Broad Collection building design is upside-down


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The dynamic 2006 building designed for Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art contains one serious flaw. Unfortunately, it appears that architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who designed the ICA, are about to repeat the error in the museum building they’re now designing for the Broad Collection.

The mistake: In Boston, it’s a long schlep from the front door to the art galleries.

As you can readily see in the ICA photograph shown here, the art is upstairs inside that illuminated, translucent box. The ground floor is an entry lobby with an information desk, ticketing booth, shop and cafe, with offices and work space above, plus a big elevator to haul you upstairs. The main event, the reason the building was constructed and a visitor has arrived -- the art -- is tucked away out of sight.


Inside the ICA front door there is an ‘art wall,’ where a different artist is annually commissioned to install a piece. As with most lobby decor, it has the unfortunate feel of an afterthought.

Lots of new art museums repeat the error. A Broad spokesman has cautioned that the design has changed since the competition and final plans won’t be unveiled until fall. But, as reported by my colleague Christopher Hawthorne, who has seen the competition proposals that resulted in DS+R winning the Broad commission, the building for Grand Avenue will also feature a ground-level lobby with the usual amenities, while the museum’s galleries will be upstairs on the top floor. You’ll reach them by escalator.

As in Boston, the bad idea of putting the galleries upstairs is likely driven by a desire to take advantage of overhead natural light. That’s an anachronism that has more to do with romantic fantasy than with actual works of contemporary art.

Sky-lighted rooms especially matter for showing paintings and sculptures that artists long ago made under natural daylight conditions, or by the flickering of candles and firelight. See, for example, the beautifully day-lighted rooms for European paintings upstairs at the Getty Museum. Shifting sunlight enlivens art made between the 15th and 19th centuries, without aid from the steady glow of artificial illumination.

Ever since the Wizard of Menlo Park perfected a long-lasting incandescent light bulb, however, the natural-light requirement has mattered less and less. For photographs, video, some installations and most art that is itself fabricated from light, skylights are even an impediment.

Gas lamps have gone the way of the dodo, and artists’ studio space with ample north-light hasn’t been at a premium for decades. It’s time to retire the motif of upstairs galleries for contemporary art too, and put them right inside the museum’s front door where the art belongs.

--Christopher Knight

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