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In Los Angeles, an architectural marvel is the new town square

The Broad Contemporary Art Museum eschews gift shops and restaurants in favor of dynamic galleries devoted wholly to art.

By Carol StricklandCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 2008

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Los Angeles

The quintessential image of Los Angeles is sprawl: endless freeways and far-flung neighborhoods without a center. No surprise the city's major museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), suffers the same malady. The 20-acre campus contains a hodgepodge of seven buildings stretching a third of a mile along Wilshire Boulevard. Until its recent, highly touted "transformation," the entrance was almost invisible.

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"We had an architectural mess on our hands, and something had to be done," billionaire businessman and LACMA trustee Eli Broad admits in an interview published in a catalog heralding the debut of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), which opened Feb. 16.

Philanthropist and civic leader Broad (pronounced Brode) who, with his wife, Edythe, has amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art, sought out veteran Italian architect Renzo Piano for a solution. The aim was not only to unify LACMA's campus and provide a showcase for contemporary art, but to give the entire city a focal point, the town square it so sorely lacks.

Piano designed a building to house rotating exhibitions of works from the Broads' collection, augmented by LACMA's holdings. He also devised a master plan to integrate the campus. On Wilshire, an installation by Chris Burden called "Urban Light" (202 vintage street lamps) marks the new entrance as triumphantly as klieg lights at a Hollywood première.

Visitors approach BCAM, Piano's elegant travertine-clad building, through a new Grand Entrance, an open-air, canopied space displaying large sculptures. Public plazas on both sides offer stunning vistas all the way to the Hollywood Hills. A covered walkway, accented with red steel I-beams, links the campus. Twenty species of palm trees (a botanical sculpture by artist Robert Irwin) flank this concourse.

Piano (esteemed architect of the additions to Atlanta's High Museum) entered what he calls a "ping-pong" relationship with Broad, batting ideas back and forth. Broad insisted that 80 percent of the new space be devoted to art – no gift shop, no restaurant. Broad could call the shots because he contributed $60 million to the project. All but 30 of the 178 works on view belong to the Broads and their art foundation, a sort of lending library that loans works to galleries across the US.

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