Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Zaha Hadid tells it slant: the Broad Museum in pictures

A few weeks ago, I made an architecture pilgrimage to East Lansing, of all places, to see the much-ballyhooed Broad Art Museum, designed by Zaha Hadid.

I've been interested in Hadid's work since 2006, when I caught her difficult, dazzling retrospective at the Guggenheim in NYC (an eye-opening experience, to say the least).

The Broad, which opened in November, is only Hadid's second building in the US, after the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Living in Detroit, where we are basically not allowed to have exciting new buildings (we have too many old ones to fix up first), I was pretty giddy about the whole thing.

My initial impression was that, from the street, it hardly looks like a building at all. It seems to lack the familiar markers: doors, signage and windows are all enveloped by the corrugated steel. It looks, at first, like a huge sculpture, sleek and lurking, not a functional building.

There are doors, of course, plenty of windows, and even signage, but it all takes a few minutes to register.

See? Doors & windows, just like your grandmother's art museum had.

I spent a couple hours exploring the building outside & in, and those initial impressions aside, I found it to be thoroughly functional. OK, of course the architecture steals the show, but it's actually a modestly-sized museum at 46,000 square feet spread over three stories, so once you get used to all the crazy diagonal lines and beautiful staircases, the art comes to the fore and you realize that the whole thing's perfectly navigable and there's plenty of space for the works on display to do their thing.

It takes you a minute to get there, though. First you have to deal with those diagonals.

There's barely a right angle in the place. The effect is disorienting, exhilarating, and ultimately mind-altering. (When I got home that evening and for a good day or two afterward, I kept looking around at all the straight lines in the world and thinking, "Why straight up & down? Who said so? How boring! How expected!") The even line that makes a square is a lie (or at least completely arbitrary), Zaha's queer new building shouts -- a bold challenge to the handsome, if business-as-usual buildings that surround it.

Anyway, it's a lot of fun. It's a contemporary art museum that's a piece of contemporary art itself, off-kilter, insistently other, aggressive, radical -- and, for better or worse, eminently brandable. It's a vivid & exciting piece of new architecture on such a stately, conservative, and otherwise coherent college campus. The president of Michigan State says that it's an important symbol of the university's "quality and reach...in this competitive global marketplace." Whatever its reason for being, I'm just glad it is. Here are my favorite shots:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Green City Diaries: Dig This

Photo by Marvin Shaouni.
(originally published 6/18/13 in Model D.)

People have been growing food in Detroit, off and on, for centuries. Today, it's clear that urban agriculture is an essential part of our post-industrial identity. Even city government has gotten behind the movement, finally passing an urban ag ordinance just a few months ago. As more and more people choose to live lives here that are at once urban and rooted to the earth, important questions emerge: how much do we really know about the soil in Detroit, for instance, and how has it changed over time?

Urban soils, it turns out, are a vastly understudied phenomenon. In Southeast Michigan, as in many parts of the country, regional soil surveys conducted by the USDA have historically stopped at the city limits. It's a problem of both scale and complexity: urban activity has rendered the soil conditions so variable that the undertaking would be enormous. Two samples collected just a few feet from one another are likely to have wildly different compositions. Multiply that by 139 square miles and you start to see the problem.

There are Detroiters, however, who spend much of their lives working in and thinking about the soil, and their insights can provide a fascinating glimpse of the complex and surprising world beneath our feet.

Read the rest at Model D.