Wayback Wednesday: Of Museums & Men

MA09In our Mar/Apr 2009 issue, writer Ina Drosu covered the revitalization of several museums by some of today’s most notable architects including Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry. The piece offers insight that is still valuable today, so we’ve republished it online for our readers.

In a world rife with sensationalism, Tadao Ando’s pure-form concrete museums glow like fireflies in a moonless night. One might well call his work “the Anti-Bilbao Effect” — not as a reaction against a highly innovative and successful rehabilitation, but as the inner impetus toward an individualized design aesthetic solely guided by Vitruvius’ precept, which he praised so intently in his Pritzker Award acceptance speech. Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas remain undaunted by trends inflated with the wish to sail like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum.

Ando is not the only one. Gehry himself follows that same creed in the influential IMG_3839
Guggenheim, yet the complex’s 1997 opening seems to have created a phenomenon without borders dubbed the Bilbao Effect: a worldwide increase in museums, trusting that the addition of a fabulous piece of form will revitalize economy and make them intentionally famous.

Randall Stout of Los Angeles-based Randall Stout Architects witnessed his Taubman Art Museum in Roanoke, Virginia spark the building of numerous galleries, restaurants, a hotel, and the repopulation of downtown apartments. Nonetheless, he insists “there has been a confluence of will in a community, beyond the museum as a single institution. The citizenship, investors, and property owners saw the museum as an anchor in a broader re-emergence downtown.”

While some museums have revitalized communities others sit empty and sealed, creating a sense of disillusionment. “I’ve looked at such fabulous buildings without enough money to finish the inside,” says master museum and exhibition designer Stephen Greenberg of Metaphor, U.K. He explains that creating a narrative within the museum is a key element in its success. After the initial impact of an iconic exterior structure, the inner story of the museum entices visitors to return. “Over time the word would get out and people would know you’re offering and amazing experience.”

Still, vanity can only partly explain the billowing boom of recent decades, which is only now slowing down due to general economic hardship. An over-abundance of fashionable private collections is a potential factor, through Greenberg says a lesser one. Hagy Belzberg of LA firm Belzberg Architects says the trend is a response to the outward expansion of museums’ historically urban setting—a growing thirst in a new cultural dynamic.

Pei Zhu of China explains that in prosperous times more money is invested in the civic and culture infrastructure. “The boom may have mostly to do with the increasingly diverse specialization of independent fields of work. The opportunities to present this depth of knowledge results in a legacy of museums that is an investment towards future generations,” he says.

Leaving the contextual causes aside, experts agree that to transform a design into a long-lasting successful art institution, sustainability and integration on architectural, functional and cultural grounds are key. Belzberg’s 2009 Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is a case in point for architectural sustainability and integration. The building’s underground submersion not only allows its lawn-like roof to merge with its park settings, but facilitates climate control and increases insulation, as do the recycled all-concrete-and-steel walls. The roof filters rainwater before running off into the ground and the building materials come from local quarries and mills. “Architects are writing the new narrative,” says Belzberg. “Museums fall under the same category of the new environmental responsibility that we share.”

Zhu calls integrated architecture “Invisible Architecture” that rejoins people to nature because “contemporary art exists not only in the art world, but in the physical world.” The dialogue of this “dual landscape” is evident in his upcoming water-drop OCT Design Museum, the pebble-like Museum of Yue Minjun, and the overlapping leaf-like clusters of the Xixi Wetland Museum.

By itself, environmental integration does not spell out longevity and relevancy, though some treat it as a raison d’être. Fruitful human interaction must be the museum’s primary function: providing a profound learning experience and an opportunity for study in an enjoyable way. London architect Marko Neskovic of Metropolitan Workshop reflected on this connection in the highly complex Museum of Conflict to be built in Tripoli, Libya. This future amalgam of architectural sustainability, social activity, and cultural relevancy pays no less attention to the fact that “architecture is the servant to the content and changing exhibitions,” he says. “Where museum buildings fail is where the architecture takes precedence and inhibits the flexibility that keeps the museum alive,” adds Neskovic.

What used to be the communicative venue for scholars and specialists decades ago must become, as Greenberg says, “accessible to a wider range of audiences, not just by ethnic background or social class, but simply by people’s learning styles.” Here the concept of interaction looms large; through interaction audiences become engaged, engagement engenders understanding, which leads to lasting interest. Greenberg’s holistic approach is based on the premise that the content of a museum is given by an object and not the other way around. He uses everything from audio, films, and graphics to special lighting and installation art to convey it.

The object determines the narrative while the orchestrated pathway to it leads the visitor into a particular kind of encounter. The designer becomes director of a theatrical production having the power to generate profound experiences of great impact and memorable consequences.

A poetic example is the Grand Egyptian Museum, which Greenberg’s Metaphor is restructuring into a grand archeological site. The biggest running stair in the world was created by the initial architect who considered it to be representative of the power of Egypt, and the way to reach the plateau at the height of the pyramids outside. Greenberg recounts: “I asked myself what’s the one monument that the pharaohs never built? There isn’t a single monument that has the cartouches of all the pharaohs, so we transformed this stairway into the Pharaonic hall of fame. The visitor is not just experiencing architecture, but the story, the content, the encounter with the object, the encounter with history.”

Enough interest and ideas exist today to create museums well into the 21st century. What could possibly stand in the way of creating lasting masterpieces? Imagination, knowledge, genius, lack of master-planning, lack of money, lack of time—the list is endless. Frank Gehry might say, just let the organization of the artists sway and keep the political and business interests away.

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