Eli Broad: L.A.’s peripatetic patron

Times Architecture Critic

“This is not a one-philanthropist town,” Eli Broad wrote in an op-ed for The Times in 2008.

Architects who have closely followed the billionaire’s civic activities over the last two decades might disagree. As a donor, client and behind-the-scenes power broker, Broad has had a hand in a remarkable number of high-profile buildings in Southern California during that period, including projects by Renzo Piano, Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli and Frank Gehry.

Broad hopes to add to that list by hiring a top-tier architect for a museum on Bunker Hill holding his own extensive art collection, the first art museum built downtown since architect Arata Isozaki’s 1986 Museum of Contemporary Art. (As MOCA’s founding chairman, Broad had a hand in that one too.) After a private competition, Broad is leaning toward a design by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

For all of Broad’s consistent prominence on the public stage in recent years, the buildings he has helped develop make up a disparate, even contradictory group. They don’t reflect a single aesthetic vision or chart the growth of a few chosen architects over time. If the buildings have any common thread, in fact, it is disappointment: Broad has collaborated with some of the most talented firms in the world, to be sure. But he has also overseen some of their least impressive work.

When Broad is intimately involved in a building project, as he is likely to be on the forthcoming museum, his relentless personal style can sear right through his relationships with the architects he has so carefully courted. During design and construction, he often gets mired in personal battles or disputes over budgets and the tiniest architectural details.

In short, Broad the client often trips up Broad the patron.

Personal stamp

If the 77-year-old philanthropist, who earned much of his fortune running the suburban home-builder Kaufman and Broad, were commissioning only private projects, his rocky history with architects would hardly be worth analyzing in detail. But by moving repeatedly to put his personal stamp on civic architecture — and in the case of the planned Bunker Hill museum by seeking to lease public land for $1 per year — he invites scrutiny of his negotiating style and approach to city-building.

Broad’s architectural patronage, accompanying extensive philanthropic work in education and healthcare, has taken a variety of forms. In some cases he has shepherded buildings from start to finish. In others he and his wife, Edythe, have made a donation after a building was largely complete. Occasionally he has helped revive a stalled civic project, as was the case with Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall nearly 15 years ago.

Above all, Broad prefers to work with celebrated, blue-chip architects. Four of the six firms he invited to take part in the museum competition are winners of the Pritzker Prize, the field’s top honor. Broad is also clear about favoring strikingly contemporary architecture over a more overtly contextual approach.

“I have a great deal of admiration for Bob Stern,” he told me, referring to Robert A.M. Stern, a noted architect whose buildings often make reference to past styles. “But I can’t see ever working with him.”

If you ask architects about Broad’s approach, they point out that his experience as a builder — one who earned success by rigorously controlling costs — makes him an unusually hard-nosed client. They also mention his tirelessness, calling that quality a double-edged sword.

“One of Eli’s charms and one of his problems is the intensity with which he gets involved in things,” said architect Frederick Fisher, who designed office space and extensive private galleries for the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica in the late 1980s. “He absolutely loves the give and take. We would find ourselves sitting in his office discussing the cost of a light fixture.”

In the fall of 1998, Broad hired the firm Richard Meier & Partners, just a year removed from its work on the Getty Center, to design a house on Malibu’s Carbon Beach. According to Michael Palladino, Meier’s Los Angeles-based partner, Broad was an enthusiastic client. He invited Palladino to his primary residence in Brentwood for a number of weekend design sessions.

“He absolutely loved those quiet moments on Saturday mornings, going over the details of the design,” Palladino said.

But the very rooms where the two men gathered for those meetings were symbolic of architectural discord, even dysfunction. Broad sought out Gehry to design the Brentwood house in the late 1980s but later complained that the architect was tinkering with the plans for too long. After dismissing Gehry, he completed the house using the architect’s unfinished designs. Gehry disowned it.

Their relationship was still raw when Broad stepped in to help rescue Gehry’s seemingly moribund Disney Hall in 1996. The architect welcomed Broad’s work to revive fundraising efforts, though not his attempts to weigh in on the design.

“Oh, he tried to screw it up,” Gehry told me about Broad’s interest in hiring an executive architect to work alongside Gehry, among other bids to assert control. “But we fought back, and we won.”

‘Warehouse’ plan

Nearly a decade later, Broad was the protagonist in another architectural controversy when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he is a longtime trustee, decided to abandon an ambitious master plan by Rem Koolhaas. After Broad flew to Europe to recruit Piano as a replacement, the Italian architect produced a new master plan as well as the design for a stand-alone three-story building known as the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

According to Piano, Broad’s goal for BCAM was a “warehouse” where nearly every interior square foot could be dedicated to showing art. But Broad also sought the well-appointed monumentality of an old-world European museum, insisting on travertine panels for the exterior, among other touches.

The result is a building torn between handsomeness and stripped-down efficiency, a far cry from Piano’s finest museum work. It didn’t help BCAM’s architectural or civic identity that Broad decided just weeks before it opened that he would not be donating his collection to LACMA, as had been widely anticipated, but rather would seek to build his own museum in another location.

After considering sites in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Broad turned his attention to a property on Grand Avenue owned by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. Broad has said he hopes to open a three-story, 120,000-square-foot museum there by 2012, a remarkably ambitious timetable.

Still, an accelerated schedule, unforgiving budget or deeply invested patron aren’t necessarily fatal to the fortunes of a building. Two bigger issues have tended to hurt the prospects of projects carrying Broad’s name.

One is simply that Broad rarely creates a working relationship that is collegial or productive enough to help a design — or an architect’s career — evolve and mature. Unlike the department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, who supported Frank Lloyd Wright during a key stretch in the 1930s and ‘40s, Broad tends to battle through a single collaboration with a busy firm before moving on to another of architecture’s boldface names.

A bigger liability is the way Broad thinks about the specific pairing of architect and project. Oddly, for all the control Broad takes of buildings as they move toward construction, he is often reluctant to choose his architects directly. For recent projects, including the new museum, he has convened small groups of advisors — architects, historians and critics, among others — who serve as a private design jury.

The effort to match architect and site is complicated in Los Angeles, of course, by the singular, hard-to-read quality of the city’s urban fabric. Particularly downtown, it requires understanding a landscape where world-renowned landmarks rise alongside parking structures, stretches of sunken freeway, sleekly anonymous office towers and vast empty lots. Rather than seeking to cultivate buildings that respond to that strange context, or help point the way to a different, less atomized urbanism, Broad has tended to wonder publicly why downtown Los Angeles can’t look more like the capitals of Europe.

In the case of an arts high school on Grand Avenue, Broad stepped in to replace a design by a Los Angeles firm, A.C. Martin, with one he felt could better hold its own against nearby architectural icons. Broad arranged a design competition for the campus won by Austrian architect Wolf Prix.

For all his talent, Prix was a remarkably poor match for the commission. Designs by his firm, Coop Himmelblau, are thrillingly complex and notoriously tricky to build. His style might be appropriate for museum trustees willing to pay a premium for eye-catching and highly marketable architecture. But it made little sense for a huge, cash-strapped school bureaucracy.

Predictably, costs soared for the campus, rising ultimately past $230 million, compared to an $87-million estimate for the A.C. Martin version.

If Broad finalizes a contract with Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the downtown museum, it will represent another puzzling choice. With little built work to its credit, the firm is among the most inventive in the field but tends to produce more daring ideas on every project than can fit comfortably into any finished building. Channeling that sometimes scattershot output into a successful museum will require an unusually subtle interaction between architect and client.

Broad has also shown a marked reluctance to use the museum project to facilitate a much-needed conversation about the urban character of downtown Los Angeles. Instead, he has allowed just a handful of people to see the competing designs — and asked many of them to sign confidentiality agreements.

Perhaps cities wind up with the patrons they deserve. Los Angeles has long struggled to find ways to talk coherently about its public self or plan for a collective future. Few of its cultural institutions are robust enough to chart their own courses separate from the demands of influential donors.

The city has always made room, however, for strong-willed individuals and their private architectural retreats — and has at crucial moments handed over chunks of the civic realm to those individuals and their visions of what Los Angeles might become. In recent decades no one has navigated that civic landscape with as much blunt savvy as Eli Broad.