July 1, 2008
Eli Broad wields his vast fortune like a blunt instrument—buying art, hiring architects, and shaping L.A. through a mix of civic vision and force of will.
“A building is a portrait of the person you’re working with,” says Renzo Piano, who has designed enough world-class museums for exacting clients to qualify as an expert on billionaires. “When I made the Beyeler in Basel, that is a portrait of Ernst Beyeler. When I made the Menil Collection in Houston, that is a portrait of Dominique de Menil. It’s the dream of the client. And this is a portrait of Eli.”
The Eli is Eli Broad (pronounced like “road”), the 75-year-old businessman-turned-philanthropist and cultural macher who occupies a singular spot in the Los Angeles civic landscape. And the portrait is the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) his most visible addition to the city thus far, an ambitious but embattled museum-within-a-museum whose road to completion has included numerous grandiose plans that were proposed and then shelved.
After a daring slash-and-burn redesign by Rem Koolhaas was rejected in 2002 by potential donors as well as citizens—who voted down a bond measure to help fund the reconstruction—Broad jetted to Paris and convinced Piano to take on the job by making two promises: the architect could oversee a master plan for the entire LACMA campus, and, Broad says, “I told him that you’ll only have to deal with the director and me.”
The resulting exterior is a mishmash of iconic L.A. styles; clad in travertine, it echoes Richard Meier’s Getty Center. The rooftop fins are both Googie-ish and possibly a well-mannered reference to Bruce Goff and Bart Prince’s Japanese pavilion, on the east side of the campus. The exterior escalators and stairs, which Piano dubbed the “spider,” call to mind the city’s most famous mall, the Beverly Center, just a mile and a half away.
One element is singularly its own: the bright, shiny red accents. A sharp contrast to the quiet marble, it is power-tie red, a world away from the oranges, light blues, and greens that other art institutions have lately been employing as signature colors. More than anything, it is this scarlet brilliance that seems to symbolize Broad’s ownership of the project. At the press opening, he wore a red silk tie and pocket square that perfectly matched the slick paint, and in the photo of Broad and his wife, Edythe, which graces each of the museum’s three floors, he’s wearing the same outfit. At the rate the self-proclaimed “venture philanthropist” is going, if Piano’s theory holds true, then all of L.A. may soon be remade in Broad’s image.
“I remember an airplane ride here in the early sixties,” Broad says. “Someone was looking down and saying, ‘Look at it, one big Queens.’” The sprawl outside of his twelfth-floor Broad Foundation office, located in a plush Westwood tower miles away from downtown, looks just as nondescript today. “I always thought this region was missing a vibrant center,” he continues, “and I know of no metropolitan area in history that’s been great without one.”
Broad began his involvement with the city in 1979 as part of a coalition of civic leaders who founded the Museum of Contemporary Art, on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Arata Isozaki was selected to design the main building, and Frank Gehry, long before he became Los Angeles’s architectural supernova, completed his first museum in 1983 for MOCA, converting a Little Tokyo police garage into its satellite Temporary Contemporary.
After visiting the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1996, Broad, along with his good friend then-Mayor Richard Riordan, led the effort to get the stalled Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall built. Richard Koshalek—the energetic president of the Art Center College of Design, whose relationship with Broad began in 1979 when he was named deputy director and chief curator of MOCA (its previous director departed after a tumultuous relationship with Broad)—was part of the architectural search committee for the project.
“There was a bigger agenda at work in the competition: to develop downtown,” Koshalek says. “We thought the concert hall would generate energy down Grand Avenue and toward City Hall.” At the time, Broad was a mere multimillionaire running his second successful business, Sun America, but it’s likely that even then he had bigger plans for his adopted hometown.
By putting his mark on Disney Hall, Broad set the stage for leadership of the Grand Avenue project, an initiative that began in earnest after his retirement from the business world in 2000—and subsequent rise into the billionaire ranks. “He’s very strategic,” Koshalek says. “Very few people see that far into the future, but he has a vision he doesn’t reveal to anybody. He knows what he wants to accomplish long term.”
When Broad first began talking about the Grand Avenue plan, he was widely quoted as saying that it would become the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles, a statement that local architects and urban planners derided. It’s the sort of boosterish claim a businessman might have made 50 years ago, and in many ways Broad is like those twentieth-century patricians who built L.A. and much of America—the Chandlers, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Mellons—and saw wielding their fortunes in the civic, cultural, and political realms as their plutocratic right.
“I looked at all the land owned by the city and county adjacent to Disney Hall, and I came to the conclusion that if we left it, the city and county would screw it all up,” Broad says. “They’d have piecemeal development without a master plan; so I went about creating the Grand Avenue Committee. It took several years to convince the politicians that they ought to form a joint-powers authority because they don’t like each other.”
Five developers showed proof of financials and a meager 30-by-40 concept board in the bid for the now $3 billion project, which would give them rights to construct a mixed-use complex over Los Angeles’s most significant downtown city block. “We decided not to have an architectural competition,” Broad says, “because I couldn’t see how we could impose a design for a billion dollars on a developer.” Instead, each firm had its own architects attached; the winner, Related Companies, went into the proposal with Morphosis, but they later parted ways, and the developer, with Broad’s encouragement, signed on Gehry. (The move ended an uneasy stretch in a long relationship that began in 1991, when an impatient Broad decided that the architect was proceeding too slowly in the design of his house. “After two years, Frank kept saying, ‘I want to refine it.’” Broad built his “Gehry house” using unfinished plans, which rankled Gehry and caused friction even on the Disney Concert Hall project.)
Broad has lately stopped comparing Grand Avenue to boulevards in other cities. “I think because of his interactions with Gehry, he sees that L.A. has to be unique—it’s not going to be New York,” Koshalek says. Instead, he’s been playing to the city’s strengths. “He’s been very specific and interested in the [physical] relationship to the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” says longtime Gehry partner Craig Webb, “and he’s insisted that the buildings be signature architectural statements.”
“Architecture is important to a city,” Broad says. “We didn’t have distinguished architecture here, other than some residences—and that’s changed if you look at all we’ve done. I like to say that cities and civilizations are not remembered for their businesspeople, lawyers, and accountants. But you sure remember the artists and architects—and the architecture.”
Inspired by his wife’s purchase of a Toulouse-Lautrec print, Broad decided that he wanted to become an art collector, and once he started, he amassed works with a single-minded determination, intellectually devouring the artists he chose. Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, and Jasper Johns dominate his collection; of the next generation he favors Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman—all of them blue-chip artists that read like a creative stock portfolio. Broad seems to collect pieces more for the opportunity to associate with the artists than because of an emotional or aesthetic connection to their work. “Any artist that does something extraordinary has to trust their own instincts, and Eli is intrigued by that idea,” Koshalek says. “He studies them to find out where they get the confidence, courage, and ability to make these unique decisions that are so personal and that change the game.”
Broad is now collecting architects in much the same way he does artists, or stocks—a Frank, a Thom, a Zaha—and with his oversize ego and unstoppable ambition, it’s unlikely that he will be satisfied with a mere building as a portrait of himself. “He sees in himself a reflection of how the artist follows the creative path and what that means,” Koshalek says, “the idea that you have to find something original to contribute to society.” If Koshalek is right, then Broad undoubtedly sees L.A. as his canvas. The question is, To what degree should one man shape a city’s public buildings?
Even one of Broad’s most vocal critics, the writer Sam Hall Kaplan, admits, “There’s no doubt that L.A. has done well with Broad.” He may handle his influence like a cudgel rather than a paintbrush, but it means that buildings get built. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has long been notorious for stalled construction and indecisive leadership. When its old headquarters on Grand Avenue became the proposed site for a new high school, Broad stepped in and spent much of 2002 holding backroom meetings to convince the district to scrap a complete (and admittedly unexciting) plan by AC Martin Partners and to build a Fame-style performing-arts academy by Wolf Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au. “To me it was a no-brainer—to have a great arts school in L.A. was a great idea—but there was definitely a show-and-tell, and it was done very tiptoeing and secretively,” says David Tokofsky, a former school-board member who was the target of an unsuccessful ouster attempt by Broad in 2003.
The behind-the-scenes switch led to charges of undue influence that Broad dismisses, explaining, “I’ll use all the influence I can because I think it ought to be a good piece of architecture.” Other charges are less easily swept aside. In 2001, the school board voted to purchase a $74.5 million downtown high-rise beset by construction defects to use as its new headquarters, despite the fact that a real estate consultant advised against the purchase. Sun America (until recently headed by Broad) was an investor in the troubled building and, along with other investors, recouped $15 million in the sale. The deal sparked a 2004 federal grand-jury investigation. “We tend to focus on the visible landscape, but investments and cash flow are also part of the landscape he influences,” says Tokofsky, the board’s most vocal opponent of the sale.
If Broad had donated a significant portion of the money for the $233 million high school, it would have been less noteworthy that he convinced the district to scrap the original plan; but he managed to accomplish the switch simply by agreeing to pay the difference in architects’ fees. “Eli didn’t think AC Martin’s design was appropriate for something on top of the hill,” Hall Kaplan says. “Prix’s curse is that he’s never won a Pritzker, so everybody knew he’d do something to call attention to himself—and that, of course, pleased Eli, who paid the difference in the fees. But what he didn’t pay was the millions that the steelwork would cost.”
“The collaboration with LAUSD was difficult but successful, as the result shows,” Prix insists. “Of course, we discussed the Grand Avenue project with Mr. Broad, but in no way did he or the LAUSD influence our design process.” The architect says Broad was primarily interested in the siting of the public entrance of the school’s theater, which is located on Grand Avenue, kitty-corner from the Disney Concert Hall’s entrance.
Broad’s proprietary concern about the street-level relationship of these buildings—the concert hall, the multiuse tower on Grand Avenue, the high school, and the cathedral—indicates that he has assumed a de facto master-planning role of downtown. Absent strong governmental leadership, it is a necessary step, but this self-conferred mantle has led even progressive public officials to grant Broad a kind of ownership over the city. In a public forum this year, councilwoman Jan Perry slipped and referred to the campus as the “Eli and Edythe Broad High School,” though it has not yet been formally named, and the LAUSD claims that no moniker has been decided.
Even if the school isn’t named after Broad, Grand Avenue is the linchpin in his dream of creating a “vibrant center” for the city and making Los Angeles one of “the four cultural capitals of the world, along with New York, Paris, and London.” It is a single-minded Eurocentric goal that in many ways denies the impact he had on Los Angeles before this philanthropic crusade. Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation (now known as KB Home) is the company Broad started as a 24-year-old. It began with a $13,740 three-bedroom model in the Detroit suburbs and went on to build hundreds of thousands of homes in Southern California. “We were merchant builders,” Broad says. “We produced what people wanted to buy. It was no great architecture, you know, but I’m not ashamed of anything we did.”
Suburban sprawl may be the foundation of his $7 billion fortune—which puts him at number 46 on the Forbes 400—but the savvy that got him there has enabled him to become the philanthropist most likely to save notable architecture from poor financial planning. In 2000, Meier’s UCLA art-center project was delayed for lack of funds. Broad was in Meier’s office meeting with architect Michael Palladino about his own Malibu home when he learned of the situation, and he immediately became lead donor on the project, which was later named after him. Then, in 2002, as Broad tells it, Governor Gray Davis rang up to ask for his architectural advice on a Caltrans headquarters. The secretary of the Business, Transportation & Housing Agency visited Broad with an RFP that he trashed, convincing the agency to sponsor a competition with the aim of bringing in an exciting architect. Morphosis was chosen, and everything was proceeding well until an $8 million budget gap appeared, so Broad stepped in again. “I had to convince Caltrans that they could do with tandem parking; the general contractor’s contingency was too large, and Mayne couldn’t have everything.” At the end of that diplomatic turn, there was still a $2 million gap. Inspired by the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation’s policy in Columbus, Indiana, to pay the difference in fees for hiring name architects, Broad put up the shortfall himself. “I’m delighted that it helped Thom win the Pritzker, and they named the plaza after myself and my wife, so that’s sort of how that happened,” he says.
With BCAM, Broad’s involvement led art-world watchers to believe he would be donating his enviable collection of contemporary art to the museums; it would be LACMA’s chance to leap into the upper echelons of arts institutions and establish itself as a truly encyclopedic museum. Then, a month before the opening, Broad sent shock waves through the art world by revealing that he would not be donating his collection after all. After getting the institution designed to his exacting specifications and handpicking the director—Michael Govan, the dashing former head of the Dia Art Foundation—Broad received a high-profile showcase while LACMA was apparently left with nothing more than the promise of preferred lending status for much of the collection. Unlike most museums named after individuals—the Guggenheim, the Norton Simon, the Menil—BCAM is a public institution, with county employees, built on publicly owned land. Broad contributed $50 million toward the construction of the building, but his donation still left the museum without an endowment to fund operations, customary when a wealthy patron finances an eponymous institution.
Some have speculated that LACMA is relieved at the new arrangement because it minimizes Broad’s influence over the museum’s decision making. “Eli—he inspires with force,” Govan says. “He sees that he has to deploy money in a way that forces things to happen.” And it’s a strategy that Broad openly embraces: “The Disney Hall started not in stainless steel—it started in stone,” he says. “One of the things I tried to convince him of, I said: ‘Frank, stone is great, but you’re in earthquake country, we’ve got smog.’ And then we got to looking at the structure and what you’d have to do to support all that stone.” Broad pauses, smiling to himself. “Then he did come around on his own and decide that stone wasn’t a great idea.” It is, of course, the polished gleam of the hall that gives it such an iconic presence, and it’s no small matter that Broad takes roundabout credit for the material choice.
But when it came to the building that would bear Broad’s name, the possibility of natural disasters took a backseat to the lure of stone’s eternity. Piano tried to shy away from the earthy travertine that covers BCAM, but Broad refused to let it go. “He said, ‘I really want a building that gives the sense of duration, of time, of long lasting,’” Piano says. “I found from one point of view that this is not the best thing to do. I said, ‘You need something more ephemeral that celebrates the perfection and value of art.’” Broad insisted, and eventually, Piano says, “I decided to play a game between the massiveness of the stone and the color of the rest. It’s a game of tension between massiveness and lightness.” The architect tried, as he explained to the museum’s benefactors in a newsletter, to fight “monumentality”—nearly impossible when the lead donor is building himself a monument.