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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.

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The inaugural exhibition at BCAM is housed in 60,000 square feet of column-free, loftlike gallery space, divided into two symmetrical wings united by a core of glass housing a giant elevator. An open-air, "Renzo red" escalator (dubbed "the spider") whisks museumgoers to the third floor to begin their visit. In luminous galleries lit by louvered skylights, natural light makes color virtually pop off canvases by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly. Each major figure from 1945 onward (including Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Jeff Koons) has a gallery to himself.

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The only problem is that descending to the second floor seems like a comedown. Those galleries, showing works by more contemporary figures such as Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman, are lit by artificial light and seem dim in comparison. The first floor, occupied by Richard Serra's two massive sculptures, one of which ("Band") consists of 200 tons of rusted loops of steel, is brightened by large sheets of glass.

Michael Govan, who joined the museum as director less than two years ago after construction had begun, contributed the idea of animating the Wilshire Boulevard facade with commissioned artworks. Two 52-foot banners by California conceptual artist John Baldessari "become part of the energy of the building," according to Mr. Govan.

In an "Architect's Statement," Piano seeks to blend what he calls "the spiritual and emotional uplift of art" into the round of everyday life. Unlike famous architects such as Frank Gehry or Daniel Libeskind, Piano has no signature, sculptural style, other than his insistence on a communal piazza and idiosyncratic rooflines (here presented as a sharp, shark-fin profile).

Like the southern California school of "light and space" artists such as Irwin and James Turrell, who dissolve their artworks into dazzling light to elevate the viewer's perception, BCAM appears like a mirage of simple form punctuated by vivid color. The new additions fulfill Irwin's mandate for a work of art: "to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is."