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Design of the Broad museum building is still upside down -- and now we know why (Updated)

January 6, 2011 |  2:50 pm

Diller Scofidio+Renfro 1
Do the galleries of a contemporary art museum really benefit very much from natural light filtering in from skylights overhead?
 
No, not much – but you wouldn’t know that from Thursday morning’s public performance at Disney Concert Hall, where the design of the new Broad Art Foundation’s building was unveiled. The Romantic, 19th century Beaux Arts ideal of sky-lighted art galleries has unfortunately guided the design program of a building intended for 20th and 21st century art.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro architect Elizabeth Diller, who certainly talks a good building, spent considerable enthusiastic energy at the unveiling discussing the capability of natural light to illuminate the top-floor galleries. A “continuous skylight” aligned to cardinal north is planned to provide diffuse illumination. That capability is a primary reason for locating the 38,000 square-feet of art display space -– the building’s chief public function -- a one-way escalator ride up to the building’s third floor, above the café, lounge, book store, storage vaults and offices that will occupy the Broad’s ground level and second floor. (Updated: Rick Scofidio's name was mispelled in an earlier version of this post.)

Natural light is essential to deep appreciation of art made before artists’ studios had the capacity to be illuminated by electric light. From Munich’s exemplary Alte Pinakothek, inaugurated in 1836, to the J. Paul Getty Museum’s beautiful upstairs rooms a century and a half later, European paintings made from the 14th through at least the 18th century are bathed in much the same living, breathing sunlight, usually filtered to eliminate as many harmful UV rays as possible, that prevailed when the artists made them.

But once the incandescent light bulb came along, finally becoming ubiquitous in the 20th century, the standard correspondence between natural light and painting changed forever. The more that Modern and contemporary artists joined collage, found objects, assemblage, photographs, installation art, video and more to art's traditional repertoire of painting and sculpture, working mostly under artificial illumination, the less natural light mattered. For artists, studio space with ideal north-facing windows is now quaint.

In fact, looking just at the Broad Art Foundation’s nine recent acquisitions (of some 2,000 works overall) listed on its website, natural light can even be contemporary art’s enemy. More than half the recent purchases are big works on paper -- painted, drawn or photographed -- which need protection from daylight, not exposure to it. That’s one reason the Broad’s incomparable collection of Cindy Sherman photographs is usually installed in the basement rooms of the foundation’s current Santa Monica building: There's not a window in sight.

Don’t get me wrong. Natural light is always nice in a building. Most of the galleries across the street at the Museum of Contemporary Art are illuminated by skylights, which help alleviate the glum experience of going downstairs, below street-level, to enter an art museum.  And natural light can also contribute mightily to making some older painting installations -- say, Mark Rothko from the 1950s --truly ravishing.

But Christopher Wool or Ed Ruscha or almost all the others in the Broad collection? Not so much. The play of natural light just doesn't matter to most contemporary art.

Often, MOCA even has to cover up those skylights to protect the art below, as it has for several rooms in its current installation. At the new Broad, the cost of the out-of-date natural-light fetish has been to put most of the art upstairs, off the hoped-for lively pedestrian thoroughfare of Grand Avenue.

The third floor would have been a terrific location for a lounge, bookstore, lecture hall and café with views over Disney Hall and downtown, which wouldn’t compete with the art. Maybe even an outdoor rooftop sculpture garden would have been nice. (Jeff Koons' "Balloon Dog," anyone?) But because of a basic conceptual flaw in the architecture, which doesn’t grasp the material reality of contemporary art objects, it was not to be.

At least now we know for certain why the DS+R building design is upside down.

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-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

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