white patterned veil facade so close to the concrete vault behind it seems a wasted effort, denying visitors an experience to occupy what could have been beautiful interstitial spaces.
OH YEAH, THE ART!
Though the primary purpose of my visit was the Architecture, the contemporary Art on display was thought-provoking and graphically impressive. There were several fun pieces, like those of Jeff Koons or the giant dining table, while some not so much. All of the art on the top floor fit seamlessly into the grandeur of the giant space. The installation that stood most harmonious with the architecture was perhaps the shiny dog, obediently reflecting the surrounding concrete veil.
The Broad fills an important spatial gap along Grand Avenue. My friend, Rob, remarked how he felt it was a “real neighborhood” now. Indeed, there’s a spiritual synergy that has been created at the Los Angeles civic center. The Broad is a beautiful, radiant, addition.
The adjacent park at the Southwest of the building, however, is a little more difficult to comprehend. A high-end restaurant was furiously being constructed during my visit. Beyond the restaurant, a new metro station is being constructed, which is planned to connect to the park via a pedestrian bridge. The restaurant location would seemingly prohibit visual connections between such a public bridge and the park, severing the visual link to Grand Avenue.
While at my previous job at JFAK Architects, we had been invited to a competition to design a separate restaurant building at the Northwest side of the museum, where there is now an empty space. Presumably, the designers are planning to absorb this pedestrian bridge at this location. So, the success of this precinct remains to be seen.