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Thinking inside the box: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s The Broad

Johnny Tucker

Blueprint

Words Johnny Tucker

Diller Scofidio + Renfro's latest offering is a box - a great big art box, a treasure chest if you like. The Broad art gallery, which opens its doors this September is a huge, white, $140m GRP-concrete box in Downtown Los Angeles, that houses one of the USA's leading post-war private art collections - and, importantly, offers free admission to the public.

The inward-looking gallery sits directly opposite Frank Gehry’s flashy Disney Music Hall. Photo: Iwan Baan
The inward-looking gallery sits directly opposite Frank Gehry's flashy Disney Music Hall. Photo: Iwan Baan

It sits on a corner directly opposite the glittering, sinuously extroverted form of Frank Gehry's Disney Music Hall. Diagonally across the road on the other side is the thoroughly post-modern Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA, 1986) by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. And the area also includes an enormous and extraordinary cathedral by Rafael Moneo (Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, 2002), and work by the likes of Thom Mayne, Wolf Prix of Himmelb(l)au and Welton Becket (Capitol Records Tower, 1956). When this, and particularly the neighbouring Disney Concert Hall, is your immediate architectural context, it's perhaps no wonder that you end up with something much more inward-looking and, if not introverted, far more self-contained and self-referential.

The oculus in the conference space, where the veil moves to the interior. Photo: Elizabeth Daniels
The oculus in the conference space, where the veil moves to the interior. Photo: Elizabeth Daniels

'How do you sit next to Disney?' posits The Broad's project architect, DS+R's Kevin Rice. 'How do you sit next to something as flamboyant, striking and important as Disney and not just be a background building? You have to be able to hold your own and have a conversation. We were always going to be a box - we were never going to be formal architecture. What we started looking at was this idea of light - Disney is reflective, expressive in the way it uses the LA light, but for us with The Broad we wanted to bring the light into the museum, filter it. So, the idea of the veil was born.'

Diagram showing the main two components of the building, the vault and the veiled façade
Diagram showing the main two components of the building, the vault and the veiled facade

The veil is the term that DS+R uses to refer to the skin cloaking the building, made up of white, glass-fibre-reinforced concrete panels. The veil is structurally independent from the main body of the building beneath - the vault. It stands off it by a metre, which allows for a window-cleaning rig to operate in the space.

The building is clad in a ‘veil’ of concrete that is perforated to bring light inside. Photo: Jeff Duran/Warren Air, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The building is clad in a 'veil' of concrete that is perforated to bring light inside. Photo: Jeff Duran/Warren Air, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The vault itself is a post-tensioned-concrete cantilever of between 12m and 21m. This allows for a column-free lobby space. The first and second floor (the gallery) slabs are tied together with a series of concrete shear walls to increase the effective structural depth of the cantilever. Lateral bracing, to cope with seismic activity that's not uncommon in LA, is handled with shear walls west of the open areas of the veil attached to a rocker under the pavement. All of this allows for as much as 36cm of movement.

Storage areas are sandwiched between the entrance and third-fl oor gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Storage areas are sandwiched between the entrance and third-floor gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

New York-based DS+R also threw its net wider and looked at the fuller urban context for visual identity of this building, from the low-rise boxy nature of much of LA's sprawl to the street plan itself, which informs the facade and the way the building handles light. There's also a nod to the city's Sixties' brutalist heritage in the use of concrete in the veil, but that's been softened and updated with computer-modelled elements that the architects of the Sixties simply could not have realised.

North-facing skylights run diagonally across the ceiling, bringing natural light into the gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
North-facing skylights run diagonally across the ceiling, bringing natural light into the gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Perhaps the biggest guiding factor in the design of this building is the programme. It is all about housing the collection and giving the public not just a chance to see specific artworks, but to allow a glimpse into how a large lending collection like this is handled. The Broad's collection of artworks has been put together by eponymous philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. This was never a collection meant to fill up the walls and gardens of some gaudy Beverly Hills mansion; these treasures were brought together to enrich a wider audience.

The sinuous, column-free lobby area. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
The sinuous, column-free lobby area. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

At any one time as much 20 per cent of the collection - 4,000 pieces - is on loan around the world. But that still leaves 16,000 in LA, and to cope with that, pretty much half of this building (it was the majority at one point during the design process - until a gallery was added to the ground floor) is a massive storage space. It is a key part of the building and very much the narrative the architect wanted to relate. To that end, it's not hidden away in the basement, but instead sandwiched between the ground-floor entrance areas and the huge top-floor gallery.

What's more, as you travel between the two main public areas through the vault, you are offered glimpses into these active storage areas, where 'pre-curating' is going on to bring the reality of modern-day art collecting, storage and display to the fore.

As you approach this white-box gallery along the Downtown pavement - this area is considered one of the more walkable in the city - you are reminded of the rectilinear low-rises that abound in LA, but on a much larger scale. While it may be only three storeys (above ground - there's a car park beneath), it still rises to a height of 23m.

At each corner facing the main Grand Avenue thoroughfare, the honeycombed veil lifts for the main public entrances.

These bring you into a monochrome environment that deeply contrasts with the outside, in its use of grey, smooth plaster walls, but more intensely because it has a deeply organic feel to its curves. Had the grey been a deep pink you might feel as though you had just slipped inside a giant body.

The ground floor is mainly a place of transience - though there is now the one smaller gallery here and the obligatory gift shop.

From the ground floor you have three ways of reaching the gallery at the top of the building: a lift that goes straight up, a staircase that 'burrows' through the interior, and an escalator passing through a sphincter in the grey walls that close in around the passageway. 'You do get compressed going through there, up into the light,' adds Rice, and in retrospect it is probably a good thing they didn't opt for bodily pink walls...

The three ways up to the gallery start at different points in the entrance area, but all coalesce to bring you out in the same area in the centre of the dramatic gallery space. Again the juxtaposition is huge and very deliberate, from the almost oppressive womb-like journey into the exhibition space you emerge into an open rectangular void filled with light and glorying in its rectilinearity. There are no columns: the space is completely spanned by five massive 2m-deep, 58m-long steel beams. Reconfigurable floating walls compartmentalise the 7m-high space.

Apart from the huge span, the real key element about this gallery space is the light - it's at once a celebration and a harnessing of Los Angeles' fabled sunlight. I unfortunately arrive into the space on one of the city's June Gloom days, but even then the quality of the light is little short of magnificent. There is electric lighting, but none of it is on (and will rarely ever need to be during the day). At one point the sun does just manage to show its face, and the light intensifies, but never glares.

Naturally, this is a gallery, so there are no big shafts of sunlight beaming down. All of the lux is coming through north-facing roof skylights running diagonally across the ceiling. Harnessing north light is nothing new, but the way this has been handled is something to behold.

Dark grey, wavy concrete walls engulf visitors as they enter the gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Dark grey, wavy concrete walls engulf visitors as they enter the gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio +Renfro

'The monitors themselves are 2.7m tall and shaped to both amplify the reflected light as well as block any direct sunlight,' says Rice. 'We worked with Andy Sedgewick from Arup's London office to develop the system. The monitor is controlling the light, absorbing the light. It's designed to not need any electric light in daylight. It's designed to have light levels that you can show art in the daytime. On a sunny day it's intense.'

And the handling of this light was a key factor in the design of the rest of the veil as well. 'The geometry for it really started with the skylights,' says Rice, of the exterior skin of the building - the veil. 'The downtown LA street grid is 45 degrees to true north - well, 43 and a half degrees, so the first thing we did was set all of the skylights facing true north. So the building is squared to the grid and the roof-lights run at this 45-degree angle to ease dimensioning, and then those diagonal lines continue down the sides of the building with elliptical holes for glimpsed views out.'

As the diagonals run down the Grand Avenue facade, they indent and merge into the main inner structure, forming an oval pattern like an eye - 'the oculus'. This denotes the conference space on the inside of the building, one of the few public areas in the middle part of the building.

Dark circulation spaces contrast with the bright white, third-fl oor gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Dark circulation spaces contrast with the bright white, third-floor gallery. Photo: Iwan Baan, Courtesy The Broad and Diller Scofidio +Renfro

'We are obviously making reference to LA's Sixties', brutalist concrete structures,' says Rice, 'but we wanted to go further and the form of the oculus is the one thing that you can do now with computers that you just couldn't do back in 1965.' There's clearly a lot about this building that could not have, and indeed would not have, been done back in the Sixties. I've never been in a building so self-contained and inward-looking as this - they do after all call it the vault.

Its interior is a real surprise, from layout to execution. The ground floor is as welcoming as the escalators' penetration through to the gallery is unnerving. The views into the storage areas are theatrical, but it is the top-floor gallery and its handling of light that is the building's tour de force and will no doubt make it a massively popular visitor attraction - especially as it's free.