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The fine art of keeping the Broad museum super-clean

The fine art of keeping the Broad museum super-clean
Window washing technician Raul Dominguez does a dance as he cleans with a simple wand one one of the huge gallery windows of the Broad Museum. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Hector Garcia is the Mr. Miyagi of window washing.

As president of HSG, Garcia is tasked with the delicate and complicated chore of cleaning the exterior of the Broad museum, which opens to the public Sunday.

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Dressed in his gray company polo shirt, Garcia demonstrated the Zen-like balance required of a window washer wearing a five-point harness while poised on a swing stage, a slender platform suspended many stories above the busy streets of downtown L.A.

"Washing windows is a fluid type of motion, you're lathering up and then you shave the glass," he says, his arms swinging in wide, purposeful arcs of the wax-on, wax-off variety, while two of his workers wash the gallery windows above. "And when you walk, the whole thing bounces so you have to train yourself to stay in the middle and do a little dance."

He does a lithe shimmy, his hips swiveling nimbly as his arms circle in unison. Above him, window washing technician Raul Dominguez does a similar, if less dramatic, dance as he cleans with a simple wand, squeegee, gray water and environmentally safe soap.

The bridal-white Broad is a special case because the building has two layers: an exterior consisting of more than 2,500 honeycomb panels made of fiberglass-reinforced concrete, called "the veil," which shades an interior shell made of glass. At the narrowest points, about 36 inches lie between the veil and the lobby and gallery glass at the front of the building. Not only do the veil's honeycomb orifices need to be thoroughly cleaned on both sides, but the glass behind it needs to be free of spatters from that cleaning.

The job is thankless. If it has been done correctly, nobody will know the difference. If it's done incorrectly, or not enough, everyone might notice. That's just the way things are when you wear white after Labor Day.

Broad architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro anticipated this scenario and its requirements. Consultants contacted Garcia about four years ago in order to find out if he could fit a swing stage within the narrow dimension between the veil and the glass. His solution: a swing stage custom made for the building.

The Broad's 20-foot-long swing stage is a mere 28 inches wide, and on this day it is uncomfortable for the casual observer to notice that there is a mere inch or two of space between the stage and the building.

Dominguez must feel claustrophobic? No, he says after he has come down. He likes it. He feels "hugged" by the tight space, Garcia says.

Unlike the rest of this parched metropolis, the Broad is not praying for rain. The museum's pearly exterior is so pure that excessive precipitation could cause unseemly streaks. Cleaning the building is an art, says Rich Cherry, deputy director of the museum.

"The two biggest environmental stressors are cars and the rain," he says. "Say we're four months after a cleaning and you don't notice that dirt has built up, but then a rainstorm comes and washes it down. We might have to respond to that and do a cleaning we weren't planning on. You don't want to let that stuff set. That just makes it harder to get off later."

Garcia's company, whose clients include the U.S. Bank Tower, the Gas Company Tower and the Getty, is scheduled to clean the Broad veil with pressurized gray water twice a year and the windows about six times a year. Cleaning the veil will likely take three to four weeks, with workers on from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m. on days the museum is open. (They will work most of the day on Mondays, when the Broad is closed.)

Extensive testing on the veil materials showed how they reacted to the common assaults of nature and humanity such as rain, oil, rubber bits from tires and spray paint, Cherry says.

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"You try to cross your Ts and dot your I's, but people think of creative ways to mess things up," he says. "So the art part of this is seeing how the building behaves. How much road dust are we going to get? How many cars are going to pass by, and what will the exhaust do? How dirty is the rain that's coming? We have a plan, but then it's how reality reacts to that plan."

Everything that the Broad discovers during this crucial first year of maintenance will be filed for posterity. Cherry is keeping a careful record so that when the building needs to be preserved 50 years from now, the task will be easier.

The Broad is also taking heart from an esteemed neighbor in its good housekeeping quest: Disney Hall.

"Disney looks good, and they've been dealing with the same environment that we'll be dealing with," Cherry says, "only probably with more rain."

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