Broad looms large

Eli Broad is not just a prolific art collector, he is also a prodigious builder of art galleries. Perhaps it should be no surprise, since he made his billions from building. In the 1950s Broad spotted the opportunity to provide cheap tract housing for Detroit’s auto workers in the city’s boom industry.

In later life he turned that building acumen to culture. He has funded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he paid for a Renzo Piano extension to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and led the fundraising campaign to build Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in the same city. He is currently funding the construction of the Broad Art Foundation, also in LA, by experimental New York practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

But the latest museum to bear the Broad brand is a different proposition. Certainly it is starry, sculptural and surprising but most surprising of all is its location – East Lansing, Michigan.

A short drive from the shrinking city of Detroit, with its curious cocktail of grand ruins, urban farming and glassy auto-HQs, East Lansing is a college town built around Michigan State University, a sprawling campus accommodating Eli Broad’s Alma Mater. And it is to this that the town owes its sparkling new addition.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum, which opened in November, was designed by London-based architect Zaha Hadid, and it is, as its faceted, quartz-cut exterior suggests, a bit of a jewel.

Hadid is not necessarily the first architect a patron might turn to for an art gallery. Her MAXXI Museum in Rome has been criticised for the difficulties it poses in displaying art. Here is a building with seemingly no plumb walls and no quiet contemplative spaces, a place where paintings struggle to be hung. But perhaps the point is this is a museum for performance and film, noise and vision, perhaps for media yet to be conceived. It challenges curators to fill it. Then again her Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati is a fine urban monument and a solid, sober gallery.

The $45m Broad Museum is different in scale and context. If some starchitect-designed structures can be criticised for not responding to context, treating architecture as a brand and not as thoughtful urban intervention, that is not a criticism that could be levelled here.

Designed to address both city and campus, this is a Janus building of two different faces. One wraps around to form a small courtyard while the other side leans and tilts, its pointy prow making the building its own canopy as the entire wall skews out to cover the entrance. The public space outside is disappointing, a poorly defined, bleak paved and lawned area in the middle of a city with no centre.

Its surface is more intriguing than its shape. Folded, twisted and slashed, it reminded me of the Issey Miyake capes that Zaha Hadid wears, making her appear like one of her own strikingly sculptural structures. The museum’s stainless steel pleats create a solid civic form while allowing the walls to dissolve inside as the slits act as a huge Venetian blind. The lobby runs right through the ground floor and the full effect of the skewed walls becomes apparent in the café where a huge volume above your head leans unsettlingly away. Every detail here writhes with energy and structural tension. A concrete wall is cut away to reveal a black lining of angular chamfers; the bar twists in origami folds. A corner is scythed through to reveal a black vitrine in which one shelf breaks through the glass to create a seat and the canted louvres cast striated, expressionist shadows across the polished concrete floors.

Moving into the building, that expressionist influence deepens. The black stairs are skewed into a crooked well in a powerful echo of the German silent black and white films of the 1920s with their sinister shadows and distorted walls. But any sense of oppressive squeeze or spiky geometries dissolves in the galleries, which are angular and sharp-elbowed but also open, bright and engaging.

The main, double-height gallery space is an explosion of structural invention, its corner window seemingly sucked out towards the sky. It is a curious space for art. Charismatic, wonky, with a huge window and a mezzanine gallery overlooking it, the antithesis of the white cube, this seemingly awkward area is currently filled with two works, “Red Factor”, by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle (a giant fabricated parachute) and “Soweto House with Pre-Paid Water Meter” by Marjeticra Potrč (a jerry-built yellow house), which are not only robust enough to stand up against the space but seemingly exchange energy with it.

Elsewhere in the gallery more delicate paintings and smaller sculptures are accommodated in intimate galleries in which the theatrical false perspectives and irregular angles accentuate a sense of the strangeness inherent in many of the pieces. The works incorporate up-to-the-minute pieces from Broad’s collection as well as others from the university’s holdings. The building is slightly, deliberately disorientating and never less than filmic; it is invigorating in its detail and unpredictability. Artists will have to work to respond to its provocative spaces and visitors will need to accustom themselves to its shadowy, angular embrace.

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