Not mere repository, the museum itself is fast becoming the main architectural attraction
There was a time when museums were invariably great big piles that loomed imposingly over the built landscape—square blocks of brick and mortar that really were just outsized versions of grand mansions kitted out with Gothic or Palladian flourishes, depending on the taste of the commissioning trustees. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago, Tate Britain, the Neues in Berlin…
The point is, there was a time when museums were, in the end, despite their grandiose proportions, “just” repositories for the collections they held. One went to the Metropolitan, for instance, to tour the Egyptian collection, or the British Museum for the Elgin marbles. It was rare that the museum itself was, especially for an architectural buff, an equally rewarding incentive for the visit. (A standout exception being the jaw-dropping scale and perfect proportions of the royal palace that became the Louvre.)
This mindset began to change in the 1970s when a museum’s design began to creep centre stage. The precise moment is difficult to pinpoint—Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 eye-catching circular Guggenheim in New York was already a taste of what was to come and, indeed, the shift was well under way by the time Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s 1977 work on the Centre Georges Pompidou—a Pantone-hued building turned inside out with all its internal piping on display—created an instant landmark in a city hitherto best known for the graceful uniformity of its Haussmann architecture.
Barely a decade later, IM Pei scandalised tout le monde with his 1989 groundbreaking work at the Louvre. The glass pyramids were an instant hit with archi-fiends and tourists alike. Very unapologetically, tour buses arrived at the edge of the rue de Rivoli, their engines idling as tourists disgorged for a 15-minute photo op of the incongruous pyramids and then got back onboard for the next stop, invariably Gae Aulenti’s fabulous renovation of the Gare d’Orsay train station into the Musée d’Orsay.
Hardly anyone bothered to pretend they’d come for the artwork.
The Bilbao Effect
What happened after Paris is, of course, well documented. The high-water mark of the museum as an architectural destination in its own right was Frank Gehry’s twisted metal construct for the Guggenheim in the sleepy northern Spanish town of Bilbao in 1997. Overnight, the city generated so much buzz and press and tourist revenue that nothing was ever the same again.
All over the world, cities scrambled to create their own versions of what was being called the Bilbao Effect. If you build it, they will come—they being the tourists and their coveted spend. The scramble continues to this day.
When done well, the effects are spectacular. Herzog and de Meuron’s 2000 work for the Tate Modern transformed a run-down, derelict stretch of London into a thriving art and theatre hub. So effective was the retrofitting of a dilapidated power station into a slick modern art space that it almost immediately outgrew its projected capacity of two million visitors a year. An eye-catching new trapezoid extension due to open in 2016 will push up the Tate Modern’s capacity by 60 per cent and visitor numbers to a whopping five million.
Equally, Norman Foster’s dizzying glass roof for the British Museum brought not just light into the great courtyard but also an appreciative new generation of museumgoers who might normally have been tempted to bypass its superb Greek antiquities for the more garish lights of the nearby West End theatre. Similarly, David Chipperfield’s renovations for the Neues in Berlin have breathed new life into a beloved, if dated, institution.
Meanwhile, expectations are high for Norwegian-American architects Snohetta’s addition to San Francisco’s MOMA, just as Renzo Piano’s extension to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has been applauded for its generous proportions, glassy cascade of terraces and column-less gallery spaces.
Hits & Misses
Of course, the thing about creating a destination museum is that there is no tried-and-tested recipe. Sometimes there are misses, such as Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome, which never quite managed to revive the Flaminio neighbourhood, though part of the blame must rest on its location, the somewhat dull curatorial efforts and the fact that the interiors have almost no straight walls on which to hang anything.
Equally, the most ambitious designs have tended to work best either in disused lots or in cities where the urban planning is considerably more relaxed. Only in countries like Uzbekistan and Qatar could Hadid and Pei have been able to unleash the full extent of their imagination with their designs for the curvaceous Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center and the boxy Museum of Islamic Art respectively.
Designs, however ambitious, are pointless if they are not backed by deep pockets—the SFMOMA extension, a relatively small project, is projected to cost US$610 million—and equally ambitious city planners and private donors. Case in point, Frank Gehry’s spectacular billowing sails that he designed for the US$143-million Fondation Louis Vuitton on the outskirts of Paris would probably never have been built without the personal imprimatur of Bernard Arnault, the fabulously wealthy chairman of the LVMH group.
In this regard, it’s no surprise that China is leading the way in unveiling one gigantic cultural institution after the other, each one a tribute to wide-eyed optimism that the crowds will arrive for its collection of artwork, if not the building itself. On the latter, there are plenty for the eye to feast—not least Norman Foster’s master plan for the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District that will comprise 17 cultural venues including concert halls and 30,000 square metres of arts education facilities. There is also Herzog and de Meuron’s gigantic M+ in Hong Kong, a 60,000 square feet behemoth of modern and contemporary visual culture that, when complete in 2018, will be one of the world’s largest museums of its kind.
In projects of this scale, the spectre of a white elephant looms large, but the daily crowds at museum ticket counters from Berlin to Rome and New York to Singapore are, for now anyway, encouraging. Museum attendances have never been higher. Which is good news for both museum trustees and architects alike.