It seems unlikely that a homebuilder whose big claim to fame is to line the southwest with cookie-cutter homes will become one of Los Angeles’ most important architectural patrons. But Los Angeles is the kind of city where the best road in town is named after a water engineer, so maybe that shouldn’t be all that surprising. (See: Mulholland Drive.)
Eli Broad, who died on Friday aged 87, was a relentless modeler of the Los Angeles landscape – as a developer, insurance mogul, political patron, art collector and potential broker. And its influence extended to architecture. During his life he was instrumental in the realization – in whole or in part – of the creations of several award-winning international design stars, including Richard Meier, Renzo Piano, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and, most importantly, Frank Gehry. Or perhaps the most infamous, because Broad’s relationship with Gehry was, well, broken.
In the late 1980s, Broad asked Gehry to design a house for him in Brentwood. Gehry accepted the commission on the grounds that Broad would not set limits or impose a budget. Within two years, Broad had grown impatient with the slow pace – so he took Gehry’s working drawings and commissioned the Langdon Wilson firm to design the drawing. Gehry denied the house and promised never to set foot there.
Later, in the 1990s, the two clashed again. When construction of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall came to a halt in the late 1990s, Broad helped take charge of the $ 135 million fundraising campaign. He also tried to speed things up by taking the job of creating working designs from Gehry’s company and outsourcing the work to another studio. (No small gesture – since it is in working drawings that the details of a building are developed.)
Gehry threatened to walk and Diane Disney Miller, a key member of the Disney clan, supported him. Broad stepped back. And finally, he and Gehry made amends.
In a private celebration ahead of Disney Hall’s opening, Gehry toast Broad’s efforts on behalf of the building. “You’ve all heard of the problems Eli and I were having, but look at what we did,” he said. “We are both control freaks of different kinds and we collided.”
Broad said in response, “All I’m saying is Frank was right.”
In the case of Disney Hall, the story ended well. Gehry’s bubbling building, clad in shimmering stainless steel skin, has been hailed as “the most gallant building you’ve ever seen” by New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp. In the Los Angeles Times, then-architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff described it as a “sublime expression of contemporary cultural values.”
But both of these episodes are about the kind of architectural patron that Broad was for Los Angeles: important because of his wealth and power, if not always a determination to make the right design.
Broad has funded the work of important Pritzker Prize winners: Meier’s design for UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center and Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But as former Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne noted in a 2010 review for this publication, if the buildings put together “have a common thread … it’s a bummer: Broad collaborated with some of the most talented companies in the world, that’s for sure. But he also oversaw some of their less impressive work.
At the Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hawthorne gave a mixed review. The facade was “strangely inert” with little “lightness or translucency,” he noted. “This is no small imperfection in a building whose exterior draws so much of its architectural power from the pattern and texture of the material as opposed to the form.”
None of this was made easier by the installation of the museum when it opened. Broad requested nearly an acre of column-free space on the third floor – which he then quickly managed to fill with a labyrinth of overcrowded galleries that never give the viewer an idea of the width and scale of the room. It was as if he wanted to check off the talking point – I have space without a column! – without considering what this might mean in practice.
It seems that much of this mixed architectural heritage is due to the fact that Broad collected architecture as he collected art: by accumulating names that could be used to improve reputation, not necessarily for the thrill of an aesthetic quest. An architect once described long conversations with him about the price of lighting fixtures.
His museum reflects these trends, especially in the star-filled halls of auction houses who are overwhelmingly from New York. But the building, which before the pandemic had become an improbable social place on the dreary Grand Avenue, nevertheless manages architectural sensations: this escalator ride that pierces the floor plates, the all-glass elevator that looks a bit like science -fiction. The legacy left by Broad is complicated. But it is not without its moments of grace.