The three-story, 120,000-square-foot, $140-million Broad was built on one of the last vacant parcels in one of the longest running urban renewal projects in American history. In 1955, the sorry, sagging Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill, long since turned into boarding houses, were razed in a saga of Modernist tabula rasa urban planning that is only now nearing completion, with one or two parcels still to go.
The most efficient way to maximize square footage on the orthogonal site was to build a box. But an iconic box: Broad wanted a structure with architectural ambition and cultural reach suitable for his collection. Plus it had to stand up to no less than Disney Hall, icon of L.A. icons, the site’s immediate neighbor to the north, a building that Broad had helped realize through his fundraising efforts.
Gehry himself might have been the obvious choice for the Broad commission, but given the long and complicated personal and professional history and hard-won friendship between the two men, he demurred when Broad broached the subject, and the two left it at that. Broad proceeded with a competition, asking several people, myself included, to contribute pro bono suggestions for firms. Besides DS+R, the final short list included Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, SANAA, Christian de Portzamparc, and Herzog & de Meuron.
An L.A. pedestrian expecting a conventional streetscape will be surprised at Broad’s box, which looks like the conflation of the Titanic with an iceberg at the moment of impact. This Titanic has two prows, however, north and south, and both are upended at an angle, resulting in a gestalt that disturbs the dominant surrounding orthogonality. While Disney Hall sails above Grand Avenue, which remains a placid datum, the upended Broad challenges the calm horizontal.
DS+R designed the skin of the building as a field of 2,500 rhomboidal modular panels of fiberglass reinforced concrete, distantly recalling the panelized facades of Marcel Breuer’s buildings from the Sixties— but distorted. With parametrics, the honeycomb exoskeleton, suspended on a steel frame, was designed so that all panels, acting collectively as a brise-soleil, have orientations calibrated to shield the interior from direct sunlight, regardless of the season or time of day. A wormhole in the skin of the façade creates an exceptional moment, a singularity within the field of subtly differentiated panels that signals an exceptional space within, the auditorium. The rooflines appear to slope, as though in forced, two-point perspective, a perceptual illusion resulting from a grid stretched like panty hose to guarantee proper solar orientation.
Visitors enter under the glazed, upended corners into a public foyer that traverses the façade along Grand: the architectural language of its swelling compound curves differs from the gridded façade that veils the space with a gentle light. A lateral view north toward Disney Hall, through the upended corner, reveals that the architects may have avoided Gehry’s language on the outside, but they have taken his curves and extended them into their building—perhaps a conscious contextual echo, perhaps a nod to the way computers now easily think in curves, perhaps just because they could.
The curviplanar walls of the Broad create a spatial fluidity that moves visitors toward a 10,000-aquare-foot gallery on the ground floor, and up into a rounded stairwell and escalator shafts leading to the second and third floors. Unlike many buildings where the façade is the main architectural event, including Disney Hall, the entrance foyer is also a main architectural event; visitors are conditioned by both the façade and the foyer to feel that they are entering a special precinct that will deliver a special experience. The design suspends disbelief.
The diagram of the whole, and its section, is very simple, a box within a box on top of a box of parking. (Grand Avenue, like Park Avenue in New York, is actually an elevated boulevard with service roads and parking below.) The architects say simply that the scheme is a “veil” covering a “vault.” Because of difficulties manufacturing the rhomboidal panels as designed, they had to be thickened, which regrettably decreases the diaphanous quality of the façades, diminishing the original levity of the design and the life of the corners. Still, the concept remains intact even if the result has lost some of the intended lightness.
The organizational simplicity is deceptive, because the skin plays perceptual tricks on the interior spaces: the eye fools the body into feeling that the wall and ceiling planes are somehow complex, perhaps even warped. Change the angle of vision and the illusion shifts, encouraging visitors to keep moving, as though this were a new kind of rainbow to chase.
Each panel of the roof is glazed. Natural light bounces off the glowing interior frames, creating a remarkably luminous space. Appearing to slope, the high ceiling over the column-free, 40,000-square-foot third-floor gallery hovers over the art displayed on walls below, which are non-structural and changeable. Track lights ride in thin, barely visible slots between the ceiling panels, leaving the plane of the ceiling clean, and the illusion intact.
The architects have used a minimum of means to achieve Broad’s desire for a strong architectural presence, both outside and in, yet it manages to be discreet. The reticence, however, should not be confused for meekness: the design successfully stands up to the lyrical complexity of Disney Hall by rivaling its intensity. With its upended corners, the Broad challenges the geometry of the street with just a couple of moves that make the box iconic; meanwhile, the grid sustains interest by capturing the eye with the distortional lines scripted incrementally into its field. The field is not a one liner, easily dismissed. The eye lingers and wonders.
Inside, the museum proves a Fabergé egg of interior worlds, from the curving walls of the long entry foyer, up through the tunneling staircases to the vast, light-filled hall of shifting illusions.
DS+R’s light touch turns the building into the biggest work of art in the Broad, a piece of conceptual and perceptual architecture. It’s not only a contender among the architectural icons of Grand Avenue. With a strong and simple idea, strongly and simply realized, it even matches the indomitable Disney in presence.