Broad-Minded Museum

Collecting Collections: Highlights from the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 9–May 19, 2008


Renzo Piano, who turned seventy in September, has amply demonstrated organizational and technical skills that have won him prestigious, skyline-altering jobs of the sort once deemed the summit of architectural success—large-scale urban development schemes and high-profile office towers. But during the past three decades, as the museum superseded the skyscraper as an architect’s dream, Piano became even more important, as the most sought-after specialist in the defining architectural category of our time. Thus far he has completed a dozen museum buildings or additions, and is now planning another five in the thriving offices he maintains in his native Genoa and in Paris.

Taken as a whole—as is done in Renzo Piano Museums—these commissions make up a self-contained body of work within his larger oeuvre, and a veritable checklist of the museum’s myriad present-day incarnations. Piano has designed single-artist museums, expansions for venerable private collections, large additions to encyclopedic institutions, and a Kunsthalle, as well as an ethnographic museum and a natural history museum. This handsome photographic portfolio opens with a cogent but cautious essay by the architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, who regrettably withholds the self-assured and sometimes idiosyncratic critical opinions that enlivened her well-received books, Towards a New Museum (1998, expanded edition 2006) and Art and the Power of Placement (2005).*

Foremost among Piano’s museums is the quartet of exquisite private galleries on which his unrivaled reputation justly rests: the Menil Collection of 1982–1987 and Cy Twombly Gallery of 1992–1995 in Houston; the Beyeler Foundation Museum of 1991–1997 near Basel; and the Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003 in Dallas. These jewel-like showcases elevate the viewing and contemplation of art to an exalted level unsurpassed in modern architecture save for the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, by Louis Kahn, in whose office the young Piano worked at the time of that commission. (Among Piano’s pending projects is a new building for the Kimbell, on a site across the street from the revered original.)

The triumph of Kahn’s Kimbell led to his commission from the Houston collectors John and Dominique de Menil for a private museum. But that scheme was not fully developed when the architect died, suddenly, in 1974, and the job eventually passed to Piano. His Menil Collection building is universally admired in art circles and has become an inevitable destination for museum architectural search committees. It has probably won Piano more work than any of his other buildings, but it has not had the immense impact of his and Richard Rogers’s controversial Georges Pompidou Center of 1971–1977 in Paris, which more than any other museum has altered the conception of the modern art institution—for good or ill, depending on one’s opinion of the widespread developments it set in motion.

Given the proliferation of Piano’s museum practice, his clients can find themselves in the paradoxical position of struggling for press attention despite having hired an architectural superstar. But there has been no lack of publicity for his latest effort, which opened to considerable (if…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.