BY Travis Diehl in Frieze | 19 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

Veil & Vault

Los Angeles's newest museum: The Broad

BY Travis Diehl in Frieze | 19 AUG 15

The Broad, view from 2nd Street and Grand Avenue, 2015. Courtesy: The Broad, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; photograph: Iwan Baan

Eli Broad made his first fortune selling tract homes in Phoenix and Detroit. Now Los Angeles’s most visible philanthropist, he has spent millions helping turn Grand Avenue, which crests Bunker Hill between the LA Cathedral and Grand Central Library, into a clear-cut cultural thoroughfare. The downtown district’s tenants include the Colburn Dance Academy, the LA Opera, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s main campus and Frank Gehry’s famous Disney Concert Hall, the fundraising for which Broad spearheaded. As the Grand Avenue development enters its final phase, the octogenarian patron of the arts has hired New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) to build one final monument on a corner lot adjacent to the concert hall: a contemporary art museum called, simply, The Broad.

In wry contrast to the more lyrical edifices nearby, DS+R’s building appears to be a plain, three-storey box. Its signature feature is a white fibreglass and concrete exterior punctured by hundreds of uniformly angled, recessed windows. Nicknamed ‘the Veil’, the shell of The Broad wrings as much textile-like lightness as possible from its material while remaining beefy enough to enclose, with the help of steel beams, a striking 3,250 m² column-free exhibition hall: an airy, sky-lit volume with views through all but the west interior wall. The Veil lifts at two corners to form street-level entrances onto the lobby and an additional 1,400 m² of ground-floor exhibition space (a device that recalls the firm’s frontage for the Alice Tully Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center). Visitors ascend via escalator or elevator through the undulating, opaque concrete cavern of the second floor – ‘the Vault’ – which houses conservation, storage, offices and conference rooms. All public conveyances exit at a central cluster on the main exhibition floor – in fact, the flat top of the Vault. The exhibition’s bureaucratic and technical support structure literally doubles as its pedestal.

The architects’ own branding of their plan as the Veil and the Vault makes explicit the dual nature of their client, The Broad Foundation, run by Eli and Edythe Broad. Though the Foundation lends widely – 8,000 loans in 21 years, or an average of one work per day – the collection is decidedly private. Indeed, The Broad also stores and lends the couple’s personal holdings. Both groups of artwork were formerly displayed at two main locations: the Foundation’s headquarters and galleries in coastal Santa Monica (open by appointment only) and mid-city in the Broad wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The LACMA Broad wing may have put its red-painted guts – vents, staircases – on the exterior (a favourite device of its architect Renzo Piano), but the mechanics of the collection remained behind closed doors in offices some 15 kilometres to the west. The Broad museum on Grand Avenue instead consolidates these functions into a single building. Yet, its bipartite construction remains a remarkably honest metaphor for the dichotomy of the Foundation’s showing/acquiring, public/private pursuits. The building’s surface resembles a biosynthetic scaffolding, a filter-like block cut to size from a ‘cultural’ tissue, which at once displays, circulates and shares while simultaneously conserving, storing and accumulating art objects.

The Broad, view of the lobby, 2015. Courtesy: The Broad, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; photograph: Iwan Baan 

Many institutions do the same, yet few seem as preoccupied with their publicness as The Broad. The Foundation promoted its move with a series of free artist talks – pairing, for example, Broad favourite Jeff Koons with filmmaker John Waters – under the headline, ‘The Un-Private Collection’. The building’s permeable quality makes a similar case. Even the Vault’s obscurity features notable, albeit token, exceptions: peeks through glass at second-floor ‘active storage’ as visitors descend the exit stairs; and ‘the Oculus’, a depression in the Grand Avenue facade through which passersby glimpse the Foundation’s multi-purpose meeting room. Of course, this window offers those on the inside a slightly better, convex view of the street, Grand Park and City Hall beyond. Yet, it’s the ironic mission of The Broad’s bureaucracy to make its privacy seen. The prominence of the ‘transparent’ aspects of the building underscores, on both entering and exiting, the inherent owned character of the collection. The idea of a ‘vault’ contains notions of safekeeping and protection, but also of money and property – specifically that of the couple whose name the museum bears. Likewise, the word ‘veil’ connotes preciousness and secrecy; lifted, it presents privileged sights that might yet be retracted. If the Foundation’s main requirements are the display and storage of their large holdings, the directness of DS+R’s veil/vault scheme comes close to satire.

Broad is known as a tough negotiator prone to sometimes overbearing largesse, but he is not noted for his adventurous taste. Both his and his wife’s personal collections, as well as that of the Foundation, favour big names such as Mark Bradford, Koons and Andy Warhol. In 2010, Broad drew flak for using his heft at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art – where he is a Life Trustee and which he bailed out with USD$30 million in 2008 – to support Jeffrey Deitch’s fraught tenure as director, before announcing he would discontinue his annual pledge and concentrate on a museum of his own. To say nothing of his unparalleled influence in the city at large (the couple have promised to give away three quarters of their wealth), Broad has donated huge sums to the Disney Concert Hall, the Opera and the Cathedral. The Broad Foundation thus bears not only an architectural but a financial relationship to its new Grand Avenue neighbours. Situated within a somewhat artificial civic infrastructure, DS+R’s building is well placed: its concrete ‘transparency’ makes its assertive claims to culture perhaps more obvious than its patrons intended. DS+R point out that The Broad ‘harvests’ light while, across the road, Gehry’s steel-clad Disney Concert Hall relentlessly reflects it. Yet, DS+R’s tactically modest design eludes the boosterist rhetoric of genius and triumph that adheres so well to Gehry’s building, instead furnishing a volumetric, dichotomous symbol of Broad’s conspicuous philanthropy.

Technical complications of the Veil aside, The Broad stands as one of DS+R’s most straightforward designs. An honest building is not necessarily a neutral one, however. For example, The Broad’s windows invoke a 2008 software project by the firm, titled Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?, in which users were asked to design a jail cell – a padded cousin of The Broad’s lattice – for penalizing equivocal offences such as ‘Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Crimes against the State’. Nor is the generosity of the luminous Broad unconditional. Through its conceptual dichotomy, DS+R’s building renders the particular contradictions of the host institution – and thereby figures the neoliberal paradoxes of philanthropy in the 21st century. Architect Elizabeth Diller is both candid and cavalier about her relationship to the patron, ribbing Broad in a 2014 interview for The Art Newspaper that the rising cost of the Veil’s segments gave him ‘indigestion’. A touch of queasiness, though, may be appropriate: DS+R’s contentious structure is an elegantly cagey solution to the legacy of one of the city’s most controversial captains.

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.