The Architecture of Art Museums: A Decade of Design, 2000–2010 Ronnie Self
PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH HACKLER.
Ronnie Self’s thoughtful assessment of 16 art museums built in the United States and Europe over the first decade of the 21st century is a welcome guide in charting the most formally enigmatic building type of our time. Though challenged by the expansion of virtual aesthetic experiences occurring in non-places — or, as Andre Malraux put it in the 1960s, “the museum without walls” — the art museum has actually flourished in a parade of attention-grabbing new buildings in many different shapes, conceptualizations, and programmatic agendas. This book doesn’t try to steer a critical path through these expensive experiments (or indulgences, in some cases); rather, it presents the buildings evenhandedly in photographs, comparative plans, and section drawings. Pertinent technical sections should prove of most interest to architects and, it is to be hoped, students. Most of the projects also include a conceptual image, sketch, or study model. These graphics enhance the story of the buildings by explaining, for instance, how Zaha Hadid envisioned the blocky design for Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center through a vertical topography modeled in Lucite. The book is full of rich details like Bernard Tschumi’s Corbusier-like diagrams that feel out the sinew and spatial organization of
the winding path, which became the parti for his Acropolis Museum. But a collection of images and nice drawings does not a book make; it’s the writing that makes this book stand out. There is a relaxed, narrative quality here that manages to cover all the bases — site, clients’ desires, program, concept, construction, and how the building works — without appearing formulaic. It’s an architect’s book with an informed architect’s point of view. Self, who is associate professor at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, worked as a design architect in Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Paris office, where he was architect in charge of the Atelier Brancusi for the Centre Georges Pompidou. how these buildings accommodate the fundamental conjunction of art and patron. The results are not always so successful. Rather than dwell on problems, the author usually lets his observations speak for themselves, appreciating the experimental nature of most of these buildings while noting points of concern. In a few cases, notably the Denver Art Museum (DAM) designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind, Self is more emphatically critical: He acknowledges that, while there are few rules for a contemporary art museum, DAM seems to have “stretched them further.” The ensuing paragraph mulls over the need for limits or a critical framework for considering future museums, concluding that DAM comes across Self’s priority is to feel out
as more intimidating than sensational and more self-conscious than accommodating. It’s a nice little miniature essay. To make the situation more complex for me, I agree with nearly everything Self says about DAM, but I still find myself enjoying the anarchic spectacle and wondering again how some architects are able to move their client boards into such adventuresome territory. The art museum is the iconic building type of our time, but a cursory review of this collection leads me to think these museums come in two types. Some, like DAM or the Kunsthaus Graz designed by Spacelab Cook-Fournier, don’t have much to say about the building of art museums per se. They are super individualistic, and cities or boards build them with big ambitions that they will become urban markers — destination sites — just like what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao did for Bilbao. Other museums seem to be more deliberately evolutionary — Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth or most any Renzo Piano-designed museums. They are based on careful planning, organization, the accommodation of the art, the spectator encounter, and the quintessential quality of light. In these buildings, one can read, if not prototypes, at least patterns and insight for another generation of art museums. Bruce C. Webb is emeritus professor at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture.
Texas Architect 21