Far more than a facelift of a tired facade, the Broad Arts Center is a thorough rethinking of the building, inside and out, particularly the way the building interacts with the campus around it. The architects have taken an uninviting, barrier-like structure and created a see-through building, looking north and south. On sunny days, the glass doors of the bottom two levels disappear behind adjoining walls, and the building literally becomes both a window and a hallway, as well as a much improved locale for arts education.
The wall in our analogy was formerly the facade of UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture -- a dreary, "functionalist" flop by the late William Pereira, a prominent local architect who had done better things. A seven-story structure with a horizontal orientation, the school building was one of several from the 1960s and 1970s that seemed determined to wall off the university campus from its northern edge along Sunset Boulevard.
Even worse, Pereira's building, with its uninterrupted facade of concrete sun screens, was an inward-looking, anti-social building that seemed embarrassed by its highly visible setting amid UCLA's superb Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden, the Ralph Freud Playhouse and the Wight Gallery.
The makeover of the UCLA arts complex could be called a collaboration between two prominent members of the American Jewish community: Meier and donor Eli Broad. Businessman, philanthropist and fixer extraordinaire, Broad is the angel of the story in both the moral and financial senses. Two years ago, Broad, a noted art collector with a taste for architecture, personally hired Getty Center architect Richard Meier and contributed $23.2 million, or roughly half the cost, to remake the grim arts building into something both more useful for students and more cheerful for the public.
The assignment was an unusual one for Meier, the New York-based Meier, who is best known for museum designs (the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills is also his), as well as for Michael Palladino, co-principal of the firm, who runs Meier's Westwood office and who took an active design role in the UCLA project. Although Meier's firm is accustomed to stamping its own distinctive modernist style -- a kind of classicized version of Franco-Swiss master Le Corbusier -- on its projects, the architects put image-making on the back burner at UCLA while focusing on the quality of experience of both students and visitors.
The solution hinged on several straightforward moves: The first was to change the direction along which people walk through the building. By removing a structural wall that ran east and west, Meier and Palladino opened the building from north to south so students and visitors can stroll through the 40-foot depth of the building, rather than being forced to walk its 150-foot length, with its long hallways and creepy blind corridors.
Jack-hammering the east-west wall removed part of the building's structural support. To replace the lost support, the architects added a new system of horizontal reinforcements on each floor, held in place by massive new concrete "book ends" on either side of the building. "They're like flying buttresses," a proud Palladino said of the concrete walls, comparing them to the exterior structural supports that helped prop up Gothic cathedrals.
The removal of the old structural wall essentially also opened much of the building to the sun, providing enough natural light for students to work without turning on lights -- a definite plus for a structure built to strict energy-saving and "green building" standards.
Not all aspects of the "base building" were bad. Its orientation was ideal for capturing prevailing breezes and inducing natural cooling. "You have to give Pereira credit for siting the building in a way that would take advantage of those breezes," Palladino said. With the interiors now largely open from window to window, the cooling air circulates better than ever. It's not surprising that one of Palladino's favorite buildings is the Carpenter Center at Harvard, by Le Corbusier. That building works hard to create pedestrian movement and the mood of a public place at an awkward spot on that campus. Although the UCLA arts complex bears little outward resemblance to the Harvard building, the Broad Arts Center accomplishes an analogous repair job on the UCLA campus. The Broad takes a walled-off, hard-to-get-to corner spot of the campus and connects it to the rest of UCLA with a front entrance that also serves as a public hallway leading from one part of the campus to another.
The formerly inward looking building has now become a confident public building, which is appropriate for a spot on the campus that brings together the Wight Gallery, the Freud Theater and the sculpture gallery, newly adorned with the 42-ton "T.E.U.C.L.A." (as in torqued ellipse at UCLA) by Richard Serra. Like the Carpenter Center, the Broad Arts Center is an example of architecture as problem solving, and an object lesson in the way a single building can do more than one thing.
Morris Newman has written about architecture and other subjects for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.