Presidential elections have this funny way of making the middle of the U.S. into the media’s temporary focal point. During the pre-election hoopla, an endless procession of speeches, parties, and rallies in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan dominate the headlines, and the business of New York, Los Angeles, and D.C. fades to the background. A first time visitor to the United States might have a hard time guessing where the power players really lived.
Then there is the power player Zaha Hadid, who has lavished her architectural attention on the states of lower cultural cachet. The Iraqi-British architect’s first American building was in Cincinnati. Then, on November 10, just four days after another Presidential election came to a close, the Pritzker Prize winner’s second American building opened in Michigan on the East Lansing campus of Michigan State University: Michigan’s very shiny new attempt at starchitecture.
Eli Broad, one half of the museum’s namesake, is not shy about his efforts to buy his alma mater into the cultural tourism game. Formally named The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, the building was made possible with a $28 million gift from the couple. Eli Broad graduated from MSU in 1954. He spoke of the “Bilbao effect” at the media opening for the museum and his intention for the museum to bring tourism to the area. Ever since Frank Gehry created an economic development tool for Bilbao, Spain (a metallic building for art), dozens of cities and institutions have aimed to duplicate the magical moneymaker effect.
As a work of architecture, the $40 million Broad is delightfully bad at being Midwestern. Sharp, flashy, and screaming for attention, its angles point towards staid brick campus buildings in an almost accusatory tone. At its worst, the metal siding pieces can look like a gargantuan cheese grater. But the form, swooping out to one side like the hull of a ship, provides a much-needed challenge to its surroundings.
The Broad is also challenging as a place to view art. Like Hadid herself, the interior can’t help but steal the limelight, and the building often becomes a more interesting place for looking back upon the building itself, instead of what is on the walls. Above the leaning, double-height gallery space, two balconies conducive to people watching invite you to enjoy the other museum visitors for a while. Another double-height space, which faces a courtyard, has a glassed-off second story wall where one stops again to see who is coming and going. This building will succeed as a vessel for parties, first and foremost, which should also provide some intrigue to both those inside and out, thanks to giant glass walls.
The best space of the Broad is the staircase through the galleries, visible from the front lobby. Through the glass doors the visitor sees it wind up a double height space directly in front of the windows, fitting for a building whose entire theme could be interpreted as space-aged design.
At 46,000 square feet, the Broad is puny compared to Bilbao’s 265,000 square-foot Guggenheim. At odd moments the seen-and-be-seen effect fails completely, such as where the two-story glass windows frame a Taco Bell and tanning salon across the street. Starchitecture and college life can make for an awkward cocktail of highbrow and low.
Hadid’s team likes to call the exterior metal forms “pleats,” but they don’t seem to have any parallels to fabrics. Detroit’s Hamilton Anderson Architecture + Landscape Architecture show a softer side in their design for the landscape, which extended the sharpness of the building into cuts that sever the grass and fold into the paved courtyard.
The Broad, for all the high hopes put on it for economic development, does not seem weighted with these matters. It’s a spaceship filled with light and a fascinating gathering space. It feels more like a destination for fans of complicated engineering tactics than those seeking highfalutin’ culture, but that might just be the draw that works best for formerly industrial middle Michigan.