The Broad, Los Angeles. Photo Benny Chan. Broad images in this slideshow courtesy the Broad and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The designers of the Broad, a new contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, earned the reputation that positioned them for such a commission with a very different sort of work. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, a wife-and-husband team (Charles Renfro joined the firm in 1997, and became a partner in 2004), interrogated architecture as a practice, drawing on the latest ideas in fashion, the performing arts, digital media and critical theory. Staking out territory as all things avant-garde to all architecturally minded people, Diller + Scofidio produced clever, beautifully executed installations, exhibitions, and temporary projects, the best being the Blur Building, a habitable cloud of mist on Switzerland’s Lake Neuchatel in 2002. Such projects, and DS + R’s membership on the design team for the High Line (led by James Corner Field Operations), propelled them to stardom. Diller and Scofidio were the first architects to become MacArthur Fellows, in 1999.

The Broad isn’t DS + R’s first major freestanding building—that would be the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. But it counts as their most important. The high-profile commission, which they won in competition, offered enviable opportunities. Situated across from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall on Grand Avenue in downtown L.A., the building cost a third more per square foot than DS + R spent on the Boston museum. And as the home of the collection of Eli and Edythe Broad, art patrons and collectors extraordinaire, a spectacular building could be expected. Eli Broad, whose fortune hovers around $7 billion, is by reputation not a man of modest claims or small gestures. 

The Broad should thus be assessed as the best indication of how Diller and Scofidio, with Renfro, have navigated the transition from edgy, self-styled critics of architecture to makers of the very objects they’d spent nearly two decades deconstructing. And the assessment matters. The firm continues to garner ever more prestigious commissions in the United States and around the world. In New York City alone, DS + R’s Medical and Graduate Education Building for Columbia University is under construction, while designs for marquee projects—the Museum of Modern Art’s expansion and the Culture Shed, which will anchor the massive new development at Hudson Yards—are under way. 

The good news is that the museum’s exterior and main exhibition space hold their own. But overall the Broad is a disappointment, and the ways in which it fails are more than a little concerning. Its incoherence, its poor urbanism and its unoriginality suggest that the transition from critics to makers may have DS + R stumped.   

In designing the Broad, DS + R had to juggle competing, even contradictory imperatives for the museum’s mission on the one hand and the building’s functions on the other. Eli and Edythe Broad wish to expand the audience for contemporary art; in their words, they hope to “democratize” it. Their museum charges no admission, and they wanted a design that invites the public in. Yet they allotted the bulk of their museum to art storage, which requires little more than a reliable climate control system in mute, secure, empty space. Moreover, it’s difficult to figure out how much DS + R could have used the building to advance Eli Broad’s long-standing aspiration to turn this portion of Grand Avenue into a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly cultural district. No single building can accomplish that on its own, and introverted monuments populate the environs. To enter the sculpturally imposing Disney, we ascend a flight of stairs hidden from the street; to enter the Museum of Contemporary Art, a sandstone monolith, we descend another stairway, also hidden. Urban designers know that there are few better ways to kill street life than that. 

DS + R confronted these challenges by proposing to centrally feature the storage area, which they call “the vault,” rather than take the conventional path of tucking storage out of sight. This promised to be a risky strategy even if they had executed it, but they didn’t. Inside the lobby, velvety, hand-polished concrete biomorphically bulges from the second-floor storage into the museum’s lobby. An orifice offers the main means of ascent, an escalator; another opens into a staircase. Nothing in this entry sequence except the unusually long, 105-foot escalator ride suggests the vault’s presence, and few but trained professionals will wonder what surrounds that chute. Once we enter the main galleries, any hint of the storage facility’s presence or importance vanishes. We find no weird concrete bulges at our feet that would have continued the lobby’s visual language while provoking curiosity about what’s erupting from below, and no cuts into the gallery floors that would show us what’s downstairs. And while it’s true that on the way out of the building we descend a rather ordinary dogleg staircase with two landings that open views onto the storage area, by then it’s too late: we’re already done with the museum. 

The building’s only possible shape, given the Broads’ imperial spatial requirements and the municipal codes regulating lot coverage, was a low-slung box that fills the site’s entire allowable envelope. Needing to create a strong image, DS + R concocted the notion of draping what they call a “veil” over the vault. Perhaps there’s a design that would have made the veil-over-vault metaphor evocative—imagine a gossamer wispily draped over a bombproof safe—but DS + R didn’t generate it. Little about this stiff, heavy concrete exoskeleton evokes associations of a lacy veil; it more resembles an artfully perforated leg cast or—the choice moniker of Angelenos—a cheese grater. There’s a large recessed area on the facade where the coffers curve into a depression that Diller likes to call a navel. It offers welcome visual relief from the veil’s relentlessly repetitive pattern. But inside, DS + R deliberately forsook the opportunity presented by the navel to open up views of the neighborhood for the building’s users. Instead they played out the navel metaphor to the point of absurdity, pretending to continue the concrete skeleton behind the glazed facade in fiberglass. 

When viewed from a distance, in a moving car, the building asserts itself next to the restless Disney. In auto-bound L.A., that is no small feat. But once we emerge from our cars to approach the building, the design of its skin feels hermetic and overwrought, undermining any sense of connection to the city rather than promoting one. And this failure to sustain an integrated relationship to L. A. continues. The entrances are clunky in their articulation. The proportions of the street-level arcade, which is tucked between the two entrances and behind the concrete exoskeleton, are so tight that people are unlikely to linger there and will use it only, if at all, to seek momentary respite from L.A.’s blazing sun. And once we are inside the building, our connection to the city vanishes. The coffers cant precipitously downward, so visitors looking out the Broad’s windows are rewarded with views of black asphalt, nothing more.

The Broad’s failures of urban design are its biggest and most disappointing surprise. DS + R recently completed a first-rate, original reconceptualization of Lincoln Center in New York, with which they established their authority as effective champions of cities. They transformed what had been an opaque complex of huge, inert boxes into a dynamic magnet for street life through a series of small, deft interventions. By removing the travertine cladding of the building that houses Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School, glazing its facade and folding its southwest corner up, along with the plane of the sidewalk it meets, they exposed and enhanced a bustling energy. 

Neither incoherence nor ungainliness nor anti-urbanism is the Broad’s biggest problem. That would be the unoriginality of its central architectural motifs. The lobby’s biomorphism—which bears no relationship to any other aspect of the building’s design—wanly echoes the widely published, stupendously imagistic Himalayas Center in Shanghai by Arata Isozaki, the architect of L.A.’s nearby MOCA. The dramatically perforated concrete facade draws on two sources: expressive skins by Herzog & de Meuron (with whom DS + R competed for the Broad commission) and the 1964 American Cement Building, one of L.A.’s architectural icons from the postwar period, which sits on Wilshire Boulevard just two miles from the site. 

Unfortunately, the Broad is not the first project for which DS + R have skirted the challenge of coming up with their own ideas by relying on those of past practitioners or present colleagues. When they released the designs for the Boston ICA and New York’s unbuilt Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology in the early 2000s, both of which featured a concrete floor plate that curves up into the exterior wall and then again into the ceiling, a spate of discussions about originality ensued, since the trope was so obviously borrowed from Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s 1996 Educatorium in Utrecht and the VPRO Broadcasting Headquarters in Hilversum of the same year by a Koolhaas scion firm, MVRDV. Even DS + R’s wonderful Blur Building is little more than a technologically amped-up revisitation of Fujiko Nakaya’s Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 world’s fair in Osaka. (Nakaya consulted on the technical aspects of the Blur Building’s execution.) All this raises the question: do DS + R even have an architectural project, or vision?

Happily, the Broad’s columnless 35,000-square-foot main gallery on the top floor complicates that line of inquiry. In the ceiling, 7-foot-deep diagonal coffers containing north-slanting windows rest 23 feet above the floor. They establish a vigorously sculptural presence in the galleries without drowning the art in architectural theatrics. And the light is superb! The day I was there, the collection’s sculptures and paintings—the Jeff Koonses and Damien Hirsts and Julian Schnabels and Roy Lichtensteins, none of it art I am disposed to admire—shone, drinking in daylight so intense that the curators hadn’t even switched the track lights on. 

This exhibition space constitutes DS + R’s central accomplishment at the Broad. From Alvar Aalto in his libraries to Louis Kahn at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth to Renzo Piano in museums all over the world, architects have for decades been bending over backward to devise ways to admit abundant indirect natural light into windowless galleries to capitalize on the sun’s lumen-intensity, changeability and complexity without degrading the longevity of the art. The Broad’s main gallery is the brightest indirectly lit space I’ve encountered, and the abundant, carefully managed daylight subtly but profoundly influences the experience of being there and looking at art. During the few hours I spent with the collection, I saw new dimensions to familiar artworks as their appearance delightfully shifted with the sun’s movement across the sky. That gallery is one special place.

Eli Broad made much of his fortune building schlock suburban tract homes, really chintzy ones. He also has a reputation for alienating top-notch architects by niggling with their designs to cut costs. He did it with Gehry during the design of both the Broad residence and the Disney Concert Hall, for which he was a major donor, and again with Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne of Morphosis, who worked on an earlier iteration of the Broad. Comparing DS + R’s early renderings to the finished project, I get the sense that Broad’s interventions may have compromised design once again: the early drawings convey a dynamism absent in the building, and the LED screens that the architects proposed for the facade are gone. 

Even so, blaming Broad for the look of the museum would be letting DS + R off too easily. Architects’ design ideas must be not only conceptually but also architecturally robust enough to withstand client interventions and cost-containing revisions, which almost inevitably factor into a building’s development and construction. Clearly DS + R’s were not. In any case, the Broad suffers from conceptual indirection and pastiche. The ideas don’t add up. There’s the veil-vault concept, the literally concretized coffered facade, the natural light in the exhibition spaces, the biomorphic motifs in the lobby . . . In the end, it’s an architectural muddle. 

So what does the Broad reveal about DS + R’s self-refashioning from critics to practitioners? That it’s an unfinished project that could go in any number of directions. Impressive moments and flickers of good ideas compete with centrally featured architectural tropes that are little more than derivative appropriations. Also, sometimes DS + R lose themselves in excessively complex, overthought pursuits, as when they indulged in an expensive reverie of geometric exploration with their design for the exterior. 

If DS + R were to build on the strengths they exhibit in the Broad’s main gallery space and in their Lincoln Center redesign, they could be on their way to a solid architectural concept and a mission for their firm. It would center on urbanism, user experience and natural light, with a soupçon of dynamism added in through experiments with geometry, structure and digital effects. That’s a less fashion-forward agenda than the one that, decades ago, first brought Diller and Scofidio into the public eye. But the results could be impressive. They might not win DS + R the trendy accolades to which they have become accustomed, although they might garner them something better: enduring recognition, along with the gratitude of the generations of anonymous users whose lives their buildings would enrich.