July 27 2011 12:00 AM

Look inside MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum


Most days, the future comes in drab drips — computer upgrades, neck wrinkles. Where are our jet packs?

When will a giant, quasi-trapezoidal contemporary art museum thrust up from the Michigan State University campus?

Looks like we’re one for two.

Tomorrow is almost here at the corner of Collingwood Road and Grand River Avenue, where the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is taking dynamic shape.

On Monday, I walked through the Broad Museum with founding
director Michael Rush. It was the first press visit inside the second
Zaha Hadid-designed opus built in the United States. (Cincinnati’s
Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art was the first.)

Rush first set foot inside the museum six weeks ago, and
he can hardly stay away. When he gets inside the building’s crackling
energy field, he oscillates between philosopher and enthusiast.

“You’re placed physically in a time and space that is
almost not of this moment,” the philosopher said. “It’s of moments that
are coming.”

Then came the enthusiast.

“Artists are totally going to want to show here. I don’t think we’re going to have to twist too many arms.”

Rush said the museum is on track to open in April 2012 and holding to a cost estimated at $40 million to $45 million.

From a distance, the Broad Museum is a sneaky, vaguely
trapezoidal solid body crouching along Grand River, rising from its low
end near Collingwood Avenue to a dramatic apex 32 feet tall that looks
ready to rocket over Berkey Hall to the west.

“The west overhang really gives the building its futuristic flow,” Rush said.

For months, temporary beams propped up the west overhang,
pitched at a neck-snapping 74 degrees. When workmen kicked the beams
away last week and the building stayed up, a project that’s all corners
seemed to turn a big one.

In September, a full metal jacket of
stainless steel plates will gird the whole building. For now, the museum
is a grid of exposed concrete walls and converging beams, open to the
summer breeze at both unfinished ends.

Two second-floor balconies, at right
angles to each other, overlook the vast west gallery. We climbed the
stairs to the second floor and stopped at the rails to gape. Overhead,
the roof zoomed on without us to the northwest, framing a stunning view
of Grand River and East Lansing.

“This space, of all the spaces, is really going to want monumental sculpture,” Rush said.

The second-floor gallery on the museum’s
south side is not as tall, but it’s even bigger, because it runs the
length of the building.

“I’m sure this will be home to sculpture, performances, screenings — the uses are endless,” Rush said.

The hard part, Rush said, will be finding art that lives up to the building.

Small pieces will have to be lit and positioned carefully, even in the smaller first-floor galleries.

“The thing that keeps on striking me is the size of it,” Rush said.

“The galleries are much more vast than I thought. That also informs my curatorial imagination — and fears, frankly.”

The Broad Museum’s design, contrary to
Hadid’s reputation, is a marvel of stealth practicality. The most
disorienting angles pivot from the east and west ends, near the public
areas and entrance plazas. Only one art-bearing wall, a half-wall on the
first floor, is pitched at all. The galleries are grand, but intimate,
and varied in size.

The museum has mystery, but it’s not a gimmicky Mystery Spot.

“When you hear the name Zaha Hadid,
there’s always the question, ‘Is there anyplace to hang things?’” Rush
said. “There’s plenty of places to hang things.”

The museum’s major donor, MSU alumnus,
building tycoon and modern art collector Eli Broad, wanted the museum to
consist of 70 percent exhibition space.

“That’s unique in the museum world,” Rush
said. “There’s no libraries, auditoriums, no big restaurant. All those
things have their place, but that’s not what this place is about. It’s
about art, and educating people about art.”

There will be a small caf and gift shop near the not-an-atrium on the east side.

We climbed down to the lower level,
future home of the administrative offices, service areas, and a
super-playroom with interactive 3-D scenarios. Rush looked up from a
well of light cut 10 feet into the ground at a panorama of blue sky,
slanted concrete slabs and sycamore trees, and had a fresh epiphany.

“When I stand here and look at these huge walls that
extend to the sky, that’s when I’m reminded of the monumentality of the
building,” he said. “It’s almost 50,000 square feet of intense

On the museum’s low-slung west side, two
wings extend from the building to embrace a public courtyard. One of
them will be devoted to K-12 and adult educational programs.

“We hope this will be a meeting place for students, not only to enjoy art, but to hang out,” Rush said.

Most of Hadid’s buildings, including the
Broad Museum, look like monolithic slabs at first, but they have pores
and apertures that attract and ingest the surrounding culture.

Hadid’s spatial vocabulary of steep
angles and lines of force has no equivalent in English. Even Rush, a
talker for sure, had trouble pinning it down.

“The words are hard to come by,” he
admitted, looking through a yawning bay of glass at the museum’s west
end. “It’s not an atrium.”

Conventional words like “atrium” have a static, here-you-are smugness Rush wants to avoid.

His vision, and Hadid’s, is to stir the
sacred place where you quietly contemplate an object into a funnel cloud
of events swirling in and out of the surrounding culture and community.

“Most museums, even wonderful places like
the Metropolitan in New York or even the Guggenheim, you feel a certain
reverence, silence, a sense of importance,” Rush said. “Here, you feel
the architectural wonder of it, but you don’t feel silence. You feel

Looking from the inside out, the Broad
Museum’s not-an-atrium on the east side is wide open to the trees and
sky at the corner of Collingwood and Grand River.

As you walk into the museum, it draws and
quarters your brain with glimpses of four different galleries on two
floors, along unexpected lines of sight. The west entrance does the
same, only with that 74-degree pitched wall over your head.

The formula, by my measure, is 40 percent awe, 40 percent delight and 20 percent disorientation.

“She puts us off balance a bit — or a
lot,” Rush said of Hadid. “That’s part of what contemporary artists are
interested in doing — expanding our perception devices, our brain.”

“Some people may be concerned about art
getting lost in a situation like this,” Rush said. “I feel that the
separation between art and architecture is false. They are one and the
same. This is an artful building.”

In Rush’s view, the Broad Museum realizes
a vision that the Russian Constructivists of the early 20th century,
with their bold splintering of space and grand plans for new towers and
cities, never pulled off. Hadid has long expressed admiration for those
Russian visionaries, who lived and worked before the future was doled
out in drab drips.

“They were dreamers,” Rush said. “If you
look at their drawings, very few of them were ever built. Now it feels
like one of them has.”