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Museums: Making It New

1.

One of the most powerful and haunting experiences of the retrospective exhibition of work of the artist Bill Viola at New York’s Whitney Museum last year was a double-sided video projection showing a walking man; small and distant at first, the figure advanced slowly and deliberately, until, larger than life, it filled the whole screen on both sides. As the figure grew, flames began to lick at the bottom of the screen on one side, and water appeared to rain down from the top of the screen on the other. While the man’s relentless advance continued, the hot orange flames leapt higher and higher and the cool rain became a torrential downpour. The final images were of a full screen of brilliantly flaming fire, and on the reverse, a drowning avalanche of water. Both figures had been totally consumed.

Once seen, this is impossible to dismiss. It can be read as obvious symbolism—man destroyed and regenerated by his passage through the elements of fire and water. Called “The Crossing,” the work repeats the cycle over and over. It can be taken as a morality play or a stunning piece of visual theater, a deeply disturbing use of the arts of film and sound. An unforgettable image, it transmits something intangible and profound.

That makes it incontrovertibly a work of art. The concept and the techniques push the edges of art, pursuing meanings and ways to deliver them that force the viewer to radically revise what he believes art to be. Does this extraordinary imagery make you confront mortality on the artist’s disturbingly graphic terms? So do the depictions of innumerable martyred saints by Renaissance and Baroque masters; even for today’s secular audience the religious imagery has an inescapable impact. Images from mythology such as Titian’s powerful The Flaying of Marsyus remain visually and emotionally forceful.

Viola filled the Whitney’s galleries with remarkable images. The installation, created by the artist in collaboration with the theater director Peter Sellars, not only drastically altered normal perceptions and sensory responses, it also challenged the museum’s plan, spaces, and traditional purposes. When the lights and projectors and recordings go off, the walls are blank; there is no longer anything there, no art at all. Where sound and image and motion had overwhelmed the viewer there is only a void—empty and dark. The relationship between the building and its contents—the ongoing, difficult, and uneasy connections between art and architecture—like the art itself, no longer visibly exists. Once Viola’s transitory images are gone, the space will be completely transformed.

It is in the art museum that the relationship between art and architecture is particularly sensitive and symbiotic—an interdependence further complicated by the fact that two major arts are involved and are often in conflict. The artist Donald Judd observed that art engages in a special dialogue with the space it inhabits. The thesis of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Towards a New Museum, an unusually comprehensive and insightful exploration of today’s art museum, is that the “dynamic interaction between art and architecture” is the single most important factor in the design of the art museum, ultimately responsible for its success or failure. It affects not only the nature of our communication with the art, but also our perception of the works of art themselves.

The connection between container and contents has been an uneasy, ambivalent, consistently controversial, and passionately debated subject since the first portrait or predella was transferred from a palace or a church to a museum built for the purpose of collection and display. In our own time, this forced marriage has involved architects, designers, directors, and curators who have conspicuously and variously addressed, ignored, or misunderstood the importance of the alliance. The ambience provided by the setting can diminish the art or raise the viewer’s responses to an exalted level. The relationship is the secret of a great museum.

Perhaps because of this challenge, the art museum is among the most coveted of architectural commissions. It provides the opportunity for the advanced and experimental design that legitimizes architecture as art as opposed to its more pragmatic practice. But the museum is also an institution buffeted by unprecedented changes in art and society and subjected to questioning about its public purposes; in the critic Arthur Danto’s words, “the manifestations of chaos in what once had been the serenity of tempular space” is another challenge that requires the rethinking of the museum’s aims, form, and content. Danto does not find it surprising that these new museums should be “among the most brilliant architectures of the Post-Modern age.”1 The commission for an art museum has brought international celebrity to more than a few architects; the most obvious example is Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

In the minds of many, the museum is the cathedral of our time. It is a “sacred space,” in Victoria Newhouse’s words, that provides the serenity and splendor, the feelings of awe and reverence, the opportunity for contemplation and enlightenment essential to the human condition. Clare Melhuish, in her analysis of the “museum as a mirror of society,” writes that the museum translated the sacred into the secular; established as a civic monument it has become a community center,2 a place peculiar to this century that uniquely combines inspiration, instruction, and entertainment.

The museum is still the sacred space defined by the classical Beaux-Arts imagery of the nineteenth century, with its processional route of grand entry, great stairs, and formally aligned galleries that encouraged the hushed, elevated ambience, the “aura” that the nineteenth century, with its reverence for the awesome and sublime, perceived as essential to the experience of art. The aura is still there today, in even some of the most radical new buildings—Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Kiasma, the recently opened Museum for Contemporary Art in Helsinki, by the American architect Steven Holl, are conspicuous among those that employ a startlingly different architectural vocabulary for essentially the same ends.

These museums, and others like them, expand the sensory and intellectual experience of being in the building as a physical and spiritual corollary to the demands of new kinds of art. At both Bilbao and Helsinki, soaring curves and angles and free-form spaces enclose us in a giant, light-filled sculpture. Space is literally reshaped and so is our understanding of it. Stairs, walkways, and ramps are constructed with open views, combining circulation of visitors with constantly changing perspectives of the interiors and their exhibits. Moving through the building, we experience visual revelations and visceral sensations unlike any we have known before.

Somewhere at the heart of even the most unusual of these structures, there tends to be a more conventional series of grand, skylit galleries to accommodate a more traditional kind of art. They occupy a central space crossing the axis of the building at Bilbao, and they form one side of the Helsinki museum. James Stirling’s much-visited Stuttgart Staatsgalerie features a traditional enfilade of exhibition galleries, and Rafael Moneo’s Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm provides superbly lit and proportioned rooms of familiar configuration. But the classic idea of an atrium and a dome, when it survives, or of recognizable rooms in a linear plan, has been stretched, warped, and twisted to relate to the new forms of art that go beyond the painted surface or the sculptured form for complex and even cinematic effects: the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari frequently come to mind.

No wonder the architecture often gets most of the attention. Writing about recent museums, the German critic Claus Kapplinger points out that it is not uncommon for the building, rather than the collection, to be the main attraction—as has been the case with the Pompidou Center at Beaubourg, where many tourists never enter the museum, preferring to ride the dramatic exterior escalator for the spectacular view. Architecture provides the recognition factor and the publicity value that attract visitors and are useful for marketing.3 Museum boards of directors understand this—they routinely seek “signature” buildings from celebrity architects through international competitions.

Frank Gehry’s commission for Bilbao was preceded and followed by several Gehry museums in different parts of the world. Richard Meier, the architect of the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, has also built the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona and a decorative arts museum in Frankfurt. A Spaniard, Rafael Moneo, won the competition for the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, and a German, Josef Kleihues, was chosen for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Tadao Ando, with a long list of museums in his native Japan, is building a museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is the work of another Japanese, Arata Isozaki, and a Swiss, Mario Botta, was selected for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The job of redesigning and expanding the Museum of Modern Art in New York has been given to a Tokyo architect, Yoshio Taniguchi.

Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi who favors angled planes on an aesthetic collision course in designs of abstract, prismatic beauty, was selected recently for arts buildings in Cincinnati and Rome. Hadid is more widely known among architects for her unbuilt designs than for her completed work; anything she builds is bound to raise a city’s cultural visibility. Some museums are constructed before there is much of a collection to be seen—the Galician Center of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, has a constant stream of visitors, with very little art on its walls.

The drawing power and financial byproducts of these new museums make them important for urban and economic renewal. The most spectacular example is the Bilbao Guggenheim, with its softly gleaming, titanium-clad, cloud-like shapes that provide both a dramatic new civic image and a revitalizing force for a depressed industrial city. This $320 million gamble—the Basque government paid the bill in exchange for collections and administration from New York—bet the future of the city on culture and tourism. It appears to be paying off; the first year brought crowds far beyond estimates. The building has quite literally put the Spanish city on the map.

The new museums tend to be as different as their patrons, programs, and collections. Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Museum, built for a private collector of classic modern art in Basel, Switzerland, is a gentle and seductive building of extraordinary refinement and sensitivity to its setting, carried out with suave expertise in every beautiful detail. In contrast, the electrifying shock of the hard-edged minimalist geometry of Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus for exhibitions of advanced art in Bregenz, Austria, ignores nature to create its own, enclosed identity; it is an austerely elegant building that jolts one awake to an awareness of the untried and unknown.

2.

Regardless of style, the new museums depend on the money and prestige, the allegiance and support of members of an international power elite who use cultural philanthropy to testify to their social and financial success. But this kind of patronage carries less of a guarantee than when royalty was in charge; galleries in our best institutions change donors’ names with alarming frequency. (The André Meyer galleries in the Metropolitan Museum, established only twenty years ago, no longer exist.) The most conspicuous architectural monument of our time, the corporate skyscraper, has turned out to be less an instrument of immortality than a real estate investment. The museum makes position and power real.

  1. 1

    Arthur C. Danto, review of The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age, by Douglas Davis (Abbeville, 1990), in The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 22, No. 5 (November/December 1991), pp. 183-185.

  2. 2

    Clare Melhuish, “The Museum as a Mirror of Society,” Architectural Design (November/December 1997), pp. 22-25.

  3. 3

    Claus Kapplinger, “Architecture and the Marketing of the Museum,” Museum International (October/December 1997), pp. 6-9.

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