PRINT October 2015


the Broad museum and urban development in Los Angeles

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the Broad, Los Angeles, 2015. Photo: Iwan Baan.

“HAVE YOU SEEN THE LIGHT?” I heard the question over and over during a recent trip to Los Angeles. This being a city with a long and storied history of cults, the query was disconcerting at first, but I soon realized that there was nothing metaphysical about it. It was, instead, a literal reference to the most talked-about quality of the building I had come to visit: the new Broad museum, designed by the New York–based studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), which opened downtown on September 20 amid widespread praise for the sublime luminosity of its interior spaces.

Daylight has always been considered the ideal means of illumination for both the studio and the gallery, but in recent years, increasingly fierce global competition among museums has spurred a seemingly endless cycle of renovation, expansion, and construction in which carefully calibrated natural light has emerged as the ultimate architectural status symbol—a way for institutions to distinguish themselves by offering not only the best collection but the best conditions in which to view it. The Broad seems to be the apotheosis of this trend—the museum reimagined as an inhabitable light box. The building is a simple rectangular volume, some two hundred feet on each side and approximately seventy feet tall, divided into three stories. The vast majority of its fifty thousand square feet of exhibition space is consolidated on the top floor in a single, enormous room; in place of a normal roof, it has a continuous expanse of skylights. All storage and administrative facilities are contained within the second story, with the lobby and supplementary galleries and storage on the ground level. The entire building has thus been organized to bring the amount of daylit exhibition space to the absolute maximum.

I have seen the light in the Broad’s main gallery, and it is, admittedly, transcendent: soft, diffuse, atmospheric, suffusing the entire room with a breathtaking, even ethereal, glow. The effect took considerable effort. The ceilings on the third floor are twenty-three feet high and topped by an eleven-and-a-half-foot-thick honeycomb structure assembled from more than three hundred periscope-like apertures, each oriented exactly to true north and with its shape optimized to maximize its ability to take in light without ever letting a single ray of direct sun descend into the gallery.

DS+R’s design would have been impossible without the help of sophisticated computer modeling. Software was used to precisely simulate the sunlight, then to generate the complex skylight geometry that would produce that magical, even incandescence—all smooth curves and blended transitions, with no creases or corners to catch the light or cast shadow—and, finally, to fold the geometry of the roof around the entire building. This wrapping forms a thickened screen that also filters light through three of the building’s vertical walls and establishes a consistent visual pattern across its entire exterior. Here DS+R used Digital Project—software that was, in fact, developed by the office of Frank Gehry, who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall across the street. But where Gehry has used this program to enable his own idiosyncratic style, DS+R have deployed it to solve a specific set of formal and functional problems. Gehry is notorious for exuberantly sculptural gestures that are only skin-deep; visitors to his buildings often find that the interior spaces hidden behind all the swooping curves are surprisingly bland and boxlike. DS+R, by contrast, have produced a volume that at first appears to be yet another simple box, but whose interior is transformed by an intricately molded skin. In this sense, the Broad is a brilliant rejoinder not just to its neighbor but to the long-standing trend of treating museum buildings as monumental sculptures (often at the expense of their galleries), a trend that Gehry himself ushered in almost two decades ago with his Guggenheim Bilbao.

Besides the sophisticated geometry of the skylights themselves, the other reason the Broad’s interior is so impressive is that it is completely uninterrupted by any structural support. Indeed, the top floor is touted as the largest column-free space in LA, and at almost an acre it is an undeniable feat. Such clear spans are much in vogue in contemporary museum design—the special-exhibitions gallery of the new Whitney Museum of American Art has similarly been trumpeted as the largest column-free space in New York (at eighteen thousand square feet, it is smaller than the Broad’s upper floor—though surely no one is counting).

Museum directors and curators are fond of rhapsodizing about the flexibility and freedom offered by unencumbered open space. But because most exhibitions require floors to be subdivided into individually walled galleries, and the sophistication of contemporary engineering and construction technology is such that even relatively modest structural systems have spans of fifty feet or more between vertical supports, such rhetoric seems to reflect an unconscious (or at least unacknowledged) bias. Saying you want your galleries without columns amounts to saying you want your space without architecture; one would be hard-pressed to find an element that is as rich a symbol of architecture’s history (from the ancient orders to Le Corbusier’s pilotis) and as direct a reminder of architecture’s brute material reality, its constant struggle to simply keep itself upright. The underlying message seems to be that architecture can make space for art, but should by no means share in it; the building should stay firmly in the background.

To be fair, curators aren’t the only ones obsessed with the idea of eliminating columns. Wide-open space has a powerful ideological resonance, and since the early twentieth century successive architectural avant-gardes have seen utopia in vast, column-free spans, as when Frederick Kiesler described his famous City in Space installation in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes as the model for a “free space . . . creating new possibilities for living.” Open spans have likewise been explored by a series of radical designers, from Buckminster Fuller to Yona Friedman to Kenzo Tange. But as both the built and unbuilt examples of such schemes show, such buildings were never about the elimination or minimization of structure. Rather, they are celebrations of the tectonic: Columns may have disappeared, but they are replaced by heroic trusses, monumental beams, or intricate space frames. These examples reveal the paradoxical interdependence of space and structure: Space is the absence of structure, but structure is necessary to articulate space. Like the invisible man without his signature hat and glasses, space without structure doesn’t register.

The most radical achievement of DS+R’s design, then, is the creation of a new kind of space, one deftly disengaged from structure. We perceive the building’s two-hundred-foot span not through a series of colossal trusses (as at Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s column-free Centre Pompidou), or against the backdrop of a grid of massive beams (as at Lina Bo Bardi’s clear-span Museu de Arte de São Paulo), but as a vast plane of light. It isn’t as if structure hasn’t been carefully considered: The Broad’s roof requires a series of seven-foot-deep girders for support. But DS+R’s design nimbly threaded these heavy steel beams between the skylights, where they were easily concealed within the even greater depth of the entire roof assembly.

Indeed, structure is not the only thing the designers have suppressed in their desire to emphasize light. They have more or less stripped the top-floor gallery of all other architecture, too. There are no other building functions or individually subdivided spaces, not even restrooms—only a freight elevator and fire stairs, the bare minimum required by practical necessity and building code. Mechanical and electrical systems run through the floor, so no ductwork or wiring is visible. The glass perimeter walls have been engineered so that they don’t require the support of metal mullions, their smooth surfaces interrupted only by thin, flat silicone joints between panes. Even the building’s circulation has been organized for minimal impact on the top floor: A one-way escalator, a staircase, and a glass passenger elevator each start from different points in the lobby, allowing visitors to follow various loops through the building, but they all arrive at a single node near the center of the top floor. The entire room, in other words, has been reduced to light and space.

If the museum’s design has already been warmly received, perhaps it is because the culture of light and space runs deep in LA. This is, of course, the home of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, of Doug Wheeler and Larry Bell. But in spite of such associations, the immense top-floor gallery can be read not as an effort to establish common ground with artists but as a kind of retreat, a refusal to engage. However ironic this may seem coming from an architect whose early career was based on the premise of cross-pollinating architecture and art, Elizabeth Diller has noted, “We spent a lot of time on the other side of the museum wall, so we felt comfortable giving away the galleries to the artists and the curators.” And, inevitably, the curators did what curators do: They set up partition walls, subdivided the space into a series of smaller galleries, and hung the collection. This certainly hasn’t created bad viewing conditions; the museum’s director, Joanne Heyler, has an intimate knowledge of the collection after twenty years as the Broad Art Foundation’s head, and she has supervised an elegant and sensitive installation, with sixteen-foot partition walls arranged into a series of “rooms” that are well scaled to the collection. (Their height is based on the converted 1927 telephone-switching station in Santa Monica that was the Broad’s previous home, suggesting that the postindustrial space is still the model for exhibiting modern and contemporary art, no matter how futuristic the envelope it is served up in.) And the artworks do look fantastic in the natural light. Nor does the architecture suffer too much—the partition walls are elegantly thin, and their height leaves the ceiling’s expanse uninterrupted.

But there is still an undeniable sense that the art and the architecture aren’t in conversation—they’re on separate (if related) tracks. And the building itself looks as good or better without any art at all (as several sneak previews to the press and public perhaps inadvertently established), suggesting that art may not come out ahead in a parallel pursuit of light and space. If nearly all immersive art is based on some transformation of the white cube, DS+R seem to have realized that the white cube can transform itself, no artist needed. Architecture, after all, is the original immersive environment.

Yet the building is at its most successful when it’s not trying to be atmospheric but genuinely interactive, catalyzing specific dynamics of inhabitation, occupation, and exchange. Down at street level, some seventy feet below the skylights, the building juts out over the sidewalk; its skin lifts up at the corners to invite visitors in, creating a sheltered colonnade that leads a steady stream of pedestrians past the glass wall of the lobby. And here the same mullion-free design reads not just as a gee-whiz visual effect but as a powerful gesture of openness. (Crucially, these gestures are backed up by institutional policy: Entry to the museum is free.) Ironically, it is this side of architecture that is increasingly attracting the attention of artists. The Broad suggests that the front lines between art and architecture are no longer within the museum; but there is more interaction between the two disciplines now than ever before, as artists increasingly explore architecture’s social and political dimensions, its role in establishing public space and shaping the dynamic of the city. For the art museum to remain relevant in this ongoing exchange, it may have to offer up not just empty space but architecture, in all its breadth and depth.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.