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Home Arts and Culture  Breaking new ground
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Wednesday, March 17,2010

Breaking new ground

by Lawrence Cosentino
Breaking new ground

Broad Museum builders put down their pens, pick up their shovels




On Tuesday morning, Kevin Waldman’s biggest headache was protecting big shots like architect Zaha Hadid, billionaire tycoon Eli Broad, Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon and Gov. Jennifer Granholm from stepping in the March mud at the groundbreaking of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.


“You don’t want to get Zaha Hadid’s shoes dirty,” Waldman said, gallantly. “Or the governor’s.”


These luminaries and others gathered at the museum site on Grand River Avenue in East Lansing Tuesday morning to grab a shovel and nudge Hadid’s daring design from the abstract to the concrete.


With the festive tent gone, Waldman’s headaches are about to get a lot bigger. Waldman is the project manager for Southfield-based Barton Malow, general contractor for what may be the highest-profile and most unusual architectural project the state has ever seen.


“You don’t go into a Zaha Hadid building with the idea that you’re going to come out the same,” said Linda Stanford, an associate provost and architecture professor at MSU. The same might be said for any city or university bold enough to build a Hadid. A Pritzker Prize-winning “starchitect” with visionary projects blossoming around the world, Hadid has completed only one building in the U.S., the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.


At Tuesday’s ceremony, Hadid thanked the Broads 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.”


Hadid’s style is to sketch out curves, lines and fields of pure energy, pull them kicking and screaming into the material world and let them loose on some unsuspecting patch of Earth. Her Broad museum design is a crouching beast of angular steel plates like nothing else on the planet.


“This building should get a speeding ticket,” architecture critic and project advisor Joseph Giovannini said Tuesday.


Granholm called the design “dramatic and breathtaking.”


“This museum is going to be a tremendous visual experience,” Granholm said.


Hadid’s ultra-dynamic designs are particularly attractive to cities with something to prove.


Even Rome, the site of Hadid’s latest completed project, is using the Zaha cachet to brush up its image. In fall 2009, Hadid’s Museum of the Art of the XXIst Century, or Maxxi, was widely seen as a clear signal that the Eternal City was ready to look to the future. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff called the museum “a rebuke to those who still see Rome as a catalog of architectural relics for scholars or tourists.”


MSU and East Lansing are out to prove a thing or two as well.


For one thing, the old land-grant university is out to flex its growing international reach. Stanford compared the Broad Museum to other MSU ventures with international fame, such as the cyclotron and the College of Music.


Several speakers at Tuesday’s ceremony predicted a wave of international tourism.


Eugene Gargaro, board chairman of the Detroit Institute of Arts, said a million people have come to check out the museum’s $160 million renovation project.


“I believe the Broad Museum will do the same,” he said.


Closer to home, the museum’s location on the busy commercial strip along Grand River will decisively turn MSU toward its surroundings.


“We won’t have to tell you that we care about being a part of East Lansing,” Stanford said. “We’re right there, in your face, and that’s exactly what we want.”


Eli Broad said the museum would be “an important bridge to the community,” sucking in even people who are indifferent to art.


“I predict the curiosity factor will be too great for them to resist,” he said.


It took an extra year in the schedule, and $7 million to $12 million more than expected, to bring Hadid’s abstract lines of force to concrete reality. The final cost of the museum is estimated at $40 million to $45 million.


“The first piece of art you see is the building,” Waldman explained. “How do you put a time or a dollar figure to art?” But that’s just what had to happen. First, it was discovered that Hadid’s design was 15 percent bigger than the 42,000-square-foot minimum specified in the competition brief, said Craig Kiner, a member of Zaha Hadid’s team.


Hadid shrunk the building accordingly. Stanford and Waldman said the design’s unprecedented steel-clad exterior was the chief cause of the delay and cost overruns.


Kiner agreed that the envelope was “the most expensive component of the building.”


For a while, that was a major problem. A world-class museum has to maintain 50 percent humidity to keep Jackson Pollack’s drips from drying or Jeff Koons’ balloon animals from getting psoriasis. Consequently, the Broad museum will need triple-pane glass windows to keep moisture from condensing on the walls in cold weather.


The
new museum will meet simple standards in lighting and climate control
that have barred MSU’s old museum, Kresge, from borrowing art from
other museums.


But
that made Hadid’s original design for the walls, with hundreds of metal
pleats resembling biomorphic scales or feathers, problematic.


“Originally,
the concept was that you would actually stack the pleats,” Waldman
said. “They could go all the way through and be a significant part of
the structure.”


At
first, Kiner said, each of the pleats in the building’s serrated skin
would be hooked up to the main frame by individual steel trusses. The
glass panels and metal pleats that make up the fašade would form an
integrated, interlinked shell. Hundreds of connecting trusses, no two
alike, would have been built by hand.


An articulated armadillo of a building would have been cool, but very expensive.


Joseph
Giovannini, the architect and critic who organized the Broad Museum
design competition, has stayed on the project as a sort of kindly
uncle. Giovannini said he was worried about the way talks were going
between MSU and Hadid’s office.


“There’s a point at which it was fairly delicate,” he said.


“The
architects were pushing the envelope” on the building’s shell,
Giovannini said, but they later “moderated the design” in the face of
staggering cost estimates.


“It
was a tense moment,” he said. After a lot of long-distance calls
between Michigan and London, the design team worked out a compromise.
The pleats will be fitted into a glaze on the outer fašade, with
matching inner pieces attached to the inside walls.


Giovannini doesn’t like the term “decorative,” but the pleats won’t be integral to the wall. Instead, they’ll screen the sun and dazzle the eye — feathers for display, not for flight.


Hadid’s team agreed to the compromise because the visual impact would be the same.


The
stainless steel panels will be made, folded, cut and bent off site,
trucked in and installed in small sections as crews work around the
building.


That left another problem: Who can fabricate mega-cutlery on such a scale?


After
rejecting four firms from around the world, MSU turned to the world’s
foremost magician of metal: William Zahner, president of A. Zahner
Company in Kansas City, Mo.


Doing the impossible for architects like Hadid is business as usual for Zahner.


To
dress up the fašade of a Neiman Marcus store in Massachusetts, 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 Daniel Libeskind’s
Jewish Museum of San Francisco, Zahner crafted a blue steel fašade that
changes color as the day goes on.


With the fašade issue resolved, Waldman found that other features were not negotiable.


The
museum’s interior has sharply angled, sloping concrete walls Waldman
called “magnificent,” but with a catch: “I can’t think of walls that
are more difficult to construct,” he said. In another round of
negotiations, Waldman and his team worked out reinforcement and molding
techniques that will maintain a 50-foot wall at a 75-degree angle, and
everybody was happy.


Unlike Giovannini, Waldman said he never doubted that the building would break ground.


“There
were times where I thought we were far apart, but I knew that MSU and
Zaha Hadid were both committed,” Waldman said. “It was too great an
opportunity for both sides to let it fail.”


But
Hadid isn’t the only 800-pound gorilla in this gallery. There’s also
Broad, the Detroitborn MSU alumnus who made his fortune in homebuilding
and banking and now bestrides Los Angeles like a philanthropic colossus.


Broad (rhymes with “road”), one of the world’s top contemporary art collectors, pledged $28 million for the MSU museum: $21 million for construction and $7 million for acquisitions, exhibition set-up and operational expenses. It’s the largest
gift in MSU’s history, but Broad, 76, has suffered some slings and
arrows in the press lately over his allegedly heavy-handed ways.


In
a Feb. 8 story on Broad’s philanthropic “grip” on the Los Angeles
cultural scene (complete with a map), The New York Times charged Broad
with wielding an “iron checkbook,” withholding promised funds from the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it didn’t show enough art from
the Broad foundation’s extensive collection.


Furthermore,
when the new annex to the L.A. County Museum, funded largely by Broad,
opened in February 2008, Times critic Roberta Smith panned the
inaugural exhibition as a “display of pricey trophies” from Broad’s
collection and decried the “dismaying dance that museums must perform
with their biggest donors.”


Stanford said there is an important difference between the L.A. County Museum and MSU’s Broad Museum.


“This
is on a university campus, and I believe he fully understands that,”
she said. She expects Broad to respect the autonomy of MSU’s art museum
as a “public academic resource.”


“This institution has an academic responsibility to the state and to the world,” she said.


The
new museum’s director, she said, will choose how and when to buy or
show art. “We might go the Broad Art Foundation in the same sense we
would go to the DIA or the Art Institute of Chicago,” she said.


According
to Stanford, the only string attached to Broad’s MSU gift is the
requirement that the new museum focus on art since 1945, which Stanford
called “a smart move.”


“I’ve found him to be very straightforward and reasonable — very different from what
I’ve read about him in the newspaper,” Stanford said. “He’s not telling
us what to do, and I don’t think he has any intention of doing that.”


A
high-powered advisory board of museum experts and a consulting firm,
Lord Cultural Resources, are in the early stages of working out the
educational, cultural and artistic “program” of the museum.


Meanwhile,
the physical plane will take center stage. While drawing up plans for
the Broad Museum, the MSU team visited the Maxxi site with Hadid in
Rome last year.


There Waldman learned a lot about one of Hadid’s favorite themes, exposed concrete.


“Around here, exposed concrete is more of an industrial type look,” he said. “There, it’s part of the art.”


Waldman
said he expects site excavation will last through early May. Then comes
a giant mat foundation — a solid, two-footthick slab of concrete that
covers the entire site and has to be poured at once. Expect an epic,
10-hour-long pour with dozens of cement trucks lining Grand River one
fine day at the end of May.


Concrete
basement walls will be poured in June and July. In spring 2011, work
will begin on the zooming, swooping interior walls, which, oddly, will
be visible for a while before the building’s shell is built.


The
interior concrete can’t be painted or stained, but must be blended to a
precise, uniform color throughout. (The design team is shooting for
Sherwin-Williams color No. 7071, “gray screen.”) The concrete is poured
into sculpted forms, much as a sculptor would cast a giant sculpture.


That’s when Waldman expects his blood pressure to reach its highest point.


“It
puts a lot of pressure when I think of it that way,” he said. "These
walls are going to be there as part of the art forever.”

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