The new Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed by Renzo Piano opened in February this year. Made possible by a 60 million dollar donation from Eli and Edythe Broad, it enables LACMA, the largest art museum in the western United States, to expand its contemporary art programme, but has divided visitors on its merits. LACMA initially commissioned studies from leading architects in 2001, including Rem Koolhaas. He proposed tearing down all the existing buildings, apart from the Pavilion for Japanese Art and LACMA West, and replacing them with a bold warehouse style structure with a translucent roof. LACMA opted for the more affordable solution of adding new buildings that are clearly sited, and tearing out the road as Piano proposed.
It was Eli Broad who, as patron, took on a client role and agreed to a larger role for Piano. The architect had very early on identified the need for a masterplan to clarify a messy, 20 acre, campus including a park enclosing the La Brea tar pits to the east. “It’s very frustrating to play a good piece by a string quartet in the middle of three badly played rock concerts”, he wrote in a letter to Broad.
The Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which took just over two years to build, is part of the campus’s completed Phase 1, with improved circulation, a new entrance plaza and adaptations to the older Ahmanson Building to the east side of the campus, which was not noted for its innovative architecture. The buildings at LACMA East are boxy Beaux Arts designs remodelled a few times since they were built in 1965. Michael Govan, the Director of LACMA, who arrived in his post in 2006 from a highly successful period leading the DIA Foundation in New York and played a hand in the commissioning process, observed that Piano’s design has made the museum itself the canvas. It is also work in progress in an ongoing metamorphosis of this leading US cultural institution. Piano’s next step is a second new 3716 sq m building behind the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, this time for temporary exhibitions. Meanwhile Govan has invited SPF:A, a Culver City architectural practice, to upgrade the former May department store to the far west, which was converted in 1995 into LACMA West.
A safe choice of a solid-looking, Bagni di Tivoli travertine cladding for Broad Contemporary Art Museum complements the exterior of LACMA West and the stone and colour of the Ahmanson Building on the east. The surprise is not the travertine, but its juxtaposition with fire engine red for the circulation superstructure, which is aesthetically awkward. The bright red painted stainless steel escalator running up the north façade of the building takes visitors to the main entrance to the galleries on the third floor. Here they can view the panorama of the city, or return to ground level via a sequence of concrete slab external staircases with red I beams connecting on each floor to the galleries. Alternatively they can ride down in Piano’s “moving room”, a giant elevator situated in the building’s core with a glazed front accommodating 30 people.
The Broad Contemporary Art Museum has six loft-like gallery spaces, two per floor, each with 790 sq m, and occupying a relatively high percentage of the overall floor space, out of 6688 sq m. Other common features of a contemporary art museum, like café or bookshop, are sited in Ahmanson Building. The top level spaces, over 5.80 m high and like those beneath them, have wood floors and a glorious mix of spaciousness and optimum lighting conditions. The ground level houses Band and Sequence, Richard Serra’s pair of enormous, 200 tonne steel sculptures on concrete floors, the least characterful space of the whole building.
As at Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston, completed 21 years ago, the building is crowned by repeating modular elements with a system of skylights and three layers of fritted glass and louvres to let in natural light while blocking ultraviolet rays. Piano’s roof structure with 20 south-facing angled metal panels permits indirect from the north to penetrate but blocks the harsh and hot direct southern light.
The red painted steel used throughout is supposed to assist orientation. It is also used decoratively, highlighting the fire escape stairs on the south west side. It is a little reminiscent of Bernard Tschumi’s red buildings at La Villette and, as in Paris, unites the new buildings.
In a city of billboards, the travertine on the south façade facing Wilshire Boulevard feels blank. Coloured scrims depicting artworks by artist John Baldessari, who also helped to design LACMA’s new logo, were installed there for the opening. This may be a good advertising policy but it has the unfortunate effect of making the building look like a department store from a passing vehicle. Clearly Piano’s aim was not to make a big impact on the street, but to set up and protect the ideal conditions for viewing art.
Its height and structure set up a new symmetry with the east part of the site. In between, the new Grand Entrance designed by Piano occupies the space formerly taken by Ogden Drive, which divided LACMA West from the rest of the museum. This new central hub joins LACMA West and Broad Contemporary Art Museum with the rest of the museum’s galleries. Piano substantially refurbished the Ahmanson Building to house a new plaza-level display of modern works of art. He also created a new passage and elegant staircase, uniting it with the new entrance in an easy to follow route through the campus.
The Grand Entrance is a multi-functional space where people buy tickets and receptions are hosted outdoors. Being so open to the street, with a canopy structure 1.428 sq m it creates an interesting social dynamic, but the canopy itself, of the same red painted steel as Broad Contemporary Art Museum’s exterior stairs and escalator, is a difficult element to love. It feels utilitarian and reminiscent of a petrol station. Apparently it was originally planned in glass. It is topped with solar panels capable of generating electricity; for instance for the first temporary piece of public art to be sited in front of it, Urban Light, artist Chris Burden’s specially commissioned outdoor sculpture of 202 vintage street lamps salvaged from the city.
Piano’s track record in museum design has included some magnificent, sophisticated highs. At LACMA there are improvements to the “mess” he referred to, to both the quality of the other buildings as well as the orientation. Piano’s elements have some metaphorical power, but arguably not enough to make a major impact in an attenuated city like LA attuned to Gehryesque flamboyance and red carpet glamour, and on a nebulous and hermetic site. Instead they are chameleonic, in line with his wish to make architecture an accomplice rather than a protagonist.
Unfortunately his entrance canopy was adjusted by the client. His earlier museum projects, the Menil Collection in Houston, set in a park, and the Beyeler Foundation Museum at Riehen, outside Basel (1991/7), another beautiful green field site, are stronger. Creating first of all a tabula rasa, as Koolhaas proposed, is always going to be an easier option, but Piano is more concerned to unite the site and give art a good space. In that respect, he has made a reasonable surgical effort, and there is more to come.