Exploring ideas about fabrication, craft and display, Zaha Hadid’s latest art museum is a compelling, site-specific art work in itself
Michigan State University, which sprawls over 2,000 hectares of woodland, was an agricultural college for its first century and still owns experimental farms, but is now a leader in nuclear physics and medicine. The state capital of Lansing, once a centre of car production, has also reinvented itself, as a hub of insurance and technology.
Those transformations inspired the university to commission a new art museum that engages the city and embodies the spirit of innovation. They chose a site on the north-eastern edge of the campus, secured a major grant from a billionaire alumnus, and selected Zaha Hadid’s bold design.
The contrast between old and new could not be greater. To the north is a scruffy commercial strip, to the south mature trees and traditional red-brick academic buildings. Embedded between is a trapezoid of folded stainless steel, sharply angled towards the west. It rises gently from a sculpture garden to a prow that overlooks a plaza and the solid bulk of a classroom block. An expansively glazed educational wing flanks an amphitheatre at the east end, presenting a welcoming portal to the street. A second entrance is tucked into the west end and oriented towards the campus.
Each of the four elevations has a distinct character, from the dynamic rhythm of the long sides, to the drama of the cantilevered west front and the open east end. Renderings of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum suggested a shiny bauble or an alien intruder that has alighted in this bucolic setting; the completed building is a fusion of poetry and practicality. A site-specific work of art in itself, its interior is dedicated to the display and study of art the institution has acquired, borrowed or commissioned.
As project director Craig Kiner explains, a team from the Hadid office studied patterns of circulation across the site in preparation for the 2006 competition. They produced concept diagrams that helped to shape the dynamic flow of the envelope and the spaces it encloses. That sounds like a fanciful conceit and quite irrelevant to the curators’ needs. However, the diagrams provided a fruitful spark and the floor plan is abstracted in the long facades, which capture the youthful energy of the students and the bustle of traffic on the street beyond. Located at a major entry to the campus, the museum provides a new marker − a 21st-century alternative to the neo-Gothic tower that rises from the historic core. The steel folds reflect and refract the changing light and their sharp angles complement the trees as they turn from green to gold and become wintry skeletons.
This is only the second building Hadid has realised in the US, following the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (AR July 2003). There, on a confined urban site, the architect had to defer to traditional neighbours and stay within a tight envelope. Here, there were no such constraints, but the architects have again eschewed wild flights of expression. The shell is heavily insulated to withstand climatic extremes, which range from 40oC to minus 30o. Triple-glazed, argon-filled windows contribute to this thermal barrier, which minimises energy consumption, while maintaining a steady internal temperature.
The steel was folded from the largest available sheets in Kansas City, and assembled seamlessly by a Michigan-based contractor. Invisible joints accommodate the expansion and contraction of the skin, and the architects specified a non-directional finish on the steel to give it greater depth and softness, after testing several alternatives. Sections are perforated to filter direct sunlight, and the folds mask the extent of the glazing, which provides abundant natural light throughout the building.
The structure is a hybrid of concrete and steel, with a centrally located staircase and lifts linking the upper and lower floors to the axial concourse that doubles as a reception area. Each of the three galleries on the main floors is different in size and fenestration, and there are two small basement galleries and an open archive, as well as a study centre for the older works in the university’s collection. In contrast to MAXXI (AR July 2010), with its sharp distinction between circulation and display, nearly three-quarters of the 3,600 square metres of useful space can be used for display. There’s no shop or restaurant, and only a few subterranean offices. That was a major concern of the principal donor, who wanted an exclusive focus on the art.
Eli Broad has been criticised for impatience in rushing buildings to completion, notably the house that Frank Gehry began, and Renzo Piano’s BCAM, the first museum he commissioned for his huge collection of contemporary art. He is now working with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on a more ambitious facility in downtown Los Angeles, and if he accords them the same independence he gave Hadid, his legacy will be as memorable as his generosity.
Few changes were made to the competition-winning scheme, and the architects stayed within the budget without compromising the design or the integrity of the finishes. Kiner worked closely with the structural engineers and the contractor, testing the mix and the formwork for the self-compacting concrete, which is employed for three walls that define circulation spaces. The consistency of the pour and the finish is exemplary. In the public areas, a grey-toned concrete with a fine aggregate was poured over the structural slab and ground to a high polish that reflects the light.
The refined surfaces are particularly evident in the elongated education wing, where the door to a storage closet swings open at the far end to provide a projection screen for students sitting on a tier of bleachers, and the space between this improvised theatre and a sculptured Corian café counter at the opposite end is alive with reflections in the floor and the tilted window wall. Oak boards replace the polished concrete in the galleries and on the main staircase.
A building that appears impassive from without feels transparent within, and each space flows fluidly into the next. Two opposed wedges of galleries flank the narrow concourse, and their tapered plans offer creative opportunities for the curators. Some galleries are enclosed with glass doors to provide additional climate control, but there are few visual barriers.
A mezzanine overlooks the largest gallery in the north-west corner, with its 11.6 metre ceiling and angled window. Admission is free, so visitors can enter from either end and browse the whole museum or quickly locate the exhibit they’ve come to see. Director Michael Rush is excited by the potential, extolling the basement mechanical room as ‘something you might find exhibited at Documenta’, and promising to keep the displays spare ‘to give the architecture room to breathe’.
It’s rash to judge the success of a museum before it has had a thorough workout; as with a sleek car, performance is paramount. What’s clear is that this scintillating structure gives the university a new public face and collegial focus. A campus this large needs gathering places, and the amphitheatre at the east end and the plaza to the west should play this role. It’s one of Hadid’s more remarkable buildings, in its disciplined invention and impeccable execution; hopefully, it will prove a model of how to put architecture at the service of art, with no sacrifice of creativity.
Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects
Associate architect: Integrated Design Solutions
Photographs: Iwan Baan and Paul Warchol