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Eli Broad: L.A.'s peripatetic patron

Philanthropist's idiosyncratic vision and hands-on control have been both his strength and his weakness.

June 20, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic
  • Eli Broad
Eli Broad (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

"This is not a one-philanthropist town," Eli Broad wrote in an op-ed for The Times in 2008.

Architects who have closely followed the billionaire's civic activities over the last two decades might disagree. As a donor, client and behind-the-scenes power broker, Broad has had a hand in a remarkable number of high-profile buildings in Southern California during that period, including projects by Renzo Piano, Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli and Frank Gehry.

Broad hopes to add to that list by hiring a top-tier architect for a museum on Bunker Hill holding his own extensive art collection, the first art museum built downtown since architect Arata Isozaki's 1986 Museum of Contemporary Art. (As MOCA's founding chairman, Broad had a hand in that one too.) After a private competition, Broad is leaning toward a design by New York's Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

For all of Broad's consistent prominence on the public stage in recent years, the buildings he has helped develop make up a disparate, even contradictory group. They don't reflect a single aesthetic vision or chart the growth of a few chosen architects over time. If the buildings have any common thread, in fact, it is disappointment: Broad has collaborated with some of the most talented firms in the world, to be sure. But he has also overseen some of their least impressive work.

When Broad is intimately involved in a building project, as he is likely to be on the forthcoming museum, his relentless personal style can sear right through his relationships with the architects he has so carefully courted. During design and construction, he often gets mired in personal battles or disputes over budgets and the tiniest architectural details.

In short, Broad the client often trips up Broad the patron.

Personal stamp

If the 77-year-old philanthropist, who earned much of his fortune running the suburban home-builder Kaufman and Broad, were commissioning only private projects, his rocky history with architects would hardly be worth analyzing in detail. But by moving repeatedly to put his personal stamp on civic architecture — and in the case of the planned Bunker Hill museum by seeking to lease public land for $1 per year — he invites scrutiny of his negotiating style and approach to city-building.

Broad's architectural patronage, accompanying extensive philanthropic work in education and healthcare, has taken a variety of forms. In some cases he has shepherded buildings from start to finish. In others he and his wife, Edythe, have made a donation after a building was largely complete. Occasionally he has helped revive a stalled civic project, as was the case with Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall nearly 15 years ago.

Above all, Broad prefers to work with celebrated, blue-chip architects. Four of the six firms he invited to take part in the museum competition are winners of the Pritzker Prize, the field's top honor. Broad is also clear about favoring strikingly contemporary architecture over a more overtly contextual approach.

"I have a great deal of admiration for Bob Stern," he told me, referring to Robert A.M. Stern, a noted architect whose buildings often make reference to past styles. "But I can't see ever working with him."

If you ask architects about Broad's approach, they point out that his experience as a builder — one who earned success by rigorously controlling costs — makes him an unusually hard-nosed client. They also mention his tirelessness, calling that quality a double-edged sword.

"One of Eli's charms and one of his problems is the intensity with which he gets involved in things," said architect Frederick Fisher, who designed office space and extensive private galleries for the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica in the late 1980s. "He absolutely loves the give and take. We would find ourselves sitting in his office discussing the cost of a light fixture."

In the fall of 1998, Broad hired the firm Richard Meier & Partners, just a year removed from its work on the Getty Center, to design a house on Malibu's Carbon Beach. According to Michael Palladino, Meier's Los Angeles-based partner, Broad was an enthusiastic client. He invited Palladino to his primary residence in Brentwood for a number of weekend design sessions.

"He absolutely loved those quiet moments on Saturday mornings, going over the details of the design," Palladino said.

But the very rooms where the two men gathered for those meetings were symbolic of architectural discord, even dysfunction. Broad sought out Gehry to design the Brentwood house in the late 1980s but later complained that the architect was tinkering with the plans for too long. After dismissing Gehry, he completed the house using the architect's unfinished designs. Gehry disowned it.

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