April 1 2016 11:53 AM

MSU’s unlikely fling with Zaha Hadid

FRIDAY, April 1 — Most obituaries for architect Zaha Hadid didn’t even mention MSU’s Broad Art Museum. It was one of her smaller works, compared to mammoth structures like the web-like Guangzhou Opera House in China, the tsunami-shaped London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics or the huge, whiplashing Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi.

But it was a big deal in East Lansing.

Zaha Hadid

The architect’s death Thursday at the age of 65 makes her glamorous fling with Sparty seem even more like a weird dream.

At the Broad Art Museum’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2009, Hadid thanked Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum’s major donors, for the “really amazing” gift that enabled her to work again in the United States, “a land where dreams come true.”

“When I was 5 or 6 years old, I thought you could reach the moon by climbing a ladder,” she said. “These dreams, especially in education, are very important. Even if you only get 95 percent of your goals, it’s still amazing.”

To date, the Broad is one of only two Hadid designs built in the United States. The other is the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, a more conservative building than the Broad. A hive of sleek apartments along New York’s High Line, designed by Hadid, will be finished by early 2017, perhaps the last of Hadid’s visions to become reality in the United States.

Hadid had a reputation for broad strokes, but her perfectionism is what impressed MSU design administrator Dan Bollman, who negotiated with Hadid’s team throughout the three years of the Broad Art Museum’s construction and met with her twice.

“She’s an amazing artist,” Bollman said. “When you first meet her, it’s clear she thinks on a different level. You wouldn’t first get the impression she is into so much detail, because she talks about grand concepts. And yet, once she gets to the designs, it’s all about detail.”

The Midwest would seem to be an odd place to plant Hadid’s ultra-dynamic structures, but her designs always had a special allure for cities with something to prove.

Even Rome, the site of Hadid’s 2009 National Museum of XXI Century Arts, or MAXXI, used the Zaha cachet to brush up its image. MAXXI was widely seen as a signal that the Eternal City was ready to shake off its reputation as a city of relics and look to the future.

When Hadid’s crouching, metal-pleated Broad Art Museum design was picked out from the designs of five of the world’s top architects in 2009, MSU and East Lansing were ready to prove a thing or two as well.

The staid, Midwestern land-grant university was ready to flex its growing international reach in a new arena: art and architecture. Linda Stanford, a key MSU player in the museum’s planning phase, compared the Broad to other MSU ventures with international renown, such as the cyclotron and the College of Music.

When MSU held the Broad Museum design competition in 2009, Hadid was busy with a much larger project — a BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany. It was left to Patrick Schumacher, Hadid’s collaborator of 20 years and a brilliant architect in his own right, to pitch the design to the blue-ribbon jury. After all five firms made their pitches, there wasn’t much debate in the jury room.

The professional architects and museum directors on the jury loved the design. Unofficial alpha juror and founder of the feast, Eli Broad, a housing tycoon and Detroit bungalow builder from way back, took an instant shine to Hadid’s one-and-a-half-story layout.

MSU luminary Dolores Wharton weighed in, calling Hadid’s low-riding design “the BMW scheme.”

“Elegant, dynamic, cool — that’s the one we want to drive,” Wharton said.

MSU was catching the Hadid brand at its apogee of coolness. Newspapers from coast to coast reported Hadid’s win. Even The New York Times and The New Yorker ran squibs on MSU’s “Zaha moment.”

At times, it wasn’t clear who was wooing whom.

“We are very fortunate that she was even willing even to compete for our project,” MSU President Lou Anna Simon said.

Stanford, a sober scholar not given to gushing, even liked the “Z” in Hadid’s name.

“Not to be trite, but it’s angular, like her work,” she said.

For her part, Hadid liked the Broad Museum site, a tree-filled rectangle on Grand River Avenue near the university’s eastern entrance.

“It’s a fabulous site, especially in the context of a college campus,” she said.

It was a dramatic contrast from the vertical Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati, where Hadid rolled the visitor up the building, as if on a magic carpet.

At MSU, she went in the other direction, laying out an oblique parallelogram that slinks low in the trees.

The most conspicuous aspect of Hadid’s design is its surface. “The idea came as kind of a series of colliding spaces, not like a jigsaw, but almost like a patchwork,” Hadid said. “Conflicting lines and folding is something which we have looked at for a while, but it has never been tried in a particular building, and this is a suitable project.”

As the building took shape along Grand River Avenue, the community got a few close looks at one of the century’s most significant architects.

When Hadid came to East Lansing for the museum’s groundbreaking on March 16, 2010, she shared a few of her early enthusiasms.

“I remember very well when I was a kid, when I went to see one of my first exhibits, a very big Picasso show in London at the Royal Academy,” she recalled in an interview for an MSU podcast. “It stayed with me to this day.” A Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition made her “curious” as well.

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