Big Museum on Campus: Michigan State University’s dazzling new building swaggers into town but fits right in.
The New Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on Michigan State University's East Lansing campus bursts from its traditional collegiate setting like a futuristic concertina pushing free from the deep pit of the devil's orchestra. “It is a strange object sitting on the edge of campus,” admits Zaha Hadid, but one with a magnetic quality, she points out. “This radically abstract object,” adds her partner Patrik Schumacher, “brings this element of making strange—of building something to be explored and discovered.”
- Low-E Glass Coating: Guardian
- Air /Moisture/Vapor Barrier: W.R. Grace
- Envelope Insulation: BASF
- Solid Surfaces: DuPont, Corian
The need to house a growing art collection and expand programming, aided by a whopping $26 million gift from businessman, philanthropist, and MSU alumnus Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, in 2007, provided the genesis for the project. The original idea was to build an extension to MSU's Kresge Art Center, a midcentury building tucked far into campus, housing the Department of Art, Art History, and Design as well as the esteemed Kresge collection of 7,500 works dating from the Greek and Roman periods through the present day. But Eli Broad wanted to do something more transformative. University president Lou Anna K. Simon agreed and identified the prominent site of the 1947 Paolucci Building as the home for a new museum. Hugging the campus's northern edge on the busy, commercial Grand River Avenue, the location would assure visibility and encourage community engagement. MSU organized a competition, selecting Zaha Hadid Architects in 2008 (from a shortlist that included Coop Himmelb(l)au, Morphosis, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Randall Stout Architects). After Broad chipped in another $2 million and the Paolucci Building had been razed, the museum broke ground in early 2010.
Bold and brassy, the building, say the architects, was designed with some restraint—a result of its strict $45 million budget and modest size of 46,000 square feet. In fact, it is devoid of curvilinearity: All surfaces are flat and all lines, as much as they dart hither and thither, are straight. “We imposed this formal universe of the trapezoidal volumes and spaces all the way through,” says Schumacher. The building's tilting and thrusting and crazed striations make it appear distorted, and its volume is difficult to understand without a complete tour around its exterior. This lack of perpendicular or parallel lines necessitated modifying the building process. “We put few dimensions on the construction documents,” says Paul Stachowiak, president of Integrated Design Solutions (IDS), the executive architect on the job.“Everything was a point in space. We had to work in [Cartesian coordinates] eastings and northings, versus feet and inches, so things were surveyed and adjusted along the way.”
The pleated and louvered metal skin was present in the architects' first sketches. Motivated by a desire to admit filtered light, the designers mimicked a factory sawtooth roof in miniature and then expanded the idea to characterize the zigzagging of the whole surface. The striations shooting off in all directions are like pinstripes gone wild, which, in concert with the metal's reflectivity, pleasantly activate the surface. Using a 3-D model, the team—including ZHA in London, IDS outside Detroit, engineers Structural Design Inc. in Ann Arbor, and consultants Zahner in Kansas City, Missouri (for stainless steel), and Josef Gartner in Germany (for glazing and structural steel)—held weekly calls for almost a year to refine the envelope. You get the sense that ZHA conducted this maniacal symphony because it could, cheered on by Broad and MSU, who will use the resulting big gesture as a calling card. Nevertheless, respecting the scale of the neighboring leafy Collegiate Gothic red-brick quads and the commercial strip across the way, the building fits in.
Having both a campus and city entrance provided an important symbolism for the school. You can enter from the west into a central hall or from the east through a courtyard into the lobby, which leads into a welcoming, double-height café and education wing behind large, tilted structural window walls. Off the lobby, a floating staircase is cantilevered and cranked through the volume. It is flanked by two load-bearing walls of silky-smooth concrete canted at 15 and 20 degrees, respectively. This skewing sets the visitor off kilter. But you regain your equilibrium as you enter the galleries—though neither orthogonal nor completely straight-walled, they are, in relation to the public areas, tame. The double-height Minskoff Gallery, with its jutting glazed maw, is the most dynamic of these, offering interesting installation possibilities—the museum displays pieces from the Kresge collection, which it inherited, alongside commissioned and loaned work (in particular from the Broad collections). But some of the smaller, narrow exhibition spaces feel confined and taper to abrupt terminations next to emergency exits that seem unconsidered, as if the designers petered out and just put up a wall, tilting it for visual interest.
By dispensing with the white-cube gallery, the architects say they hoped to challenge curators and visitors. “We want to participate in the dynamism of the building, rather than try to figure out how we are going to fight this thing,” says museum director Michael Rush. Pointing to parallel ambitions in contemporary art, he underscores the opportunities here: “In a structure like this, where the body is engaged physically with its surroundings, you have this amazing synergy between building, art, body, and perception.” At another level, the museum challenges the university. “It's a springboard for saying, 'Let's break out of convention,' ” says MSU associate provost Linda Stanford, “both in terms of building and also what we do academically.”
Schumacher explains the museum's relationship to its backdrop as a “figure-ground” one. And Hadid notes that the campus provides a “frame.” Even so, while achieving extreme visibility, the architects have met the seemingly oppositional challenge of integrating this odd though amiable creature into its conventional college-town setting.
Completion Date: November 2012
Size: 46,000 square feet
Cost: $45 million
Zaha Hadid Architects
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