At the Broad Museum, the Architecture Rivals the Art

A new institution with a striking design opens in the burgeoning arts district of downtown Los Angeles.

Benny Chan / The Broad

Los Angeles’s newest contemporary art museum, the Broad, sits across the street from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Few buildings could be expected to rival the space-age angles of Gehry’s iconic 2003 structure, but the Broad certainly tries, presenting itself as a work of art on par with the contemporary masterpieces it was built to house.

When it opens on September 20, the Broad will become the city’s second richest museum behind the Getty—its endowment of $200 million is more than the endowments of the neighboring Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—as well as the latest edition to the developing downtown arts district. Commissioned by the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife Edythe, the $140 million museum will showcase and store the couple’s more than 2,000-piece collection.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York architecture firm best known for the High Line in Manhattan and the Contemporary Institute of Art in Boston, designed the 120,000-square-foot museum with the dominating Walt Disney Hall in mind. In contrast to Gehry’s smoothly curved titanium panels, which make up a haphazardly layered, extroverted facade, the Broad is solidly square with an asymmetric base and a matte exoskeleton of an exterior made of fiberglass-reinforced concrete. The honeycomb facade diffuses natural light inside the building and compliments the skylights on the roof while keeping the Broad’s considerable collection of post-war art safe from overexposure.

Iwan Baan / The Broad

The cavernous lobby, finished with undulating walls, is stark, with attention directed toward a massive escalator that takes visitors up to the third floor gallery, the museum’s main exhibition space.

Iwan Baan / The Broad

On their way out, visitors descend through a staircase that was constructed so that works stored in the museum’s central vault can be glimpsed—a tease to inspire future visits and reveal the extent of the Broads’ collection.

Iwan Baan / The Broad

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic at The Los Angeles Times, finds the museum’s “veil and vault” design—referring to the “veil” of the external honeycomb and the “vault” of the building’s central storage and administrative areas—“perfectly clear, if rather prescriptive.” The Broad, he says, is “a far more rational and constrained building than it initially appears.” However, Hawthorne commented that the museum’s design has personality on the periphery: in the museum’s glass elevator, in the small gallery adjacent to it, and in the delicately lifted edges of the building’s facade.

The Washington Post’s architecture critic Philip Kennicott has praised the building’s architecture despite its imperfections, calling it “a narthex for the age of distraction, allowing the mind to rebirth itself into a state of greater focus and spiritual expectation.” The problem isn’t the building, he’s noted, but its collection.

Iwan Baan / The Broad

The art—the ostensible main event of the museum—hasn’t yielded positive reviews, despite the museum’s housing one of the most anticipated private collections of contemporary art. The Broad’s art checks all the “blue-chip-masterpiece” boxes, with works from the likes of Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst, Sharon Lockhart, Kara Walker, and Andy Warhol, not to mention the world’s largest collection of Cindy Sherman pieces. But it’s precisely this overwhelming presence of “universal collection staples,” argues Holland Cotter in The New York Times’s review of the museum, that shows that the Broad is old-fashioned rather than forward-thinking; it has been built to “preserve a private collection conceived on a masterpiece ideal” rather than making room for the “under-known, offbeat, less than neat.”

Still, the museum will be open to the public for free, part of a growing trend for museums to lower their barriers to public enjoyment. “We have been deeply moved by contemporary art and believe it inspires creativity and provokes and stimulates lively conversations,” Eli Broad said in a statement. “We hope visitors from Los Angeles and around the country and the world visit and are similarly enriched by this art.”

Warren Air / The Broad

The Broad’s opening is the first of several large-scale projects in L.A. over the next few years, including a movie museum funded by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a new 100,000-square-foot art space from Hauser & Wirth, the contemporary art powerhouse.

“I think there’s a recognition that the city matters, that the people aren’t just there for the weather,” Kathy Halbreich, the associate director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, told The Washington Post last year. “You see a level of ambition that’s been ratcheted up.”