Perfection on the Diagonal

Broad Museum's builders left comfort zones behind

Look closely at the vertical fins on the north wall of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and you’ll spot a light fixture with a removable panel. The tiniest departure from perfection, such as an exposed screw, is anathema to the pristine surfaces favored by architect Zaha Hadid, but project architect Kevin Marshall snuck in a few “discreet fasteners.”

“That’s so you can change the light bulb without disassembling the whole building,” he said with a straight face. “You can get the light bulb at Lowe’s,” he added.

Hadid’s winning design for the Broad Museum wove a weightless web of lines, vectors, fields and planes. Now builders had to re-weave the web in heavy concrete, steel and glass. 

Perfection, not production, is an unusual priority in the construction business. This project demanded perfection on the diagonal.

“A very, very, very high standard was set for the contractors,” Marshall said.

The builders, most of them from Michigan, threw their textbooks away and bid their comfort zones goodbye.

Concrete jungle

After months at the drawing board, Marshall ended up in the field, overseeing construction.

“Normally, we take a different approach,” he said. (On the job site, most sentences started with the word “normally,” followed by its opposite.) “With this building, we needed a team member who could interpret design decisions in the field.” The tolerances were tight and the learning curve was steep.

Once construction was under way, Marshall prowled the perimeter with a cell phone camera, sending pictures to Hadid’s office.

“I like to build what I draw anyway,” he said. “And honestly, working with Zaha’s office has been less painful than working with others.”

To MSU design administrator Dan Bollman, the “coolest” thing in the building is under your feet: a unique “raft” foundation, which he described as “a massive piece of concrete.”

“Sometimes you’re worrying about buildings settling,” Bollman said. “Here we were worrying about it floating.”

Normally, piles are driven under a big foundation, but the Broad Museum sits below the water table, which lurks about 16 feet underground. Driving piles into the moist earth would invite water up to the basement and damage its precious art.

In an epic 14-hour concrete pour lasting from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June 11, 2010, 160 truckloads of concrete laid down a mat about 3 feet thick. The pour had to be continuous to avoid joints that could allow water to seep into the building. Bollman said the technique had never been used at MSU before.

But the raft was nothing compared to the white water ahead.

Hadid’s office took an especially keen interest in the architectural concrete, or the concrete that’s exposed as a wall or floor rather than hidden structural support. Hadid was tracking the color, surface, texture, even the placement of the tie-holes where the forms attach.

It fell to Granger Construction Co. in south Lansing to bear the heaviest burden of the project. Granger vice president Darryl Massa gets a hard look in his eye when you mention Hadid.

“I don’t think anybody knew what we were getting into,” Massa said. “Zaha Hadid is so creative, they weren’t sure what they wanted. If the designer says, ‘we’ll know it when we see it,’ the contractor wants to pull chunks of hair out of his head and walk away.”

Red-haired, self-effacing Rob Lange looks young enough to card at the liquor store, but he was Granger’s project manager on its most demanding, high-profile job.

“At one point, Lou Anna Simon was in the basement, talking concrete,” Lange said. “The president of the university was looking at our walls, asking questions. That was mind-boggling.”

With each new demand, Massa grumbled while Lange rolled with the flow.

“We live in an engineering, nuts and bolts type of environment,” Lange shrugged. “Touchy-feely artistic is foreign to the way we do things every day.”

The Granger team researched touchy-feely concrete jobs in Winnipeg, St. Louis, New York (the United Nations building) and Atlanta.  Nothing looked touchy or feely enough.

“The concrete at the United Nations looked great — from 40 stories up,” Massa said.

For months, the yard at Granger turned into a strange cemetery with more than 60 four-foot-high test slabs. Each slab contained a different formula of cement, aggregate, fly ash and water to get the pristine surface Hadid’s office demanded.

“She wasn’t willing to accept that concrete is a natural product and there’s going to be slight variations in color and finish,” Massa said. “She was trying to create this perfect finish.”

As the job dragged on through 2010, Granger marketing director Ed Gillespie sent out a newsletter with the names of a Granger employee on each “tombstone.”

The team achieved super smoothness by adding a chemical that made the concrete watery. (For the record, the magic spice was polycarboxylate.)

“It maintains a full liquid head,” Hadid’s project manager, Craig Kiner, explained, as if he were talking about beer. “It’s not stiff when it comes out of the mixer. So the formwork has to be incredibly tight and well built.”

A pinhole leak in the form would show up as a rash on the surface and blot the building forever. “They wouldn’t let us touch the concrete after we were done,” Massa said.

Normally, concrete forms are made of throwaway plywood. Here they were built like cabinets, put together as tightly as aquariums and coated with a special oil so no marks would be left. 

Grueling tests climaxed with the erection of “the monolith,” an obscure but impressive monument to the workers who built the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum — a giant test slab of concrete, complete with Broad Museum slant, that still towers over the Granger yard on Aurelius Road in south Lansing and can be seen from nearby I-96. The first pour, the bottom half, had too many pits. (Also, a worker dropped a measuring tape into the form and it left an imprint.)

They tweaked the formula one more time. The top half came out perfect.

“Now you’re screwed,” an industry observer told Massa. “You have to go to the site and do this 18 times.” Each of the 18 pours came with a 40-item checklist. 

It took a week to put the first plywood forms up. 

“We were trying to place the tie layout correctly on skewed panels on a wall that’s leaning backwards,” Massa said. “It was a 3-D nightmare.”

Before a pour, technicians had to vacuum every drop of water and stray leaf out of the forms. A worker with white gloves would wipe each form before it was “buttoned up” and ready to hold concrete.

“Every part of this concrete work was something we’d never done before,” Massa said.

Despite the crew’s efforts, two walls were poured and subsequently torn down because they weren’t smooth enough for Hadid’s office.

There was a strange interlude when a “mystery contractor” offered to take over the architectural concrete job, using a secret proprietary formula, according to Massa. But the contractor wanted to lock down the work site and clear it of all personnel, put up extra high fences and erase all computer data relating to the job.

“It was like, ‘we’d have to kill you,’” Massa said.

Granger stuck with the job. There were small compromises, such as a seam in the café wall where two separate pours meet. (A single pour might have produced an unbroken surface, or it might have blown the wall out. The builders opted not to experiment.) But for the most part, the remaining pours went off without a hitch. 

There was a sigh of relief at Granger when Hadid’s office approved the last wall. 

“We ended up with what I feel is the best concrete in the country and maybe the world,” Bollman said.

Glass and steel

When the agony of the concrete was over, the building began to take shape around its hard-won bones.

Steelworkers secured the museum’s gravity-defying west overhang to a truss tucked in the north and south walls. An absurdly tall support beam, like a crutch in a Salvador Dali painting, supported the vast cliff of structural steel and plywood. Several months later, the beam was kicked away and the overhang kept on floating, having divorced gravity and married Zaha Hadid.

“Credit to the structural engineers,” Kiner said. “They calculated what that drop would be, and it was within their tolerances.”

As the walls filled in, the project moved into the age of glass.

In Hadid’s vision, glass is alive. From the outside, it teasingly reveals and conceals what’s under the skirt of steel. From the inside, diagonal fountains of floor-to-ceiling panes interrupt the building’s solidity and throw you into the sky.

“We wanted natural light in the galleries,” Kiner explained. “We never believed some curators and advisers in the art world who think square white boxes without any natural light is the best way to display artwork.”

Normally … but why bother with that anymore? To manage light and heat and maintain art-friendly 50 percent humidity, builders needed triple-layered, argon-filled panes, made in Germany and Luxembourg, weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds, no two the same shape.

Inevitably, the concrete delays were followed by glass delays. Clumsy customs officers broke one panel. Others arrived broken and some broke on site.

The biggest glass headache wasn’t breakage.

Despite the unwieldy shapes and great weight of the panes, the tolerance was less than 2 millimeters on a side. When they arrived at the site, some of them simply didn’t fit and had to be scrapped. The team made precise templates from the troublesome openings, sent them back to the factory for reference and re-ordered.

Marshall said the concrete and glass problems were disappointing, but not surprising.

“There’s a certain level of re-work when you’re not building something you’ve built 100 times,” he said. “The whole building pushes the envelope.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, the museum’s most dramatic and visible feature was taking shape.

It fell to the A. Zahner Co. of Kansas City to craft the stainless steel pleats and fins that cover the building’s shell.

Zahner is renowned for doing impossible and breathtaking things with metal. To dress up the façade of a Neiman Marcus store in Massachusetts, CEO William Zahner and his team created a wavy stainless steel scarf 40 feet tall and 410 feet long. They wrapped Randall Stout’s Art Gallery of Alberta in a ribbon of stainless steel called the “borealis.” For architect Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum of San Francisco, Zahner crafted a blue steel façade that changes color as the day goes on. 

To resist the salt and ice of Michigan winters, metalsmiths at Zahner’s Texas factory forged a corrosion-resistant alloy of steel and molybdenum.

At the Broad Museum, Zahner wasn’t just churning out mega-cutlery from someone else’s pattern. The company was a “design assist” contractor, meaning that it was Zahner’s ulcer to manufacture and deliver Hadid’s vague pleat concept.

“I don’t even understand all the design that went into the pleats,” Bollman said.

To fold the pleats into crisp angles, a V-shaped cut needed to be made along the fold. It had never been done on the diagonal before. A first-of-its-kind mill, 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, was custom made in Wisconsin and shipped over to handle the angled folds.

“We were able to get a very sharp bend,” Zahner said. “This is the first diagonal V-cut job of any size anywhere on Earth.” Zahner kept the new mill and used it for delicate work on the 9/11 memorial unveiled last month in New York.

The steel fins that slice through the museum on three sides presented special problems. Bringing huge pieces of sharp steel close to very expensive glass required lots of computer modeling.

“Those are monsters,” Zahner said. “We get really accurate, because the fins come within millimeters of the glass.”

Over the objection of Hadid’s designers, some of the fins were pulled out a few inches so workers could fit suction cups into the space and replace glass if it broke. The workings passed muster in a mockup on south campus and the fins were ready to go on the museum shell for real.

The finish

Zahner’s custom handiwork was dazzling, but most of it languished on loading docks as 2011 ticked by. 

Delays were cascading over each other. Because the concrete, steel and glass schedules were out of whack, the steel pleats were “bounced all over the building rather than methodically going through from one end to the other,” as Bollman put it. “The project had seemed to grind to a halt.” 

Zahner flew to the site from Kansas City, met with the construction team for almost five hours in summer 2011 and promised to beef up support. Bollman said that day was his happiest on the site.

Zahner said he would work with general contractor Barton Malow Co. of Southfield, Integrated Design Solutions of Troy and MSU “anytime.”

“Genuine people,” he said. “You call them up and talk to them about issues.”

Meanwhile, Marshall worked out more of the building’s thorniest challenges. His proudest design element is a huge double door for big deliveries on the museum’s south wall that closes almost seamlessly, like the portal to the flying saucer in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The disappearing doors were needed because the museum is all front and no backside.

“It took a few months of my life getting those doors to close without scrunching the stainless steel,” Marshall said.

There was endless give and take between Hadid’s office and the troops on the ground, even when work shifted to interior finishes. Marshall set off a new round of negotiations when he balked at using stainless steel for the sleek heating grates inside the galleries.

“It wasn’t serviceable,” Marshall said. “We had to convince Zaha Hadid’s office to switch to aluminum.” Hadid demanded samples, a mock-up, and an explanation before accepting the solution.

The give-and-take extended to the landscaping around the museum. Marshall said MSU was fine with a building that “just sat there,” but Hadid’s team wanted the slopes and lines of the surrounding earthworks to extend and reflect the building’s design.

Plugging in to the environment is a crucial element of Hadid’s vision, from the giant wave of the London Aquatics Centre to the stream-and-boulders layout of the Guangzhou Opera House in China. Kiner fought hard to keep that vision for the Broad. “There’s almost a wave current of the building’s geometry that’s spread across the foot of the building, across the landscape,” Kiner said.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Marshall said. “They held their guns and got most of what they wanted.”

MSU is not in the habit of lighting up its buildings, but Kiner told the university a nighttime presence was crucial. “The lighting was much studied and discussed,” Marshall said. The parties settled for a delicate brush of highlights.

Marshall worked hard to gain the trust of Hadid’s team, but he seemed to enjoy being pushed to his limits.

“They can’t be here as often as they’d like, and they work in a very different critical world than we do,” he said.

“As difficult as Zaha Hadid’s office’s reputation is, the whole team has been demanding, but understanding.”

Hadid’s perfectionism impressed Bollman.

“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.”

Bill Latta, assistant vice president for MSU operations, who worked on the project from the beginning, said working with Hadid’s team was “remarkable.”

“Every time we asked a question, they studied it and we got the best information from around the world,” Latta said.

Early on, the MSU team learned to be careful about asking questions that caused unnecessary work.

“What elevator size works best for contemporary art? My Lord, the information they assembled and helped us work through,” Latta said. “I have never worked with such an enthusiastic, young, bright, creative energetic group of people in my entire life.”

‘It’s alive’

Despite those handy screws on the light fixture, the Broad Museum will be more expensive to maintain than an ordinary campus building. Bollman didn’t have an estimate. “There are corners of the interior so remote that even a cherry picker has trouble getting to them,” he said. “We don’t have a stainless steel building on campus, so we don’t know what it will take to wash it.” (Zahner said it only needs a power wash twice a year, like a garage.)

Wherever possible, Marshall specified local, or at least American-made, hardware. The huge west gallery’s ceiling lights, which seem to stretch into infinity, are smartly hooded four-foot fluorescent tubes the university buys by the truckload.

All parties agreed that the Broad Museum has very little that’s off the rack. It comes with the territory when you build a design by Zaha Hadid.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this on this campus,” Bollman said. “It’s truly a once in a lifetime experience.”

If you see a jovial-looking man ignoring the art and caressing the interior walls at the museum’s opening ceremonies, it might be Ed Gillespie of Granger.  “I wonder if anyone will walk in there and realize how much work went into that concrete,” he mused.

Marshall, too, wondered how many design features would go unnoticed, like “dry pipe” sprinkler systems that keep water away from the galleries.

“No one will ever write an article, ‘Broad Museum doesn’t leak,’” Marshall sighed.

Until the press starts to pour in, the Broad Museum’s builders can bask in the approval of the client and the architect.

“It’s exactly what we had hoped,” said Linda Stanford, MSU project manager and architectural expert. “It’s a building that challenges you in that space, because you are an active participant.”

Even Zaha Hadid’s design enforcer, Craig Kiner, gave the building, and its local contractors, a thumbs-up after a visit in March.

“This project is very close to what our aspirations are and were, even at the competition stage,” he declared.

Marshall talks about the building as izhe’s sent a child into the world.

“It’s alive, it moves — not physically, but visually,” he said. “That’s what’s going to help it be a significant building for a long time. It’s not static. It’s going to grow and change as the trees grow, the landscaping fills in and the campus surrounds it with life.”

One thing still bothers him, though.

“I made an error,” he said. “The building is three-quarters of an inch too far west.”


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us