Whether in its Manhattan or Bilbao incarnation, the Guggenheim represents the classic case of an institution defined by the building that houses it. Now, add to the list of iconic galleries the new Eli and Edythe Broad Museum of Art at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., designed by London-based Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA. Clad in tiles of pleated stainless steel, the volcanic building now erupting at the edge of the campus embodies dynamism, originality, energy, and risk. The visual qualities of the building redefine an old provincial museum in the process of transforming itself into a museum of contemporary art aspiring to a national and international role. The design is an inspiration to the institution housed within to fulfill the promise of its new image.

In 2007, Hadid won an invited competition for the 46,000-square-foot, $40 million structure, responding to a brief requesting a design that was both efficient and iconic. The core buildings of the land-grant university are traditional and brick, but shedding the university’s mild-mannered image, Provost Kim Wilcox captured the university’s long-term aspirations when he declared that the university wanted “a Sydney Opera House we can afford.” The university pursues a program of bold and innovative research and has earned its place in an international circle of top universities. Wilcox called for a museum design that would do the same, one that could even jump start a new contemporary collection. Given the context of a dominantly brick campus composed of background buildings, MSU opted for a foreground building that would symbolize its aspirations and emerging status. The site forms a new, inviting gateway into the campus.

The building now glinting at the new entrance is sui generis—unique at MSU, unique in the field, and unique even in Hadid’s own opus. It gives new meaning to the term cutting edge: Several blades of the wedge-shaped building cut through the wooded site in different directions, with leading edges pointing fore and aft.

Though conspicuously abstract and modern, the design displaces the fundamental modernist assumption that structure generates and determines design. Here, in a reversal of hierarchical priorities, skin rather than structure sets the agenda, shifting the building from a static to a dynamic state. The pleats in the surface recall Isse Miyake fabrics, their converging and diverging lines placed in a turning grid of tiles, which creates a multi-perspectival pattern that stretches the field of vision. A relatively small and compact building appears bigger because its optics operate on the eye and elasticize perception.

Meanwhile, the leaning forms, dynamic lines, and stainless steel, allude to Michigan’s automobile culture: The radically new building is somehow familiar in the cultural context of a state pledged to motion on the road. The building seems lively just standing still, dynamic in form, and changing with the light. Hadid says that sunlight entering the building explodes the form. At night the building glows from within, silhouetting the ribs and trapezoidal openings.