PRINT May 2013


the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Zaha Hadid, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2012, East Lansing, MI. Photo: Paul Warchol.

THE NEW ELI AND EDYTHE BROAD ART MUSEUM at Michigan State University in East Lansing is not so much a building as an event: It transforms both its surroundings and the art it contains. The structure, which opened to the public last November, occupies a prominent site on the main street dividing the commercial strip of the town from the GI Bill brick of the university campus, and yet it appears wholly unrelated to both. In fact, it most resembles a grounded stealth bomber—all sleek folds and vents, static form implying motion—with crenellated fins rippling across its surface. This alien quality precludes the museum from settling down into a static relationship with its surroundings; to encounter it on a walk through campus is not only to look at a building but to experience a shift in how you see the site, how you understand geometry, and even what you expect of structure.

The museum was designed by the London-based, Pritzker Prize–winning Zaha Hadid, whose long career has been largely defined by her penchant for testing the limits of architecture’s orthogonal geometry. From early, Suprematist-influenced work to more recent, computationally driven parametric forms, Hadid has always deployed processes of geometric projection, distortion, or other transformation to lend her buildings a specific kind of dislocation: a cessation of the effects of gravity that permeates both the structures themselves and the bodily experience of their visitors and inhabitants. This dislocation is already visible in the jutting, oblique forms of the building’s exterior, but its effect is more profound in the interior, where walls throughout the 46,000-square-foot space are tilted anywhere from 15 to 40 degrees past the typical perpendicular relationship of wall to floor. This dramatic skew is not limited to the double-height lobby or other circulation spaces; all of the museum’s galleries (which make up more than 70 percent of the overall building area) have the same effect, and here the most particular aspect of the shift manifests itself. The museum’s contents are a mixture of its permanent collection (a transhistorical selection inherited from the Kresge Art Museum, MSU’s former art museum, now closed) and of temporary exhibitions of global contemporary art dedicated to what the museum refers to as “emerging voices and international perspectives.” While some of this work is freestanding and unaffected by the overall skew, paintings, prints, and the like must be fitted with brackets to hold them either off the wall (perpendicular to the floor) or along the wall itself (parallel to the tilted surface). This repositioning of the work vis-à-vis the gallery reshuffles one of the most basic conditions of viewing two-dimensional art, drawing the viewer into an enhanced attentiveness to both the object and the format of display.

It is tempting to understand the Broad, with its exaggerated disassociation from its surroundings and the inwardly focused logic of its distorted interior, as both an elaboration of and a shift in architectural attitudes toward context, a reading seemingly reinforced by a comparison with another famous midwestern university museum, the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University, designed by Peter Eisenman and completed in 1989. In that project, following the prevailing discourse, Eisenman was deeply concerned with engaging the site’s context through strategies of indexicality and textuality, traces and histories. His building therefore comprises shifted grids and simulacral re-creations representing the site’s multiple uses over time. In contrast, the Broad’s context seems necessary only as a comparative field against which to judge the building as an autonomous object.

Yet the museum does not completely disregard its surroundings. Its skin, which first appears mute, opaque, and foreign, reveals itself from the inside as a sophisticated system for mediating between exterior and interior. The galleries and public support spaces are characterized by openness and lightness, and this trick of making something solid from without yet open from within is achieved by the exterior fins, which are not simply a high-tech decorative surface pattern but a system of louvered windows that direct views out from the building in particular directions. Not every fin is a louver (some cover blank walls in order to give the building its uniform exterior feeling), but where there are openings, they guide the visitor’s line of sight to views of a reframed East Lansing. Through these windows, relatively banal surroundings are revealed as surprising tableaux, as the corner of a nondescript university building becomes an abstract play of form, or the view of the main street a study in linear perspective.

If every event needs a theme or an occasion, then the Broad Museum is an event about vision. In the collective imagination of the area, and in conversations overheard about the building—among anonymous visitors but also at the burrito place across the street or on a public-radio interview with visiting dignitaries—the museum is cited as a must-see: not only a touristic mandate but an occasion to see things from a new angle.

John McMorrough is an associate professor of architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan.