Philanthropist Eli Broad gives big but expects control.
May 16, 2015
A drive along Grand Avenue, in downtown Los Angeles, displays a cultural and civic acropolis willed into being largely through the gifts and relentless effort of philanthropist Eli Broad: an arts high school by Viennese architect Coop Himmelb(l)au, the concrete majesty of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Rafael Moneo. A couple of blocks away, find the mute metal screens that cover the state transportation agency Caltrans, by Morphosis.
Broad helped negotiate a $50 million deposit from the Related Companies to jump-start Grand Park, designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an oasis in a park-starved part of the city. Related has relaunched a recession-delayed $700 million commercial and residential development next to the park with architect Frank Gehry at the helm. Just beyond the curling stainless-steel fronds of Gehry's 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, boosted by Broad's fundraising acumen, hunkers Arata Isozaki's red sandstone Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Broad helped found the museum in 1979. He strongly advocates design competitions, which brought about the commissioning of Coop Himmelb(l)au, Morphosis, and Zaha Hadid (for the Broad Art Museum at Eli's alma mater, Michigan State University in East Lansing).
Now that private philanthropy largely finances American arts institutions, private donors deploy dollars to wield vast influence over those public entities. No one has used such power like Eli Broad (rhymes with road). With his generosity comes an obsessive involvement that can drive away allies, just as his gifts and unstinting commitment have raised millions for causes he cares about. 'He is extremely hyper-organized and an ultraclassic Type A,' said Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who worked with Broad on Disney Hall and serves on the board of The Broad. He demands control'of key hires like museum directors and architects'that critic Martin Filler has called his 'all-strings-attached modus operandi.' To recurring accusations that he is autocratic, his usual response is, 'I didn't want to waste time.'
After building two billion-dollar fortunes (in what is now the residential building corporation KB Home, and SunAmerica Inc., an insurer), he went on to make his mark as a philanthropist savvy in art and architecture. Broad and his wife, Edythe, also have made gifts in the hundreds of millions to medical research and to support education reform nationwide. In his commitment of funds and expertise, Broad is the philanthropist-in-chief of Los Angeles. The culminating civic commitment of Eli, 81, and Edythe is just finishing next door to Disney Hall'a 120,000-square-foot art museum called The Broad. Opening September 20, it will house and display their collection of 2,000 objects of modern and contemporary art collected over 40 years. In 1984, the Broads established their own art foundation, with a liberal lending program (8,000 loans so far). Broad explains, 'We want our collection to be seen by the broadest possible audience.'
Elizabeth Diller, partner in the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, calls The Broad's cheese-grater facade the Veil. It tips up at its street-level corners to reveal full-height glass walls of the block-long lobby. Within, curved surfaces soar like massive tree trunks and spread to form the ceiling overhead. They evoke the huge weight of what is called the Vault, an almost windowless volume hoisted high above the street that will store the Broads' collection.
The Vault idea helped Diller's team win a private design competition. (Losing firms reportedly included OMA, Herzog & de Meuron, and SANAA.) A 105-foot-long escalator tunnels through the dark Vault to make its mass palpable, arriving at the top-floor display space where natural light pours in. The architect contrasted the Vault's solidity with the skewed, honeycomb grid of the Veil. In concept, the Veil was to be strong, like a mesh basket, and so could support itself and roof the top-floor exhibition space free of columns and walls. At the same time the grid's openings would allow controlled daylight to spill into the displays through the walls and roof. Along the outside, Diller let the veil soften at the corners and warp in places, suggesting a tactile, cloth-like pliability.
By celebrating the private-collection archive and the public exhibition space, Diller's design became a literal embodiment of Broad's aspiration. 'Liz really thought it through,' Broad says. 'The Veil and the Vault made sense.'
Broad could not resist the speculative builder's instinct to question every dollar spent. From the beginning, Diller says, 'He underestimated what a museum of this caliber was going to cost' (supposedly $80 to $100 million). But with his customary gusto, Broad immersed himself in every detail. 'Getting a building built can be like a sausage factory,' Diller says. 'Sometimes you don't want to expose the client to all that. But it was very hard to keep anything from Eli.'
Diller intended the Veil to be made of precast concrete panels. 'Before we signed on to Liz's design, we looked at who was to fabricate it,' Broad says. He explained that his first-choice firm estimated the manufacture of the Veil at $9 million. He commissioned DS+R to complete the design but found, 'Six months later, the fabricator would not do it for $30 million.' As time passed, the architects would work with four different structural engineers, but ultimately the team concluded that California's demanding seismic requirements would require a much more robust approach.
The Broad team turned to German curtain-wall specialist Seele, which came up with a highly complex assembly of criss-crossing welded-steel tubes covered with fiber-reinforced concrete panels. Solid walls replaced glass in three of four walls. Only on the Grand Avenue side does the veil refract daylight through a full-height glass wall. Outside, the Veil has largely lost the liquid surface quality shown in renderings. On three sides, it is embossed rather than deeply incised, boxy rather than sculpted. Even so, the museum's cost has risen to $140 million and is opening 15 months late.
Broad has initiated a legal action against Seele to recover $19.8 million in costs related to the delays. The suit won't be resolved until after the building is done.
It's not the first time crucial compromises have been made on projects in which Broad has been deeply involved. While pressing for boldface-name architects, he has often been impatient with the time and money their designs take. As founding chairman of MOCA, he helped negotiate a deal with the developer of adjacent lots, the California Plaza Partnership, which agreed to pay the $23 million cost to build MOCA to satisfy a percent-for-art obligation. In return, the developer insisted that architect Arata Isozaki sink most of the 1986 museum below the street to preserve views from its buildings, which left the design with a weak street presence and forces visitors to descend into an unappetizing pit. Though impressive early acquisitions seemed to position the new museum as a premier contemporary collection, the architecture did not help MOCA build a strong identity. By late 2008, it faced insolvency. Broad saved the day with a $30 million bailout.
Broad also courted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), supporting a competition-winning $300 million 2001 overhaul by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas that entailed demolishing much of the existing hodgepodge. But when fundraising fell short, Broad proposed to scrap the plan and underwrite a new wing'and he wanted Renzo Piano to design it. Broad was allowed unusual authority because LACMA believed it would receive substantial gifts of art from the Broads to go with the building. Piano worked directly with Broad and his foundation's director, Joanne Heyler, along with Michael Govan (whom Broad had lured to LACMA as its CEO and director).
Piano is used to setting the stage for art viewing with sunlight-filled lobbies and convivial gathering spaces'but Broad wanted, and got'an almost windowless $56-million bunker with a top-floor rooflight, and little else. Even the stair linking the building's three gallery levels was banished to the exterior, like a fire escape.
'He doesn't seem to value the kind of creativity architects like SANAA, Frank Gehry, or Renzo Piano bring,' said Andrew Klemmer, president of the Paratus Group, which manages complex arts-institution building projects, though he has never consulted for Broad. Klemmer believes LACMA committed a cardinal sin by giving him so much control over the project. 'A public institution should never twist its program and intention to draw a donor in.'
Only a month before the 2008 opening of the wing, called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Broad reneged on the art gift, saying that a deal had never been worked out, leaving Govan hanging in the wind.
Disney Hall was a different story'and became a triumph of design because Broad lost a highly public battle with Gehry. After a decade of effort to build the concert hall'but with only an underground parking garage completed'the uber-patron appeared to jump-start moribund fundraising. But Broad was impatient with Gehry's deliberative process. Years earlier, he had hired Gehry to design a house but grew impatient, bringing in someone else to finish it. 'Eli tried to fire me from Disney, and it felt nasty at the time,' said Gehry. 'He said my ego held the concert hall back.' Gehry fought the firing, and supporters, notably Diane Disney Miller, the daughter of Walt's widow, who had made the $50 million lead gift, rallied behind him. Gehry 'took a couple of extra years and many more millions of dollars,' Broad said. But Broad helped raise tens of millions of dollars to complete the $274 million project.
As the hall neared its opening and the full wonder of Gehry's accomplishment became evident, Gehry and Broad famously consummated a rapprochement at a dinner for supporters on Disney's stage. As they shook hands, Broad said, 'I have to say, Frank was right.' The unprecedented admission silenced the room. Board member Andrea Van de Kamp shouted, 'Could you repeat that?' He did. 'We're friends now,' said Gehry. 'He's been a great partner in our work in downtown LA.'
In February, the Broads showed off their museum's tour de force, the column-free 35,000-square-foot exhibition floor. Though the space lost the three-dimensional quality of light coming in from all sides, the hundreds of light monitors in the skewed ceiling grid floated overhead like soft clouds, showering the space with limpid daylight.
Though the Baldessaris and Basquiats, the Currins, Koonses, Kiefers, and Kriegers should all glow happily, the museum's compromised design may keep it from becoming the equivalent of Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum or Renzo Piano's Menil Collection: the perfect marriage of collector, collection, and architecture.