As you approach Zaha Hadid’s new Eli and Edythe Broad Museum in East Lansing, Michigan, it is the complex, light-catching carapace that first reels in the eye — a fine shock after the brick, neo-Gothic buildings that define the rest of the Michigan State University campus. Draw closer and its undulating fins, opening and closing in rhythmic asymmetries, begin to seduce the mind. In some places scrunched up into sharp angles and in others allowed to breathe for longer stretches across the low-slung facade, the fins seem to be the expression of some higher, grid-bending equation.
In a half-conscious attempt to solve the math, you begin to circle the building. At certain points, the fins spread wide enough for generous glimpses inside, but as you move keep moving, the inner secrets vanish again behind the metal lattice. In the same way, the relentlessly kinetic carapace tantalizes with, but ultimately eludes, any logical or definitive summing up. What is certain, though, is that, by the time you’ve come full circle, you’ll have grown quite curious to see what is going on inside.
More after the break…
Ironically, all that self-conscious drama drops away as you walk into the museum’s main hall. Narrow and unadorned, it is formed of the humblest of geometries: a single, straight line — in this case, the shortest distance between two entrances at either end of the building. The hall’s plainness serves as a kind of mental palate cleanser before you enter the galleries that lead off it. At the same time, it is a fascinating palimpsest layering metaphor atop pure function. Built over old footpath carved over the years by students and staff, it follows a favorite shortcut between the town of East Lansing with the heart of the campus. So the hall harnesses the natural flow of foot traffic to wrangle visitors, and at the same time it articulates an imaginative new bridge between the university and the rest of the world. But the metaphor comes with a caveat, for if you just charge forward without looking left or right, you will miss a great deal. To see the really good stuff, you have to nose your way into building’s twists and crannies.
And there are plenty of them when you enter the gallery spaces. The footprint of the two-story building is relatively small. In response, Hadid said at the museum’s opening that she deployed trapezoidal shapes to “explode the site and stretch the space in a hidden corner of the campus. Rather than solemnity, silence and reverence, we wanted to create a sense of dynamism.”
To that end, the whitewashed galleries shoot out from a central stairwell with varying degrees of acuity. Two take the shape of long, thin chef’s knives, while the brightest and grandest juts out toward the street like the bow of a somewhat crunched ship. Joining them all together is a stairwell of almost maddening complexity. You would need to a plumb line to know which way is up, exactly.
And yet it was my experience that all those attention-grabbing forms do not distract from the art itself. Hadid has somehow managed also to have carved out plenty of blankness for the art to occupy. In fact, I found the sharp shapes actually loosened the mind’s soil enough that I could take in the works in a more direct way. Some critics will no doubt dismiss the whole project as look-at-me starchitecture. And they are not wrong, exactly. But grabbing attention is in fact central to the architectural program itself, as Eli Broad told us on the museum’s opening day. “We wanted something that was iconic,” he told us. “We wanted to stretch the imagination of the university and the surrounding community — something that would attract people from around the world.”
And I suspect the crowds will come. Perhaps they won’t come in the millions, like in Bilbao, but certainly the museum will reshape the place of East Lansing in the popular imagination. At the same time, the relatively small dimensions of the project — Hadid kept referring to it as a kind of “jewel box” — keeps the museum from disturbing either the townscape or the campus, despite all the obvious, even aggressive, contrasts. In any case, the unassuming Michigan State University deserves to do a little horn-tooting. The United States’ first land-grant university, it has done the good work of preparing literally hundreds of thousands of farmers, engineers, educators and scientists since 1855. And these days, it is quietly tackling many of the world’s most urgent challenges, from alternative energy to clean water and food security. So why not a little showmanship?
Speaking of shows, Hadid herself arrived late to the museum’s opening ceremonies, though she did offer a decent excuse: she’d been summoned at the last minute by Buckingham Palace for her investiture into the Order of the British Empire. As a result, we members of the press had gotten to see the museum before Hadid herself. After a celebratory banquet, I was, coincidentally, standing just inside the museum’s entrance when Hadid, unaccompanied, finally walked inside. I asked if this were indeed her first time seeing her creation. Having just heard a speech in which she rejected the game of “massaging egos” and “playing nice,” I counted myself lucky at the response I received — a very slight but affirmative nod cast backward in my general direction. I watched for a while as she continued her solitary procession into the mad and beautiful shapes that, years before, had first taken shape behind those dark, bright, haughty, heavy-lidded eyes of hers.
Find all the project details, here on ArchDaily.
For more from Robert Landon, check out Atelier Gados: Stitching Spaces.