Broad Architect Liz Diller Brings Theatrics to Grand Ave., While Losing Her Irony About LA

Broad Museum on the day of the press preview, September 16; photo by Frances Anderton
Press gathers in Grand Avenue, closed for the preview of The Broad, September 16. Photo: Frances Anderton

For several years Angelenos’ expectations for The Broad were shaped by one striking rendering. It showed an expressive, perforated concrete box, lifted at the corners.

This was the proposed facade of a building that endeavored to answer the question, as put by architect Elizabeth Diller: “How do you put a storage facility and an exhibition space on a prominent site on Grand Avenue next to Disney and maintain the urban aspirations for the project?”

Elizabeth Diller and her partners Ric Scofidio and Charles Renfro, or DS+R, are the New York firm picked five years ago from a shortlist of six high-profile teams in a competition to design Eli and Edythe Broad’s museum to house their collection of more than 2000 artworks.

DS+R, founded in 1979 (Renfro joined in 1997), made their reputation initially with “paper architecture,” unbuilt, conceptual ideas about space and form and culture, but then a MacArthur Genius award came their way, followed by city-changing projects including New York’s High Line and the makeover of the once moribund Lincoln Center.

Elizabeth Diller, Ric Scofidio and Charles Renfro, partners at Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Elizabeth Diller, Ric Scofidio and Charles Renfro, partners at Diller Scofidio + Renfro

So how did they answer the question posed by The Broad program?

Diller explained it for the umpteenth time at the recent press preview of the building: “Our formulation was the veil and vault, so the vault would hold the collection and it floats in the middle of the building? The veil — a somewhat coy and porous mineral like five-sided facade with certain characteristics of coral — would nest over the vault, and the veil would absorb light, it would handle the large spans, and create a shaded arcade and the street would leak into the lobby through the veil.”

But along the way cost and construction realities meant that the veil (un-“veiled” earlier this year) became a little less voluptuous than its digital image suggested, and critics became a little more skeptical — until this week when the building finally opened.

Flocks of journalists finally got to see inside, preceding the 85,000 people who have already signed up for timed visits that started Sunday.

To get up to the top, says Diller, "you can go by elevator, you can go by stair so there's a fast, a medium, and slow way of getting up and down; photo by Frances Anderton.
To get up to the top, says Diller, “you can go by elevator, you can go by stair so there’s a fast, a medium, and slow way of getting up and down; photo by Frances Anderton.

Many were excited by the interior, among them Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, who described the experience to DnA:

“You know you enter into this kind of cave-like underworld. . .  and go up this escalator and you have kind of glimpses and peeks into the archive and . . . then you open out into this incredibly sublime acre-wide gallery space and you have a similar route coming down, kind of winding around corners and more glimpses into the back of house, office world, and offers views into the auditorium. So I think there’s a kind of cinematic sequences and it is very powerful.”

The escalator delivering visitors to the upper level gallery space has been likened to a "birth canal."
The escalator delivering visitors to the upper level gallery space has been likened to a “birth canal.” Photo: Frances Anderton

This theatricality and voyeurism are vintage DS+R, who have built a reputation for buildings that are both about performance as well as the “performative” possibilities of buildings’ skins derived from “parametric design.”

The earliest iteration of The Broad even intended to turn LA’s car culture into part of the theater, with a lobby space that would have brought “pedestrians entering the museum from Grand Avenue face to face, through glass, with drivers on their way down to the museum’s parking garage.”

DnA spoke to Elizabeth Diller and longtime design and life partner Ric Scofidio about the building and learned about sexual meaning in the building, the curse of the hyper-realistic rendering, as well as how she lost her irony about LA in the process of the project.

DnA: So let’s start with the surprisingly organic quality of the cavernous lobby. People are using sexual metaphors to describe it. How do you feel about that?

Elizabeth Diller: I think there was truly an organic idea about the shaping of the archives which we wanted to be distinct from the Veil… and the language of the architecture is one that’s kind of one of subtraction rather than addition. It’s not a series of parts brought together. It’s a thick volume that then is carved away to produce you opportunities.

There are a lot of metaphors that people have given to it you know — intestine is one, and there are some definitely some sexual ones. But you know for us all, that is (about) having your own body and your perceptions all count as you’re coming into this institution. It’s not aloof, it kind of surrounds you.

Curving hand-trowelled plaster walls give organic feel to The Broad lobby
Curving hand-troweled plaster walls give an organic feel to The Broad lobby; Photo: Frances Anderton

DnA: The lobby is surprisingly dark and cavernous. Tell us about the play of light.

ED: When you come into the building there is a drop in brightness and that was conceived of in a very dramatic and theatrical way.

The intention is both to connect with the street but also to produce a different atmosphere and that dramatic shift of going down a couple of notches before finding yourself in the escalator that brings you up to more of a sublime, natural, yet highly filtered, light condition, which is beautiful to look at the art under. Then you go back to the bright, sometimes harsh, warmth and light of the city.

I guess for us there’s a big appreciation of L.A. light and maybe the building is somewhat about that. You come in from a perhaps sometimes harsh brightness and warmth, you come in and it’s a slightly cooler atmosphere. You go into this very dramatic single kind of spear tubes

So there’s is a kind of thematic there of using the light, sculpting it, pushing it, where you want it to be.

It is the same thing with the veil. It never allows a single ray of of sunlight to penetrate into the galleries, but it shapes the light and allows the light come in indirectly. So that there is always a sense that there is a there out there and  you’re not in the middle of another city; you are where you are. You know most museums don’t like light, and light is not necessarily your friend.

Carolina Miranda
Carolina Miranda of the LA times studies the curving wall with artwork by Kara Walker; photo: Frances Anderton

DnA: It’s become a cliche these days to say that art museums are the sacred spaces for a secular time. But this museum, perhaps more than some others, does suggest some of the experiences that one does find in a sacred space. That experience of going from very dark through to the diffuse light; it could almost be leading us to stained glass window. Is that quality something you wanted to achieve?

Ric Scofidio: Transitions seem to be something that are rare these days in our society — because everything today so instant — so I think for us it’s really beautiful to take that moment to make the transition from the activity and craziness outside to the moment of looking at art inside. I think we did the same with the High Line in New York City.

We wanted a slow stair so that you didn’t run up to the High Line immediately; you took a stair that brought you up through the structure, extended the tour up and then you would emerge into the High Line much the same way you emerge here to the level of the art.

The High Line, New York City, designed with landscape architect James Corner. Photo courtesy DS+R
The High Line, New York City, designed with landscape architect James Corner. Photo courtesy DS+R

ED: I would also say that that some of those qualities that you’re talking about are architectural properties, that can be appropriated in different ways for different reasons. When I go to a cathedral and I see beautiful light coming from beautiful stained glass windows I see sky, I don’t see God. I see light. This is a secular space but we do value the kind of the ethereal nature of of the light and it doesn’t have meaning beyond what it is, it’s just beautiful.

One thing I wanted to add to the discussion — and coming back to a sexual metaphor at the beginning — is that the climax is not really at the top of the escalator, it’s is the whole round trip.

RC: Literally there is foreplay, there is the moment and then there is the cool-down afterwards, which is very important.

The veil lets in diffuse northern light
The veil lets in diffuse northern light.

DnA: Let’s talk about a climax of a different sort which is the top of the hill on Grand Avenue.

Ever since the Victorian houses on Bunker Hill were demolished, Grand Avenue has undergone a somewhat tortured effort to turn it into this cultural capital on the top of a hill and yours is the latest building in that effort.

You are urbanists, the High Line is the quintessential urban experience. Have you found that a challenge, to try and make this building a catalyst for Grand Avenue, to the extent it can be?

ED: That’s a huge issue. We’re aware of the the history of the clearing of this whole residential area and the beautification objectives, and that it didn’t pan out exactly the way it was planned.

Grand Avenue in fact became the center of business, which was intended, and culture — but the city really didn’t penetrate so much.

View South-west on Grand Avenue
View South-west on Grand Avenue

What’s happened in the growth of these cultural institutions all the way down Grand, and yes, we are the next one, is all the other cultural institutions, they shy way from the street line. We tried to take a slightly different attitude; we are right up to the street line in every direction. We take the street very, very seriously.

We wanted to bring the city in as much as possible and we wanted to have that communication and that relationship to the street. So on the third level, while it is all about the art, as you come closer to the veil you actually can have views outside and you see little bits of traffic and people and there’s a connectivity and that’s really important for us. It’s a very small gesture but we made a very conscious effort to have some two-way visibility.

I started maybe with a little bit more irony (about LA and its car culture) and I ended up with more earnestness about how downtown could grow a little bit. I mean even this pocket of space (the park between The Broad and The Emerson) — this little urban plaza here that has a restaurant on one side and a new restaurant on the other — I think that that’s going to do something really good here.

I think that that will create a kind of density just right around here. So I’m hoping that the energy that is just to the east and south is going to kind of make its way here.

And if more people could spend more time in this area, could come earlier, could leave later, then these restaurants and outdoor spaces, I think, could help.

The new public mini-park between the Emerson and The Broad. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The new public mini-park between the Emerson and The Broad. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

RS: But it’s going to take more than what we can do because it’s a car culture here. Automobiles insulate you so much from the exterior. You arrive, you’re in the parking lot and then you know that any moment you want to escape, you can escape. So you park, you go to your event and you’re back in a car and you’re gone, you don’t really know the neighborhood you’ve gone through. I think what will make a big difference is when the subway connects here — the Metro — and people are coming on foot, which hopefully will produce more pop ups like the garden that’s outside and people then start to linger and stay here. That’s really what’s essential.

ED: Change that happens all at once never works right. When Lincoln Center originally moved in, in the late ‘50s, early ’60s, it was very similar to this. It was a big urbanization, kind of flattening out of everything, displacement there of 10,000 families and workplaces and it took a long time for that part of the city to actually grow back — and our latest efforts at Lincoln Center helped to actually to connect the campus to the streets and it helped to make good on the public spaces there.

Here the challenge is harder because there is so little residential here and in terms of diversity of populations there is very little — it will take real efforts to bring populations together and to bring the various programs that it takes to make the city together. But you know every building has to do its part and it’s hopeful.

Digital lighting display is one element of DS+R's makeover of Lincoln Center, New York City; photo courtesy DS+R.
Digital lighting display is one element of DS+R’s makeover of Lincoln Center, New York City; photo courtesy DS+R.

Parametric is not a word that’s well known outside the architecture community. Can you if possible in layman’s terms explain how this building fits into the discussion of parametricism.

ED: In in our field nothing can be taken independently. It’s very difficult to separate the structure from the cladding from the form from the costs; everything is connected. And through certain kinds of new platforms, we’re able to actually correlate values between things that were previously we were not able to do. So in shaping this building for example were able to look at optical conditions, and to understand how much concrete we would use, and to understand how much that cost all at the same time.

All because you are using digital platforms specifically?

ED: Yes, parametric tools correlate different kinds of things so we’re able to take the structural strategy and the formal strategy and we are able to share that with a fabricator and we will be able to make formwork for one of those panels and we’re able to actually CNC (computer numerical control) and use other kinds of tools that are enabled by these technologies to to produce these forms which in the end have economic value — of optimization, of lower cost, of speed and all of that good stuff. So we’re able to bring craft into a contemporary condition without the fear of paying huge amounts for it.

Early rendering of The Broad
Early rendering of The Broad

But in the process of working through all these different elements we all know the facade changed from the early rendering — for technical and economic reasons. How do you feel about the finished product?

ED: There has been a lot said, and I find it kind of in a strange. I mean the relationship between an initial idea, a sketch that’s made in six weeks, to the years and years it takes to evolve a design takes you through lots of different changes. Most buildings end up looking quite different from where they started; ours looks very, very close to where we started.

The original structure was actually this, where we have steel with concrete clad, and then we went to precast, and then we went back to steel with concrete clad.

As we went through this evolution shaping the light was extremely important and not allowing too much light to come in.

I actually am very proud of the result and I think that if you are always comparing a finished product to a diagram of it, then it’s too bad, but if you’re coming to [The Broad] for the first time and you haven’t had the privilege of waiting and anticipating I hope the people will appreciate [that] in and of itself it makes a contribution and it does justice to the collection and to the spot that it has in L.A.

Early rendering of The Broad
Early rendering of The Broad

DnA: I think the narrative went that way partly because of these digital platforms. One now get these marvelous renderings that are so real people think they are looking at the actual building.

RC: I think that’s very perceptive that you say that. You know, how do you present a concept without it looking like a finished object that is ready to be built? I don’t have an answer for that yet, and we’ve tried different things. The hand sketch is unfortunately something is not done that often any longer, but is really important.

The problem is probably exaggerated with the Broad because that first image was so striking. Many times we will design something and it changes in many ways, but the images weren’t so magically strong initially.

There is definitely something to be said about these rendering tools which are very photorealist and they promise so much and and people sometimes mistake the representation for the real thing.

It’s a phenomenon of our of our moment I think.

This interview has been lightly edited for length. The Broad is open to the public starting Sunday, September 20.