The Explosion of Museum Architecture


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In case you had not noticed, museum architecture is big business at the moment.  The Architectural Record, a McGraw Hill publication affiliated with the American Institute of Architects, devoted much of its November 2005 issue to museums and commissioned Martin Filler, probably our best architectural critic, to examine this phenomenon as a manifestation of “Patron Power” under the title “Museums and the Maecenas Touch.”  In Europe museums have historically been funded by the state, in America they have tended to be backed by private collectors.

Take, for example, the Seattle Art Museum.  Founded seventy-five years ago by Richard Fuller, primarily as a place to display his Asian art collection, its original home, designed by the distinguished Seattle architect, Carl Gould, was built in a public park and has long been the property of the City of Seattle.  When it needed to expand and could not do so in the park, it acquired property downtown and, with the help of private donors, commissioned Robert Venturi to design a new museum in 1987.  Unfortunately even prosperous Seattle could not raise enough funding to complete the design as Venturi envisioned it.  As a result the Volunter Park Art Moderne building was fortuitously kept for the Asian Art Museum.  Only recently has Seattle’s affluence enabled it to begin a new addition by Allied Works Architects.  In a recent financial report the museum, which is now committed to a renovation of the Asian museum and the creation of an outdoor sculpture park on the waterfront, as well as the downtown enlargement, announced that it had managed to raise $140 million of its announced goal of $180 million from 2000 supporters.

What has caused the “museum mania,” as Filler describes it?  Conventional wisdom suggests that the Guggenheim’s decision to build Frank Gehry’s Bilbaostructure started it all, and there is no question it created a sensation when it opened; but the phenomenon is more complex than that.  The deep-rooted apprehension that was created by the world wars of the twentieth century suddenly made the question of preserving the West’s cultural heritage a matter of broad concern, with museums becoming repositories of the artifacts of those various cultures.  Many ascribe the creation of the first public museum to Catherine the Great, who created The Little Hermitage (circa 1780).  Certainly the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of major museums all across Europe.  The American museums came into prominence in the Gilded Age, the happy progeny created out of the fortunes of multimillionaires like Carnegie, Frick and Mellon.  In a competitive society it became a grave matter of civic pride for emerging urban centers to have a museum as well as a symphony orchestra and an opera house.  (Editor’s Note: In this same period America came to have more newspapers than the rest of the world combined.)

Of all these art patrons, it was the Mellons, with their gift of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., that crystallized the relationship between private wealth and public culture.  As America has become the dominant world power, the assertion of cultural superiority has led to funneling great wealth into more and more public expression.  It is not merely that the wealthy collectors need someplace to display their art but that great wealth these days needs some outlet for a show of public responsibility, either in the form of  projects such as the Ford, Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, or as an enrichment of the community culture.

Complicating this surge of generosity is the rise of prestigious architects in what James S. Russell (also in Architectural Record, 11/2005), in his article, “Architecture Culture vs. Museum Culture,” calls “The Renzo Effect.”  The Genoa-based Italian architect, Renzo Piano, has established a formidable reputation as a museum designer, going all the way back to the Pompidou Center in Paris (1977) through to the High Museum in Atlanta (2005), with two in process in New York City.  However, his major reputation was established after he did two museums in Houston for Dominque de Menil.

It is no accident that Texas has several of the best museums in America, architecturally speaking.  (Late to the game, their collections are good but not, on the whole, great.) Given the harsh strong sunlight of the Southwest, which is destructive to art, these museums were in need of architects who could deal with filtering the sunlight without eliminating it.  The benchmark was set in 1972 with the opening of the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth by Louis Kahn, still to this day considered the finest museum building in America.  Anyone who has visited it on a searing sunny day can not help but be amazed at how Kahn deflected and moderated the sun’s harsh rays.  Fort Worth, once viewed as a cattle town, now has three major museums which incite pilgrimages by museum devotees and wealthy collectors in search of the right design for their own museums (Editor’s note: Kahn, incidentally, did a plethora of noteworthy museum and university architecture.)

Texas, which can take the credit (and probably some of the blame) for what now represents America, created the “designer architect.”  Technically that credit should probably go to Frank Lloyd Wright for inventing New York’s Guggenheim in 1945 (although not built until 1959).  And there is the problem.  The controversy that it provoked, not merely in its siting but in its design, is still with us.  Since the Guggenheim collections were essentially modern and contemporary, it had to make a statement that it was not the Metropolitan or the Frick or any other classical museum. There are those who are still perplexed that Wright created a snail-like building, but he based it on the concept of “architectura,” which in effect declared (as only Wright could) that the architecture was as important as the art.  That concept is still with us although, judging from some recent projects, it is being questioned by museum curators, directors, and trustees who have to pay for building and maintenance.  Interestingly, though American architects still dominate commercial building in this country, they have lost the edge in museum design.  Russell cites thirty major museum projects, of which only half are by native American architects.  The field is dominated by Italian, Swiss and Japanese architects.  Why is this so?

Museums, like concert halls, opera houses, and theaters, are complex structures. Directors and donors tend to go with proven track-records when selecting their architects.  They’re after deep experience.  Take, for example, Tadao Ando, currently dominating the museum design field in America.  Not formally trained as an architect, he has built an impressive record, having designed twelve museums in his native Japan alone before he was invited to design the Pulitzer in St. Louis and the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art.  Many were surprised when Yoshio Tangiguchi, an unknown Japanese architect, was given the much publicized competition to rebuild the N.Y. Museum of Modern Art; but his track-record in Japan was very impressive.  He had produced several examples of the light, airy space that MoMA has espoused ever since its original Goodwin and Stone building (1932).

Since much museum building in the last several decades has been for modern and contemporary collections, the whole approach to design has departed from traditional images.  The architecture itself is part of the art, although some directors and most living artists prefer white-walled boxes.  The Canadian design publication, Azure (10/05), in its cover story on the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, blazoned the headline, “Herzog and DeMeuron’s new DeYoung Museum is a work of art itself.”

When I have lectured on museum architecture, I delineate four types of museums: the new, the converted, the add-on, and the “non” museum.  If the new gets most of the publicity these days, the add-on is the concern of American architects.  Museums in this category tend to be relatively small and located in medium-size cities like Wilmington, Delaware; Saginaw, Michigan; San Marino, California; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. In many of them the additions (as in Cleveland and Akron) are in a style quite different from the original structures.  In others (as in Davenport, Iowa) the municipal city museum was literally abandoned, with a gift from the Figge family used to create an entirely new structure on the Mississippi waterfront.

The most difficult part of “add-on” design is to maintain the spirit of the original building, especially if it is by a famous architect such as in Milwaukee, leaving a distinctive new image, as in Calatrava’s spectacular bird-like addition to Eero Saarinen’s original building.  As several critics have pointed out, while Calatrava’s addition generated much publicity, the actual display area is relatively small.  Nonetheless it certainly put Milwaukee on the art map.

“Add-on” design is not nearly as challenging as converting existing structures to museum use.  Architects are faced with a substantial challenge when they have to revamp libraries, breweries, factories and vacated offices in order to address the particular needs of museums.  No architect has faced this problem more than Gae Aulenti, who converted the Gare d’Orsay in Paris from a train station to the museum for the Louvre’s 19th-century art collection.  Then she converted an old neo-classical remnant of the Barcelona World’s Fair (1929), sitting near Mies van der Rohe’s famous pavilion, into a National Museum of Catalan Art.  Finally in America she was given the unenviable task of converting the San Francisco Beaux-Art public library into an Asian art museum. She has been much criticized for these endeavors, but given the task she faced, they are all commendable examples of adaptive use.

Finally there is the category I call “non” museum, or sometimes “underground” museum. Adding on or creating new museums in well-established areas that either culturally or environmentally do not lend themselves to expansion of existing structures or would lead to the destruction of a natural landscape invites burying them.  An example of the former is Steven Holl’s additions to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.  The original building, sitting in a park, presented many problems.  By designing a series of pavilions mainly underground, Holl has preserved the park and given the museum the additional space it needs.  A similar solution has been planned by Tadao Ando for the second major addition to the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  Its original white marble neo-classical structure was added on to by Pietro Belluschi with a strong dark, stone, modernist structure.  Ando has proposed an addition that will mostly be underground.

By far the most impressive “underground museum” is not in America but in Japan, where I.M. Pei has built the Miho Museum on a mountain top in the Shiga Range east of Kyoto on private land in the middle of a national forest preserve.  He was required by environmental regulations to put 90 percent of the museum underground; that he succeeded so well is a testament to his design and engineering brilliance. 

In my lectures I always end with my choice for the best “non museum.”  It is in the Scheveningen seaside resort of The Hague in Holland.  A wealthy couple, with an immense sculpture collection, decided to give it to the state.  A small neo-classical structure sat on one of the great sweeping sand dunes that characterize the Dutch North Sea coast.  The bulk of the museum was built under the dunes preserving the sea view of the coast, yet permitting the light and space needed for displaying the sculpture.  The essence of Dutch modern design is wed to nature in a fashion which perhaps only a nation that has rescued itself from the sea and has refined a widely admired modern architecture could have achieved.  Instead of being a physical monument as in the past, perhaps the future of the museum should be to reconnect with the physical world. 

Copyright 2006 by Richard L. Francis


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