The Shed


Imagine a place where almost anything goes. How does it look? How does it make you feel? Where is it located?

Chances are the answer to this last question is not abutting a luxury high-rise a stone’s throw from a Sephora, within a private development whose public space code of conduct expressly prohibits, among lots of other things, removing items from trash or recycling bins; sitting or leaning on planters, railings, and steps; and ‘engaging in any non-commercial expressive activity.’ But The Shed, the most well-funded and self-confident new arts organization to open in New York this century, has erected a building on the southern fringe of the 28-acre nonplace known as Hudson Yards that it will have you believe is a temple to raw potential and eternal flexibility.

Architect Elizabeth Diller, whose firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the 200,000 square foot, $404 million facility in collaboration with the Rockwell Group, likes to say they devised an ethos before a building. Much like Hudson Yards created a brand before a neighborhood. Despite its distinct mandate – commissioning work across performance, visual arts and pop culture – The Shed isn’t a radically new institution so much as a purer form of what nearly every big contemporary arts organization aspires to be today: flexible, informal and phobic of disciplinary hierarchies. (Diller knows this better than anyone; her firm has facelifted two of New York’s most venerated, and stiffest, cultural institutions, Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art.)

The Shed’s main lobby, squeezed under the High Line and accessed from 30th Street, has the requisite high-end bar (Cedric’s at The Shed, by hospitality mogul Danny Meyer). Two exhibition galleries, on levels two and four, are column-free, which isn’t the exception but rather the rule in contemporary museums – as imperative these days as proper humidity levels. The Kenneth C. Griffin Theater, a sound-isolated black box space on level six, can seat 500 people, or, as is common in such venues, be subdivided into two smaller theaters. Considering the institution’s mandate to commission, develop and present works of art across all disciplines, with a particular emphasis on performances and large-scale installations, the relationship between production and presentation spaces is surprisingly conventional. With the exception of a rehearsal space and “creative lab” on the top (eighth) floor, the immense work of running such a flexible place remains mostly hidden behind the scenes.

Where The Shed does stand out comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed its construction. The defining feature of the building, and perhaps the entire institution, is its kinetic outer shell. A gantry crane system – the sort found in shipping ports and logistics hubs – was adapted into a three-sided enclosure that nests over the fixed part of the building (itself attached to the base of a 88-story residential tower). When deployed, it creates a 17,000 square foot, 120-foot-tall enclosed space with a capacity of 2,000. The surreal image of such a massive structure resting on six-feet-diameter wheels is not dissimilar to Thomas Heatherwick’s neighboring Vessel: both are oversize objects resting on, rather than part of, the plaza, emphatic about being read in contrast to the surrounding development. But where the Vessel is a spectacle of redundancy, The Shed, as Diller puts it, is “all muscle, no fat” – the modernist dogma that form follow function adapted for the wellness age.

The shell structure has two distinct precedents, according to its architects. The first and most obvious is New York’s industrial architecture, such as its riverfront piers, which hosted renegade performances and installations in the 1960s and ’70s. The second is the Fun Palace, a mega-structural project the British architect Cedric Price developed with avant-garde theater director Joan Littlewood over seven years, beginning in 1960, that sought to question society’s engagement with entertainment and learning. Though never realized, the Fun Palace is a paradigm of spatial indeterminacy that has inspired some of the most significant museums of the past half century – as far back as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou (1977), and more recently Lacaton & Vassal’s Palais de Tokyo expansion (2014). Yet, whereas Price envisioned a messy overlap of simultaneous activities and events, The Shed largely restricts its different programmes to spaces dedicated to their respective formats. Price and Littlewood also saw flexibility not as an infinite multiplier of possible outcomes, or as an engine of superfluous novelty, but as a humanistic and egalitarian ambition. They envisioned an architecture that would set its inhabitants free.

Such concepts have little room in The Shed, and in the market economy more generally. (“Did Thatcher kill off Cedric?,” Rem Koolhaas asked at a symposium following Price’s actual death in 2003.) When flexibility and risk-taking are so touted by the city’s cultural and business elite in conjunction with one of the most strictly controlled private developments in its history, it’s imperative to ask not just what is possible but also what possibilities have already been foreclosed.

Menil Drawing Institute


Fantasy collided gently with reality in Houston’s leafy Montrose neighborhood earlier this month. The Menil Collection is a place I have studied closely from afar but never seen in the flesh, and I was arriving with a head full of fragments: the famous centerpiece by Renzo Piano, with its cheap pine floorboards and proprietary ceiling louvers; the rows of prewar bungalows painted a uniform gray; the blocks of evergreens; the porches; the porticos; the filtered daylight. The museum of my mind wasn’t too far off, though, in part because some recent developments make the actual place more like I imagined. Plucking out an oversize apartment complex and stitching in new streets (per a new master plan), the institution has been distilling its thirty-acre campus into a purer version of itself—a carefully contrived everyday interspersed with the kind of spaces for art that architects dream about making but the Menil actually realizes. Johnston Marklee, the Los Angeles firm of architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, got the chance. The completion of the Menil Drawing Institute, the freestanding facility for the study, storage, preservation, and display of works on paper that they designed, was an occasion to visit.

The MDI is a short walk from the main building: one block south, past Menil Park and the Cy Twombly Gallery, under a marvelously scruffy live oak. Richmond Hall, an old grocery that hosts a Dan Flavin installation, sits two blocks south, but the Johnston Marklee building gives reason to pause. Its long, low, single-story volume, a seemingly simple white box with its corners cut out, proves the most surprisingly playful and visually arresting work of architecture on campus. Arriving from the main building, your view is of its short side, one half of which projects well beyond the other. This sixty-foot-square entrance courtyard, mirrored on the east end of the building, introduces the formal logic from which the rest of the architecture proceeds. The roofline, a consistent sixteen-feet high along the outside perimeter, folds down toward the interior to create four covered walkways around a thirty-six-foot square central garden planted with trees and open to the sky. The sloped roof geometry extends along the southern edge of the building—another covered exterior walkway that links both entrance courtyards—and into the so-called living room, an interior spine that serves, on one side, the publicly accessible exhibition gallery, and on the other, private functions: administrative offices, study rooms, subterranean storage, a conservation lab, and a third courtyard dubbed the “scholars’ cloister.”

Ever since Johnston Marklee’s design was unveiled in 2014 following an invited competition, press has latched onto the pitched profile, approving of how it seems to nod to the nearby domestic architecture. The roof is certainly the defining architectural feature of the completed building—unifying the interior and exterior, public and private spaces—but any link to the neighbors, metaphorical or real, is fortunately weak. The collective efforts of its detailing—the cut-out corners; the contrast between the flat, white thin-plate steel outer facade and the rough, gray cedar-planked inner facade—push the building toward cool abstraction and away from symbolic reference. Johnston Marklee buildings, in general, do not wink. Their deliberate formal operations, grounded in architectural geometry and skillfully translated into material construction, feature and make strange traditional building elements—arches, vaults, apertures, and other devices for framing space and light. Perhaps this is what attracted the museum to the architects, who are best known for their residential work. Light has always had a higher calling at the Menil (its founders, Dominique and John de Menil, were Catholic, in addition to wealthy), and Piano set the bar, well, high: The sun-filtering louvers in the main building, developed together with engineer Peter Rice, breathed new life into the modern ceiling, architecture’s sorriest surface.

Johnston Marklee had a different challenge. The medium for which the building was made is notoriously sensitive to light. Which means: no top-lights allowed. The architects did, midway through the design process, manage to smuggle in two narrow, floor-to-ceiling slots of glass on each end wall of the dim gallery (I suspect more for visitors’ sanity than light admittance). But even these were covered over for the inaugural exhibition, a fine show of Jasper John drawings entitled “The Condition of Being Here.” The title, taken from one of John’s sketchbooks, could be an institutional motto. Photography is not permitted in any of its galleries, some haughty fine print explains, “in order to preserve the contemplative atmosphere and facilitate intimate encounters with works of art.” Fine. But in the main building and Twombly gallery, the architecture facilitates and figures in such intimate encounters with works of art. Most dramatic of all is how, in the porous main building, glass-enclosed interior gardens afford multilayered views of artworks, tropical plants, reflections, and bodies. It’s stunning. In the drawing institute, by contrast, the relationship between the architecture as a whole and the gallery in particular is frayed. It’s jarring. Entering the exhibition space, a meticulous shell of sheetrock strewn with spotlights, I felt like I had crossed a sanitary line, one that divided invention and delight from prescriptive best-practices.

Then I took a step back and remembered I was in an institute, with all the empiricism and serious quasi-scientific rigor that the self-conscious term implies. This fact, not the photosensitivity of paper, is what distinguishes the building from the others on the Menil campus. The exhibition of artworks is simply not the priority of the MDI. This is not a criticism, just a statistic: The gallery accounts for just under ten percent of the building’s total thirty-thousand square feet. Scholars will get the most out of it, and I envy their spaces—their cloister, study room, collection access, and staff support. The rest of us have the entrance courtyards and living room, terrific areas that alone are a reason to visit. Cliché as it sounds, the transitional is the destination here.

One more way to look at this project is biographically. The MDI is the museum’s first building for art not conceived during Dominique de Menil’s lifetime (she died in 1997, aged 89). Her smart, hands-on patronage, which extended to active participation in the architectural design process, is one reason why the idea of a perfect client persists even as the myth of the genius architect is thoroughly eroded. Great buildings require great clients, consensus still goes. If her vision still informs the institution, it is filtered through deadening bureaucratic instruments: executive leadership and the board of trustees. The Menil remains an exceptional institution, for sure, but it is necessarily more like other art museums today than in prior eras, and the MDI is a reflection of this. The drawing institute has the burden of cleaning up after past commissions (Piano’s light spills too freely), but overall it proceeds with too much caution. The de Menils, under the influence of French Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier, aspired to make spaces in which poetry would prevail over pedagogy. Yet with the drawing institute, the Menil has provided a lesson: In hewing to too strict an idea of verse, it left some of the talent of its architects on the table.

"Sketch Pad,", November 2018

Dar Al Muharraq


Its silhouette is unmistakable. So I hadn’t expected Dar Al Muharraq, a newly completed venue for traditional Gulf music designed by the Belgian architects OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, would be so difficult to find. A taxi gets me only so close before, with little notice, the street gets too narrow for the sedan to navigate. The old town of Muharraq—the heart of Bahrain’s lucrative pearling industry up until 1930, when the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls ran the trade into the ground—is a maze of narrow corridors into which air-conditioning units and pipes protrude and, tonight, the low din of music tries to escape.

It’s just after eight when I arrive, and the performance is already under way. Standing three stories tall, the building is sheathed entirely in a stainless-steel ring mesh, which is pulled up, temporarily, to head height. Beyond a row of thin columns, two interior partitions have been folded out of the way, revealing a rectangular room surfaced in stained oak that emanates a safety orange color. Here, in the majlis, or sitting room, the musicians rest on cushions on the floor. Beside them are percussion instruments—double-headed drums, tambourines, and water urns, which are played by beating on their mouth with a flat hand. A crowd of about 40 people has congregated along two sides of the building, in streets that are not much wider than six feet. Some are sitting in chairs; others are standing. Fjiri, primarily a vocal music, originated with the seamen and pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf. It is composed of melodic exchanges between a solo singer (nahham), who is dressed in a black thawb, and a chorus, which tonight counts 12, all in white. Combined with handclapping and occasional dance movements, it is enough to hold us in trance for an hour.    

When the performance concludes, practically the entire audience disperses within a minute, as if its presence were merely a serendipitous pause en route to somewhere else. I decide to stick around. I watch as the chairs are gathered, the cushions are stacked, and, with a bit of a struggle, the partitions are pulled back from their accordion position and closed. Somewhere a switch is flipped, activating a system of motors and cables that gradually lowers the mesh. Over 30 seconds, along all four sides of the building, the enclosure progressively changes shape from scalloped bunting to straight draping. The festival atmosphere—droning voices, glowing orange oak, whimsical chain-mail bunting—gives way to exquisite, baffling repose. Once the lights are finally switched off, after the last few stragglers extinguish their cigarettes and leave, there remains the faint indication of an inhabitable building.

I’d traveled to Bahrain with high expectations. For upwards of a decade OFFICE has, trailed by legions of imitators, cut a conspicuous path across the field’s unthinking excesses, demonstrating its talent for concision and economy in nearly 150 didactic projects, built and unbuilt. To put it plainly, Geers and Van Severen—at ages 42 and 39, respectively—are among the most promising architects of their generation. Yet Dar Al Muharraq still impressed me in ways I had not anticipated, and tempered certain reservations. OFFICE’s work at times can feel overburdened by its own emphatic discourse. But Dar Al Muharraq, while steeped in the obsessions of its designers—boundaries and rooms, Platonic shapes, lightweight materials, historical associations—exceeds these pursuits. Its deft orchestration of performer and spectator, private and public spheres, architecture and city, remakes a centuries-old cultural practice anew.

Historically, the dar, which means “house” in Arabic, is a private space akin to a fraternal society or club; between sea journeys, pearl divers would meet here regularly to perform the fjiri. After the country’s pearling heritage was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2012, the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities commissioned OFFICE to design two public facilities as a way of preserving the musical tradition. (The second dar, essentially identical, is located a half hour away in the city of Riffa and will be completed this spring.) As Van Severen remembers, “The demands were generic.” Instead of deferring to a preestablished type, like an amphitheater, OFFICE skillfully preserved the intimacy and volumetric specificity of the traditional majlis while integrating a public audience. Transformations of architectural typologies are linked to social rituals, and Geers and Van Severen have updated a type by, in a sense, designing a new ritual.

In its subtle effects and judicious execution, the Dar Al Muharraq is a mirror image of most high-profile buildings in the Gulf region. In Doha, a quick 45-minute flight away, the procurement of new educational and cultural buildings by I.M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Arata Isozaki, and others has about as much imagination as one of those perennially marked-down doorstops by cool hunter Philip Jodidio. Perhaps because Bahrain lacks the deep pockets of its neighbor to the south it must shrewdly develop less-established talent rather than license brand names (the total cost of the dar, including the renovation of an existing private dar next door, was $850,000). But I observe a sense of obligation to the discipline, and curiosity. As the head of architectural affairs for the culture authority, Noura Al Sayeh, explains, “you don’t know what the next step of their practice will be.” This twofold approach to patronage—commissioning projects that are both new for an architect’s body of work and for the place where they are built—is effective in part by how it mediates desired aesthetic outcomes and material circumstances.

The best example of this dynamic is the ring mesh. Quality Wire Products, a local manufacturer that specializes in industrial products like strainers, screens, sieves, and filters, primarily for the oil and gas sector, worked with OFFICE to develop the custom architectural textile. A team of 45 workers spent two and a half months stitching ten-millimeter stainless-steel rings together by hand in the factory before it was transported to the site in panels and pieced together into a seamless whole. Despite its drapelike appearance, above the ground floor the mesh is fixed in place, with practically no give to it. A good thing, since it is the only component keeping one from falling out of the building. (Another good thing: It blocks some of the sun from getting in.)   

This tension between the provisional and the permanent is reinforced throughout the project by color. The pair of restrooms on the third level, as with the other service elements like the sound equipment and the winches that position the ring mesh, are housed within steel enclosures powder-coated ultramarine blue. The air-conditioned staff offices and storage located on the second and third levels are similarly self-contained, in orange rooms identical to the performance space. Though carefully positioned and fixed in place, the monochrome units playfully suggest they could be withdrawn, making the concrete platforms available for some other use, some other fantasy.

When I spoke with Van Severen about the project recently, he mentioned Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino, a reference I dismissed as too obvious at first. After all, how many buildings aren’t derivative of this slab-and-column method? But the more I considered the dar and the possibility it conjures up, the more I began to register in it that primordial Modernist image—the vaunted three-quarter-view drawing of the bare concrete frame. This “purity” is paid for in contradiction, though. The columns are structurally redundant to achieve a desired rhythm, and four out of the 18 are altogether false—hollow stainless-steel tubes threaded with plumbing and wiring. More nerve-racked mannerists might feel compelled to signal these inconsistencies with irony or overwrought symbolism, but Geers and Van Severen do not suck the air from the room. At Dar Al Muharraq, they just let space be.



The twin imperatives steering the flurry of recent museum transformations resemble a yoga technique: expand and relax. It has been a boom time for some while now, but growth tells only part of the story and increasingly, a smaller one. In their drive for more space and higher attendance figures, large art museums in America are being refashioned to strike a casual demeanor and achieve an integrated relationship to their urban surroundings. These are renovations of institutional philosophies as much as buildings.

The Whitney, relieved of its weighty uptown building—which the Met is leasing while replacing its own late-1980s modern wing—is diverting pedestrians from the High Line into its new downtown home, offering them art and even more elevated views from outdoor terraces. And MoMA is busy scrubbing hauteur off its chilly Yoshio Taniguchi–designed expansion, hiring Diller Scofidio + Renfro to expand galleries, improve circulation, and, in an effort to make more of the ground floor publically accessible, add unticketed exhibition space to a ballooning lobby.

As museums loosen up, they’re becoming more flexible about designers’ credentials. I would wager that Diller Scofidio + Renfro earned the MoMA job less on the merits of their museum work than on their successful revamps of the High Line and Lincoln Center—two New York has-beens made over as interactive open-air attractions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened a $305-million expansion last month, commissioned architects Snøhetta in large part because of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Rising out of the Oslo harbor, the landform-like structure buries the performance functions under an inclined public plaza that, upon completion in 2008, burnished the firm’s reputation for making human-centric and photogenic places. Snøhetta did not have much experience designing spaces for art, but SFMOMA made other demands. “We really want the museum to be much more outward-looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in,” the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, told the New York Times in 2011, when plans were unveiled for a ten-story addition to its South of Market building, a sober brick-veneer edifice with a mouse-hole entrance designed by the Swiss postmodernist Mario Botta and completed in 1995. “We want it to be an embracing, luminous space where you can get good coffee, a place where people come and meet their friends.”

The existing five-story stepped building posed space problems. In 2009, attendance and collection already swelling, the museum secured a century-long loan of postwar blue chips from Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher (the Fisher collection now constitutes the bulk of the work on view). Botta’s imperious tone, too, was at odds with the institution’s softer message. If barely a decade or two ago the astringent rationalism of Botta (and, in a different way, Taniguchi) was to modern art museums the keeper of a high-middlebrow flame, the white-hot contemporary art market and the hordes of tourists flooding gentrified cities have them going casual, an effect that is especially pronounced in San Francisco, where the tech industry is reshaping the city around a mixture of innovation and inequality, and drawing international attention.

Snøhetta fits in comfortably here. More than a traditional architecture practice, the Oslo- and New York–based multinational resembles IDEO, the stalwart design and innovation consultant. In addition to architecture, it creates landscapes, interiors, brand design, and, soon, new banknotes for Norway. Part of Snøhetta’s success as a company lies in how well it mines the Scandinavia-meets–Silicon Valley ethos that undergirds large swathes of our present culture (a mostly affluent, white, American and European culture, granted). In its most caricatured instances, this is a culture of city dwellers who yearn for the outdoors; “disruptors” who work from Eames chairs and communal desks; digital craftspeople who spin bespoke wares. This is a culture that aspires to a lifestyle of purity and simplicity in every consumer choice, yet whose material expressions can be quite baroque (urban farms, rough-hewn farm tables in minimalist apartments).

On its website, Snøhetta describes its working methodology as the “simultaneous exploration of traditional handicraft and cutting edge digital technology.” On the facade of the SFMOMA addition, there is a similar kind of statement. If the view from the front of Botta’s brick structure is simply a cream-colored slab shaved off at slight angles along the top and side, the volume’s obverse is a bulbous form clad in over seven hundred unique fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels inspired, we are told, by the fog and waters of the San Francisco Bay. The ripples may have been generated by algorithms and carved by robots, but Snøhetta embedded the panels with a natural touch: silicate crystals from nearby Monterey Bay. The panels were fabricated by Kreysler & Associates, a Bay Area firm that grew out of the boat industry and has made numerous large-scale public sculptures for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (Pop art confections such as twenty-foot ice-cream cones and banana peels). Here Snøhetta has selected a more serious subject, but earnestness can inspire a kind of kitsch. Whereas the Oslo opera conflates an architectural element (sloped roof) and natural formation (glacier) to produce a new relationship between the public and the landscape, the facade arrests the ephemeral coastal atmosphere in a frothy simulacra the pallor of steamed almond milk. As an image, however, it has currency—a cunning triangulation of the local terroir (coastal environment, technology, and capital) that is globally recognizable.

If SFMOMA has a recent precedent it is less Guggenheim Bilbao than Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which did not inspire the growth of museum lobbies but dissolved them altogether: You step off the street and directly into a gallery. Snøhetta’s extension stretches a full city block from Minna Street to Howard Street, where there are two new entrances and a double-height street-level gallery with floor-to-ceiling glass—literally the clearest expression of the museum’s refashioned identity. Here, visitors are greeted by Richard Serra’s Sequence, 2006, a sculpture resting in an expanded field of pricey concessions and 45,000 square feet of unticketed gallery space. This space, which starts at Sequence, extends up amphitheater steps to a second-floor level containing a satellite museum store, education space, and a large Sol LeWitt wall drawing; then it turns ninety degrees (on axis with the original Third Street entrance) and continues, following a flight of stairs, into Botta’s atrium, a tall, oculus-topped square ringed by a museum store, restaurant, and auditorium (by 2017, two enormous paintings by Julie Mehretu will flank the atrium). What is most generous about this free gallery space, though, is the way in which it effectively creates a new route through the city block, enabling new connections with Yerba Buena Gardens, a public park sited between the museum and the convention center.

Yet despite the effectiveness of this continuous passage on an urban scale, an odd dynamic emerges between the two buildings themselves. The natural light, bright white walls, and openness to the street of the new building have sapped energy from the existing one—particularly the atrium, which is no longer the heart of the museum, as it was designed to be. The strong centrality and unadulterated symmetry of the Botta building make it intolerant of change. Remove one part—such as the black-granite staircase that originally soared up the atrium toward the oculus—and the whole space gets off kilter. In its stead are cheery new maple steps connecting the first and second floors. They leave the atrium feeling even more solemn, reacting to Botta’s formal bombast without reckoning with it. And this is the paradox: The binary mantras that informed the redesign—old SFMOMA is a bunker; new SFMOMA is light filled and open—have been crystallized rather than overcome.

While Snøhetta’s relationship to the Botta building wavers between begrudging deference and bald indifference on the exterior and ground floor, it transitions to neutralization on the gallery levels. The existing galleries—well-proportioned enfilades around the atrium—have been maintained, beginning on the second floor (accessible from the new ticketing area) and then on levels three, four, and five, where they merge with the addition (new galleries continue on floors six and seven of the extension). Here, seamlessness is the strategy: The floor levels are contiguous, and Botta’s material palette, white sheetrock and blond-maple flooring, lines a record-breaking expanse of exhibition space. With a combined 146,000 square feet of galleries, SFMOMA has—for the moment—the most display area of any museum in the US devoted to modern and contemporary art (MoMA is set to add 50,000 square feet to its existing 125,000 ). Functionally, Snøhetta has managed an efficient plan—not an insignificant feat considering the museum expects 1.4 million annual visitors following the reopening.

In the 2011 Times article presenting the design, Dykers asked, “Is it a building filled with art with some people in it, or a building filled with people with some art in it? There needs to be enough social space to make people feel comfortable in what can be an austere environment, the white box.” The subtle oppositions—of comfort and austerity, social space and gallery space, people and art—reinforce the schisms presented to large contemporary art museums today. As ground floors of museums mutate into free entertainment, with galleries reserved as premium content—the former following the logic of hospitality management and the latter clinging to standardized models—it is more urgent than ever for architects to define the connections between these two realms. This interstitial zone might be the last place where architects can still gain a foothold, and where museums—operating within an ecology with art fairs and “museum-quality” gallery shows—can set themselves apart.

The Broad


In 1979, Elizabeth Diller, still a student, had doubles on her mind. “This is a probe into the most fundamental relationship: that between two things,” she wrote in explanation of “Twin Houses for One Resident,” her Cooper Union thesis. If aspects of the project—expressive staircases, colorful axonometrics—reveal the influence of pedagogues like John Hejduk, the quixotic detail and burning drives are all her own. “It delves into a personal obsession,” Diller admitted, perhaps unaware of how difficult it would be to extract herself from this line of inquiry.

From Diller’s partnership with Ricardo Scofidio, begun around that same time, sprang dichotomies, lots of them. Art projects—Pleasure/PainVice/Virtue, and Master/Slave—bear that out, but never so explicitly as the cover of the pair’s 1994 monograph, Flesh: Architectural Probes. On the front, one half of her nude posterior, smooth; on the back, one half of his, hirsute. Even when the addition, in 2003, of Charles Renfro as partner made cheeky symmetries like these impossible, concepts continued to take the familiar form of twos. “The building had to have a double vision,” Scofidio said of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston, the architects’ first major museum, completed in 2006.

So it was only appropriate that, in 2010, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) introduced its competition scheme for billionaire art collectors Eli and Edythe Broad’s new downtown Los Angeles museum with a binary: the veil and vault. Despite its overdetermined site—constrained below street level by a mandated car park, vertically by a 70-foot height restriction, and at its core by Frank Gehry’s intimidating Walt Disney Concert Hall, located immediately to the north—DS+R fused its fixation on doubles with the client’s two demands. One level above Grand Avenue would be storage for the Broad’s 2,000-plus works of contemporary art, and on top of that, a sprawling top-lit exhibition space. A striking, diagonally perforated skin would wrap the combined programs on all sides. Together these parts formed the “veil and vault,” a seductive verbal construction as much as a novel formal solution.

But five years on, the concept now a gleaming new $140 million institution named The Broad, that slick alliterative won’t go away. At the opening in September, the museum’s director instructed attendees how to navigate the “veil and vault.” When I inquired about the building, museum docents responded in the Broad’s familiar argot: veil this, vault that. It would amount merely to institutional branding if the architecture did not also conspire (and compromise itself) in this interminable endeavor to beat a narrative into visitors’ minds.

You need not have ever heard “veil and vault” to understand, entering at either corner of the building along Grand Avenue, that a play of contrasts is being performed. In each place, the glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete envelope has been sliced away at an angle, revealing it to be a container independent of its contents. Indeed, the second level of the building, the vault, approaches but does not quite come into contact with the veil—at least above the main lobby, where a structural cantilever and an uninterrupted coating of gray Venetian plaster support the illusion of a hovering mass. Slick floor-to-ceiling glass divides the sidewalk from the alarmingly spare lobby (roving staff check in visitors with iPads), but the grotto-like undercroft that runs from outside to inside and arcs down to the ground creates the feeling you have not yet entered. This ashen, amorphous surface is a kind of facade, and, in an architectural come-hither like no other, an escalator and a staircase protrude through and extend suggestively past it, beckoning you to experience the museum—or ride the circulation.

The escalator ascent takes precisely one minute and draws out the transition between two distinct moods: the dimly lit lobby and the 35,000-square-foot, clear-span gallery bathed in northern light let in through the apertures. As you emerge through the middle of the floor, head angled upward, the glowing, honeycomb-pattern ceiling mesmerizes. Like Jeff Koons’s flawlessly fabricated Balloon Dog (on display), the surface—dense with hefty beams that span the entire room—is supple and plush.

The ceiling, the Broad’s most phenomenal feature, stakes claim to a space that must otherwise be unhindered by architecture—that is, able to be partitioned as the curators see fit and generic enough not to compete with the art. In fact, even the patterned skin that wraps so conspicuously around the exterior and looms so large in the Broad’s self-image is prohibited from making an appearance inside, except where it abuts Grand Avenue, perforations allowing periscope-like views on the street. Wherever drywall occludes the veil—on the three other walls of the square gallery—one wonders if another metaphor weren’t more appropriate. Or, considering how disruptive language becomes as you progress through the building, dispensed with altogether.

While a circular, glass-encased elevator is available, the route the architects prefer you take down to the lobby is a staircase that switchbacks through the “vault.” At two of its landings, body-length windows offer humdrum glimpses into the institution’s art storage: Placed more or less on top of one another, they duplicate views of one part of the painting repository. And whatever sense of mystery and voyeurism the low, dark staircase manages to evoke is interrupted by curiosities of a more practical order, as one veers off course to peruse the administrative offices, lecture hall, and the bathrooms. These are integral features of any museum, but for one in which movement progresses as if scripted, and where metaphor is made moody environment, their appearance has a deflating effect.

No part of the Broad is flawed because it fails to conform to the tidy “veil and vault” scheme, to language. But most of what is unsatisfying and clumsy about the museum seems a result of the client and architect’s intrigue with that simile. While a strong idea may provide an essential tether to a design in the course of its execution—keeping compartmentalized decision making in check—a concept as black-and-white as veil/vault proves to be a knot too tight, so inflexible it’s self-defeating.

Take the envelope, which underwent significant revisions after it proved unbuildable. Except along Grand Avenue, the concrete panels are almost entirely opaque and, rather than standing loose and relaxed, cling stiffly to the side of a box as a flowing dress does to a body in the right humidity. Or consider the ground-floor gallery, a ponderous 15,000-square-foot backroom that feels like an afterthought, if not an intentional retreat from the architecture’s machinations. The 200-seat lecture hall, a lackluster venue for public events repressed within the vault, would have been better suited elsewhere had the building concept encompassed anything besides exhibition and storage, or duos.

Yet, even as the Broad deals in decades-old obsessions, there are indications that DS+R is moving in new directions. Where, for instance, are the screens—the ones so prominent in the ICA, Lincoln Center, and Brasserie? Where is the frosted glass? Where are the scrolling LEDs? Gone are practically all the gizmos that functioned as the firm’s signature, gesturing anxiously to its artist days. Upstairs, under that light, I think I divined DS+R’s future. It’s more subtle and stirring than past work, but who better to make a career out of contrasts?