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Yann Novak

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Stillness at the Broad


— Essay

In designing The Broad, Diller, Scofidio and Renfro (DS+R) created a glass skin to harness the atmospheric element that Southern California has in abundance—sunlight. In Southern California, the seasons are marked by the changes in the quality of natural light rather than drastic changes in temperature or the cycle of changing foliage on trees. The transparency of The Broad, which is so essential to its design, both serves a practical design solution as well as pays homage to a Southern California architectural tradition that enables indoor/outdoor living. This style of architecture and living makes its inhabitants aware of the surrounding outdoor environment even while indoors. The benefit to those fortunate to live in structures designed in this manner is that the indoor environment is perpetually shaped in part by the natural environment.

The tranluscence of DS+R’s design constantly reminds museum visitors of the external environment such as the position of the sun in sky, and the atmospheric and weather conditions, all of which effect the experience of the artworks on view. This aspect of The Broad’s design has been overlooked in assessing the museum’s popularity. Much has attributed free admission, popular artists or accessible artworks, but few critics have paid attention to the experience of the visitor once they enter the built environment. The ceiling of The Broad’s main galleries on the museum’s third floor is comprised exclusively of 318 north-facing skylights that filter sunlight into the galleries. Natural light is the best light for viewing art; though light from the sun is also the most damaging type to art. By efficiently filtering natural light into the museum’s main galleries, the architects created an ideal environment for experiencing art.

The inspiration to present Stillness as the first artwork installed at The Broad comes from the many days spent in the museum while it was being built. As the sun moved across the sky and atmospheric conditions changed during the day, the quality of the light would transform the 35,0000 square feet of column- free space. Elizabeth Diller, founding partner of DS+R, asked the museum to host an opportunity for the public to experience the museum’s third floor before the art walls and artworks were installed. Diller’s impetus was to feature the firm’s concepts and intentions that comprised the unique design. To do so, the museum chose to accentuate the architecture by installing two artworks that highlighted the elements that DS+R utilized to create this unparalleled space for viewing art.

By layering digitally altered photographs of the atmospheric qualities of sound, light and color from the Pacific Northwest and Southern California into a wall-size diptych, Stillness successfully transported the experience of the outdoors into the built setting. The installation did so not by trying to recreate nature inside, but instead by deploying the most essential elements of the two distinct climates and locations—hues of the horizon, qualities of the air, density of sunlight, and color of foliage—into an immersive aesthetic encounter.

Stillness also referenced the Southern California practice of the light and space artists such as James Turrell, John McCracken, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and Mary Corse. These artists were concerned with how the formal aspects of objects could affect atmospheric conditions including light into order to engage the perception of the viewer. This artistic movement developed in response to Southern California’s radiant light and its extraordinary impact on the senses. Stillness inaugurated The Broad’s impressive and popular third floor galleries by utilizing digital technology to refashion still photography, light, and sound into a prodigious installation that reinvigorated the practice of the light and space artists for a contemporary audience.

By installing Stillness at a scale that enveloped half of The Broad’s third floor, it placed visitors in a perpetually shifting environment of sound, light, and hue. The instillation of Stillness brilliantly mirrored the experience of the shifting daylight as the sun traveled across the sky and the filtered light transformed the built environment at a tempo determined by nature. In both DS+R’s architecture and in Stillness, the passing of time is experienced as ebbs and flows of shade and hue, which challenges the concept of time as something that can be divided into precise, measurable units. Stillness drew viewers’ attention to the act of perception and viewing. Experiencing the piece became an immersive meditation. Guests came to get a first look at The Broad, and were drawn into the subtle undulating movements of Stillness. Many sat on the opposing wall for long periods of time mesmerized by the barely perceivable changes of texture, hue, and sound.

The sensory experience of Stillness at The Broad was less about a conventional marking of time and more comparable to the experience of viewing a textured abstract painting. Our eyes and minds are trained to grab an impression and instantly access the image. Many contemporary vehicles for conveying visual information from social media to editing for film, television and commercials have forced a honing of this skill. Like viewing the intricately layered hues and textures of paint, the constant incremental movement of Stillness challenged viewers’ perceptive impulses, provoking them to abandon involuntary reflexes to external stimulus, and instead to allow the artwork to set the pace of perception. The same process occurs in meditation when one uses the breadth to quell the flow of random thoughts by allowing the rhythm of respiration guide consciousness. In contrast to the expansive building-width installation of Stillness at The Broad, the true experience of Stillness was intimate and restrained.

Stillness at The Broad was an endeavor to place architecture and art in a symbiotic partnership. The collaboration created an environment that challenged the conceptual and physical dichotomy of the built and natural setting. Simultaneously, it expanded visitors’ somatic experience of art’s and architecture’s potential when they form an aesthetic and conceptual embrace.