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Lost in translation

Lost in translation
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First Published: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 38 AM IST

New venture: Renzo Piano (right) with art collector Eli Broad. (Brad Graverson / NYT)
New venture: Renzo Piano (right) with art collector Eli Broad. (Brad Graverson / NYT)
Updated: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 38 AM IST
Los Angeles is growing up, and I count myself among those who see that as a mixed blessing. Over the last decade or so, it has embarked on its most ambitious cultural building boom in a generation, adding a new dimension to a city, whose notable civic monuments have famously been its freeways. But with exceptions like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, these projects have often failed to live up to Los Angeles’ great tradition of architectural experimentation.
The new Broad Contemporary Art Museum is no different. An addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it had been viewed as a way of cleaning up what many saw as a muddle of mismatched buildings. Beyond that, many hoped it would serve as a striking monument to the city’s growing power in the contemporary art world.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the new addition takes a mostly pragmatic approach to the site. Piano reorganizes the complex along a strong central axis, giving it a clarity that it desperately needed. His top-floor galleries, which take advantage of the exquisite California sunlight, will no doubt thrill those whose main focus is how a museum’s design makes the art look.
But architecture is about more than the quality of light. It’s where our dreams collide with practical realities, which makes it perhaps the most difficult of arts. As a monument to the civic aspirations of Los Angeles, Piano’s design is remarkably uninspired. There is little of the formal freedom that is at the heart of the city’s architectural legacy; nor is there much evidence of the structural refinement that we have come to expect in Piano's best work. The museum’s monumental travertine form and lipstick-red exterior stairways are a curious mix of pomposity and pop culture references. It’s an architecture without conviction.
Piano began reasonably enough. To give some order to the campus, he created a new open-air entrance pavilion that connects a generous plaza along Wilshire Boulevard (one of the principal arterial roads in Los Angeles) in the front to a public park and underground parking structure in the back. A covered walkway running parallel to Wilshire connects the pavilion to the old campus on one side and to the Broad addition on the other. By situating all the circulation at the rear of the complex along open-air walkways, Piano creates a strong visual connection to both the park and more distant views of the Santa Monica mountains. More importantly, he clears up space inside so it can be turned over to the art.
This approach seems sensible enough, but it never engages the city’s singularity. The great architects who built along Wilshire Boulevard in the 1920s were among the first to celebrate the emergence of American car culture, creating low-flung structures whose horizontal lines echoed the traffic flowing along the boulevard. By contrast, Piano broke the museum into two identical blocks, which appear lifeless from the street. And if to some, the entrance pavilion’s flat, square canopy brings to mind a gas station, the reference falls flat. I’ve seen gas stations in southern California with far more architectural ambition.
Just as perplexing is the clash of aesthetic languages. Mounted on top of the museum’s aged travertine blocks, the sleek white panels of the sawtooth roof seem oddly incongruous. An exterior escalator conjures obvious associations with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Piano’s breakthrough project with Richard Rogers in the 1970s. But there is none of the Pompidou’s ebullient sense of play. Instead, the structural matrix of bright red columns that support the escalator and walkway canopies seems flimsy.
I suspect that museum officials are nervously aware of the addition’s shortcomings, so much so that they have hidden the structures behind artworks. Two enormous banners adorning the building along Wilshire Boulevard disguise the main facade. A sculpture by Chris Burden of vintage street lamps culled from various neighbourhoods in the city block the view from the street to the entrance pavilion.
New venture: Renzo Piano (right) with art collector Eli Broad. (Brad Graverson / NYT)
Many will be tempted to forgive Piano once they enter the galleries. Since his Menil Collection building opened in Houston in 1986, Piano’s use of light has inspired fervent admiration. The Broad Museum may be the closest he has come since then to creating an atmosphere in which viewers’ awareness of natural shifts in daylight heightens their experience of the art. From inside the galleries, the bleached oak floors and the intricate structural system supporting the sawtooth roof have a relaxed, informal quality. The sharp angle of the roof’s louvers opens the space up to the California sky.
None of this distracts from the art. On the contrary, the soft light, filtered through a system of screens, helps rivet the eye. Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” looks as if it were about to spring off its pedestal; every nuance in tone and colour in a Jasper Johns painting comes vibrantly to life.
The subtle shifts in mood continue as you descend through the building. The regularity of the second-floor galleries is momentarily broken by a louvered wall that allows visitors to catch glimpses of the palms arranged by the artist Robert Irwin on the sidewalk along the boulevard. The south gallery on the first floor is pierced by a long window, so that as you circle the artworks, you can gaze out at the park in the rear. (The rusted steel plates of Richard Serra’s “Band” look fabulous in this generously proportioned room. When the same work was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the spring, it looked comparatively cramped.)
There are other reasons for optimism. The museum is planning a second expansion phase, also designed by Piano, calling for a 40,000 sq. ft warehouse space that will be used for temporary exhibitions and enveloped in a field of palm trees. Piano says it will also have a sawtooth roof structure but simpler than the one on the Broad building, in keeping with the industrial look of its design. And the museum’s director, Michael Govan, says he still hopes the worst parts of the old complex will be improved, although he acknowledges that any such move is years away.
Photos
The exterior view of the museum in Los Angeles
Urban Light, in front of the new entry pavilion of the museum—it consists of a dozen rows of vintage street lights so tightly regimented that they can look like a total hall-of-mirrors illusion
Cracked Egg at the museum
A three-storeyed melange of words and pictures by Barbara Kruger at the museum; visitors at the museum
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Mon, Mar 10 2008. 12 38 AM IST