The work that makes the noise

The long, slow escalator ride up the side of Renzo Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum inevitably recalls the ascent up the architect’s most remarkable building, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed with Richard Rogers and opened exactly three decades ago. But instead of a radical view from inside a machine for art over the romantic rooftops of Paris and the Eiffel Tower beneath glowering grey skies, the ride up Piano’s new building takes in the anti-urban sprawl of Los Angeles, a ragged panorama of second-rate skyscrapers, strip malls, snaking freeways and the Hollywood Hills against the sparkling sunshine and deep blue sky of Southern California.

Apart from that ascending exoskeleton, the two buildings have absolutely nothing in common. The Pompidou was a radical insertion into the heart of ultra-conservative Paris, a garish building that finally realised 1960s fantasies of flexible fun palaces, the gallery as public realm, the city as a machine for culture. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) in Los Angeles is a tasteful, conservative stone-clad monument to the power of the super-rich collector.

Eli Broad (pronounced “Brode”), whose collection the new building displays, chose the architect, funded the new building (to the tune of $56m) and supplied the art. But, at the last moment, he sprang a surprise. The works have not been donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Instead, they remain the property of the Broad Foundation, while LACMA is responsible for running the new museum. It is an unusual deal, one that sees LACMA adding a breathtaking collection of contemporary works to its campus but that effectively immortalises the collector without his surrendering the collection itself. Broad himself says he “ran out of wallspace at home”. With Piano’s new building, he now surely has enough and, more importantly, has ensured that his collection will not languish in storage.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the world’s youngest great museum. Originally dedicated to science and the engineering wonder that brought water to parched LA from Owens Valley, it grew into an institution that combines the traditional idea of museum as cabinet of curiosities with an astonishing collection of modern art. Its assets encompass much of William Randolph Hearst’s collection, which he imported from Europe so rapaciously that for a while the US Customs Service ceased to function as it was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of antiques unloaded at the docks.

In 1965, the museum opened a new building on Wilshire Boulevard, curiously located beside the famous La Brea Tar Pits, the bubbling oily black stuff a dramatic acknowledgement of the subterranean source of the wealth that fuelled the museum’s early acquisitions. The building, by William Pereira (they could have had Mies van der Rohe but plumped for a local boy), is a fine campus, a blend of the spindly neo-classicism of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and Californian modernism. It is this rather neutered, slightly insecure institutional architectural language that Renzo Piano has chosen to develop in his new masterplan for the institution and the BCAM.

The architecture reveals an apparent lack of confidence. It neither embraces the Californian tradition of expansive, heavily glazed, cool modernism nor the solidity and urbanity of European museum building. Yet it fits smoothly into Piano’s own oeuvre. This is an architect who, since his radical days at the Pompidou, has become the world’s established architect of taste, the favourite in particular of US boards of trustees.

His architecture is never hysterical, never arrogant. It always supplies the right amount of light, a plan and section of great clarity and intelligence. But the flipside is that its control and precision can lead to a loss of character. Piano never fails but recently he has rarely risen to a brilliance that stops you in your tracks. In the Morgan Library in New York, at the High Museum in Atlanta, in the Menil Collection in Houston, in the new headquarters for The New York Times, he has crafted exquisite interventions that perfectly fulfil their function yet leave a slight coldness, a feeling that perhaps there could have been more.

The project in LA was a challenge to the surgical precision of an architect known for his intelligence and ability to stitch disparate institutions together. This is an urban site only in so far as LA is a city. Like the city of angels itself, it is an ill-fitting collection of bits, occasionally wonderful but entirely lacking in coherence and vision.

Wilshire Avenue was once a burgeoning strip of department stores and retail (it became known as the Miracle Mile in the 1920s boom) but, in the 1970s, corporate America moved in to replace the hole left by suburbanisation and filled it with bland blocks sprinkled with 99 cent stores, parking lots and the fast-fading residue of an optimistic 1950s architecture that was already dark and decaying.

LACMA’s campus encompasses a strange collection of buildings, including Bruce Goff’s Pavilion for Japanese Art (Goff learnt his trade and Japanophilia at Frank Lloyd Wright’s side), a sci-fi adventure in organicism that addresses the dummy dinosaurs of the tar pits, a neighbouring art deco streamlined office building and a solid 1986 extension that builds on the local architectural language of glass brick and block functionalism.

Piano’s response was to pick up on the stone of the 1965 building, to anchor the new building into its context, and to begin to frame a sense of permanence that the campus seems to lack. The stone block is wrapped in what Piano describes as “the spider”, a framework of steel I-beams, stairs and escalators, painted fire-engine red, which provides the new building’s circulation system. It is a motif that cleverly builds on the US urban tradition of fire escapes parasitically devouring building facades, as well as the language of iron and steel construction so familiar from downtown lofts. It also reflects on the Southern Californian language of modernism, which emerged in the postwar era and had surprisingly little impact on the US – although it formed the basis of the High-Tech movement in Europe, of which the Pompidou itself is the crowning achievement.

This language merges seamlessly into a new covered forecourt, a new plaza with an expansive flat roof also supported on those red-painted I-beams. Since it is sponsored by BP, there is a perhaps unconscious irony in a space that evokes a filling-station forecourt now branded as the BP Grand Entrance.

The urbanity and sense of arrival is enhanced (or perhaps hampered) by the installation of Chris Burden’s wonderful “Urban Light”, a close-knit grouping of historic lampposts collected from around the city and restored like a strangely regular forest of lights. Sparkling in the evening, the installation also puts up a barrier to the openness of the architecture. The forecourt is stuffed with big art – Koons, Judd, Ray – and even the spindly palm trees are art, the planting conceived by Robert Irwin. It is a bit of a mess, if enjoyable, and a generous gesture towards the street and the city.

The big red escalator sweeps you up and deposits you in a repository of more of the same. The top floor galleries are superb. A saw-tooth roof invites in the lush blue of the Californian sky without direct sunlight. The galleries are big, bright and beautiful, if slightly insulated from the world outside. The art is huge. Kitsch Koons and a roomful of Cindy Shermans hung academy-style, wonderful Warhols apparently slightly pushed to one side by curators still struggling to work with the space, while Damien Hirst is given enough room to become repetitive. The pop art, from Lichtenstein to Johns, is sublime, and this seems just the right place to see it. This is even more the case with local boys Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari.

The galleries on the lower floors can be reached either by going back out on to “the Spider”, for a welcome shot of fresh(ish) air, or via a glazed industrial-style lift, the wait for which would test the patience of a monk. The lower levels are not as good. Lacking toplight or enough windows, there is no sense of place and the spaces become claustrophobic. The ground floor is dominated by Richard Serra’s hypnotic new work “Band”, a coiled labyrinth of steel that embraces and oppresses the body in a twisting journey deep into its heart. The power, though, is all Serra: the space in which it sits is just big enough, with a ceiling that only marginally clears the sculpture, intruding on and depressing the experience.

Broad’s idea was that this gallery would act as a “gateway” into the world of the museum beyond and that the new building would become the resolutely public face of the institution. Yet the best piece has been saved for the old museum. Tony Smith’s newly realised and installed “Smoke” fills the lobby of the original building in a way that is astonishing and gorgeous, outstripping in its physical impact anything in BCAM.

LACMA may have started late, only becoming a serious museum of international reputation in the 1960s, but it has caught up. In BCAM, it has a gallery by an internationally renowned and occasionally brilliant architect housing a collection that, whether it is theirs or not, would be almost impossible to amass again. Piano has slightly loosened up on this one: he has looked into the past for the excitement he generated with the Pompidou 30 years ago to try to reinvigorate an institution that has suffered from a lack of identity. With a spindly scaffold of red steel on a cliff of stone he has created that identity, and a fine gallery building too. But on this site he could have really let go, he could have done anything. You can’t help feeling that his sophistication and restraint are rather misplaced – and that this would have been an opportunity to do something truly theatrical, to outstrip the dramatic impact of the Pompidou. But maybe in a city where anything goes, it’s better to leave it to the art to make the noise.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT's architecture critic

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