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Q&A: Architect Elizabeth Diller on working with Eli Broad and more

September 20, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic
  • Exterior of The Broad from 2nd Street and Grand Avenue.
Exterior of The Broad from 2nd Street and Grand Avenue. (Image courtesy of The Broad…)

Architect Elizabeth Diller was in Los Angeles this week for a press event at the Broad, the new $140-million Bunker Hill museum her New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro is designing for philanthropists and art collectors Eli and Edythe Broad.

Before she appeared  with Eli Broad, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the museum’s founding director, Joanne Heyler, Diller took Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne on a tour of the building, which is under construction and expected to open next fall. The two of them then sat down for a conversation about her experience working with Broad and about the other art-museum projects she and the firm are working on in New York and Berkeley and on the Stanford campus.

What follows is an edited, condensed version of their discussion.

Christopher Hawthorne: How has Eli Broad been as a client?

Elizabeth Diller: He’s much more involved than any client I’ve ever seen. He’s actually at every meeting. He’s there doing his calculations -- at the micro level. With that said, he really had a lot of respect for the project that he selected. And he has defended it. You know, the budget went up, and the complications went up, and we pushed the schedule back, and a lot of things happened as a result of not doing this building in a conventional way. And he supported it. He grumbled, but he supported it.

CH: One major element of the design that has changed is the façade, what you call the “veil” covering the “vault” of the archive inside. The veil was going to be precast concrete and play a significant structural role. Now it’s a lighter concrete [officially glass fiber reinforced concrete, or GFRC].

ED: When we were designing it we had it two ways. We were leaning toward a more conventional solution, but our engineer thought that we might be able to do it in precast concrete with the long spans. Once we started to factor in the more complicated code restrictions for seismic activity, we were going to have to thread so much steel through the concrete it just didn’t make sense. We lost a lot of time on that. So what we’ve really done is to go back to our original notion.

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CH: What else has changed? Initially you had the idea of having cars drive right onto the lobby level and coming face to face to with pedestrians, through glass, before going down into the garage.

ED: We lost that very early on. And we never really had a debate about that with Eli, because it was really issues with the city that made it impossible: the curb cut on the street outside, the location of the garage below. We just couldn’t make it work logistically.

CH: Your design has from the beginning suggested some optimism about the role that the museum could play in helping boost pedestrian traffic and a sense of street life on Grand, a part of downtown that historically has struggled to feel vital. Do you still feel it will help do that?

ED: It’s hard to fight some of that history. These are really, really big issues that one building can’t totally fix. Insofar as the sites [along Grand] are filled not by office towers but by cultural buildings, each of which tries to contribute to street life, the approach to the sidewalk of each building is really important. We also sit on this plaza, which is evolving as a design.

CH: Tell me a bit more about that plaza, which you are helping to design to the south of the museum. We've all focused so much on how the museum will relate to Disney Hall. But this side is also crucial.

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ED: We’ve asked ourselves a million times, "Why would somebody sit in a plaza?" Well, if it’s nice, and they’re moving between one cultural institution or the next, or to or from the subway, and there’s a place to have a drink, or to eat, people will use it. The design is fairly minimal: a couple of places for people to congregate, and we imagine that some of the programming for the museum could also be outdoors, education-related stuff, film showings and so on. 

CH: What about the back side of the museum, toward Hope Street? That side faces a forthcoming Metro stop. But there also may be another building that goes up between the back of the Broad and Hope. Do you think of the museum as a design in the round, one that can be seen from all sides?

ED: It’s a freestanding building. Three sides are very much exposed to the street and the public. The back side, not so much. That side has taken a beating. It’s designed, and will be wrapped in the same veil as the rest of the building, but it will be in relief; it won’t bring light in. We just didn’t know if something would be built right next to it.

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