Feature: Form vs. Function

  • David D’Arcy

Visit the office of an art museum director, and you will probably see works of art hanging on the walls, maybe even a sculpture on a shelf. But one thing you are almost certain to find is a strategically placed table holding a model of a new wing or building, with a hard hat nearby. Art museums are now among the country’s foremost tourist attractions, but for some museums, it seems their success is just not enough. Approximately $3 billion to $4 billion is currently earmarked for museum construction in the United States, far less than what is being spent on art to fill those buildings.

New museum buildings planned in Washington, D.C.; Biloxi, Miss.; and downtown Manhattan are the work of Frank Gehry, the architect whose gleaming Guggenheim Bilbao transformed the image of a grimy Spanish city once famed for its terrorism and not much else. Projects in Dallas, Chicago, and Manhattan come from the office of Renzo Piano, the Italian architect of the Pompidou Center in Paris. An ocean liner of a building by Dutch architecture star Rem Koolhaas is the current design for the future home of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Koolhaas has also drawn up plans for an addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In these times of architecture stars, museum design projects can seem like the movie business, where, as the saying goes, 90 percent of the job is casting. Choose the right architect, and all else will fall into place. Yet the greatest challenge in museum architecture may come after the ribbon has been cut. Recent history has shown that sculptural buildings that look perfect in sketches or at an opening gala can turn into nightmares when curators try to hang paintings or when the public arrives en masse.

Museums from New York to California now have no choice but to renovate the work of prominent architects, often to accomplish the most basic tasks. The case drawing the most attention so far is the Museum of Modern Art’s current renovation and expansion of its 1983 Cesar Pelli–designed headquarters, a visitor circulation nightmare. Before the $650 million rebuilding project began, another celebrity architect, Michael Maltzan of Los Angeles, created what will be MoMA’s temporary home for at least the next three years by renovating a boxy stapler factory in Queens—with art installed as if it were inventory waiting to be moved. Uptown from MoMA, Thomas Krens ignored preservationists and grafted a huge slab of galleries, offices, and elevators by architect Charles Gwathmey to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fifth Avenue Guggenheim spiral—completing Wright’s unrealized original intention, Krens contends.

In most cases, renovations have not been attempts to outdo or complete the work of the original architect, but rather necessary adjustments so that artwork can be properly presented or shielded from the elements or from criminals, or so that visitors can find a rest room. The post-opening adjustment to the $1 billion J. Paul Getty Center in Brentwood, Calif., that was designed by Richard Meier involved immediate changes to handle the volume of visitors that paralyzed its futuristic monorail and clogged its few rest rooms.

In and around Los Angeles, museum renovation sometimes seems to mirror one of the city’s thriving industries: plastic surgery. The Hammer Museum is receiving a nip and tuck to its original building, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes of Boston and opened in 1990, which had the look and feel of a corporate mausoleum. No slab of marble went unused during construction, large areas were simply left empty, and public spaces were inadequate for the museum’s needs. The institution also was broke, because its namesake, the Occidental Petroleum magnate Armand Hammer, contributed no operating funds.

In 1994, the museum merged with the nearby University of California at Los Angeles and created an endowment by selling a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript owned by Hammer to Microsoft’s Bill Gates for some $28 million. The improved site has been rebranded as the UCLA Hammer Museum. While the marble entry on Wilshire Boulevard will retain its faux grandeur as renovation continues, the back entrance will act as a portal to new public spaces and to the workings of the museum itself. Directed by the now-ubiquitous Maltzan, the designer Bruce Mau, and the landscaper Petra Blaisse, the $25 million renovation is enduring so much public scrutiny that it might prevent the need for another renovation in 10 years.

In Las Vegas, where casino owner Steve Wynn is building a new home for his art collection, the most popular solution to architectural inadequacies has always been to dynamite an old building and erect a new one. Wynn is doing just that at the site of the now-razed Desert Inn, where a grander resort, Le Reve (named for a Picasso painting that Wynn owns), will house his collection. For museums, however, simple demolition is rarely an option, as much as some wish it could be. Trustees for whom the building is a museum’s most valuable work of art remain attached to the structures, even if they do not function. No one likes to admit failure, especially after fund-raising campaigns touted architectural genius to secure monies.

Still, demolition might be the simplest solution for structures such as the Wexner Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, which opened just 13 years ago. At $40 million, New York architect Peter Eisenman’s first constructed public building was considered a work of art in its own right, which would lure exhibitions, artists, and perhaps even give a worldly frisson to a frumpy town. However, the trophy building leaked, its lighting system made exhibitions difficult to mount, and the climate control system was below museum standards. Employees called it a disaster, and critics say that, from its design stage, the building was treated as an aesthetic experiment rather than as a traditional exhibition space by Ohio State and its funder, the retailer Leslie Wexner of The Limited and Victoria’s Secret fame. Director Sherri Geldin has called its problems engineering flaws in an experimental building. She has expressed hope that last year’s decision to renovate will preserve the building’s “design uniqueness,” while conceding that the art had been forced to battle with its surroundings.

Most museum directors stress that they want art to be in harmony with, not at war against, a building, which leads to the question of whether art can save architecture, or whether a building’s supposed flaws actually reflect a weakness in the artwork. “There is something about this building that brings the very best out in strong work,” Geldin has noted. “Artists who are capable of sparring with this building have superb results. If you can’t hold up to the challenge, it becomes quite evident.” Museum insiders say that some lenders and donors became wary about having their art spar with the building, and have taken their pieces elsewhere.

In the case of the Morgan Library in Manhattan, the success—not the failure—of the previous renovation has led to the latest redesign. Renzo Piano’s new $125 million project will add gallery space, an auditorium (reportedly to seat 350), and storage space for rare materials—the core of the Morgan’s collection of books and works on paper—at its Madison Avenue site, which was last renovated just 10 years ago. After its airy, leafy atrium opened in 1992, museum attendance increased, shop sales quintupled, and revenues from events in the space rose. “Its success bred its demise,” says Bart Voorsanger of Voorsanger & Associates, who designed the Morgan’s 1992 expansion. Voorsanger notes that the appeal of the garden court, which he created with his modest renovation, led to the current mammoth undertaking that could demolish his firm’s work. “You live by the sword and you die by the sword.”

Despite the drawing power of a well-designed renovation or addition, a museum should be judged primarily on its contents, not the building that houses them, says Phillipe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is in the midst of its own expansion project (albeit one that is difficult to notice because the Met is restricted to its existing footprint alongside Central Park in Manhattan). “What worries me a little bit is today’s rhetoric and what the emphasis is,” says de Montebello. “A major American journal wrote after the opening of the Tate Modern [a vast former power station on the Thames designed by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron], ‘Now the Tate stands head and shoulders over the Pompidou Center in modern art in Europe.’ Now they have this great industrial building converted, but their collection stayed one-twentieth that of Pompidou. So you mean suddenly they have this great space, and they’ve become a more important museum than Pompidou? The collection hasn’t changed.”

At the newly named American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, the firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects offered an alternative to the traditional grand museum monument. Located where two brownstones once stood, and adjacent to a huge pit that will eventually hold the new MoMA (for which Williams and Tsien submitted a design that was not chosen), the folk art museum has a facade of distressed steel. Inside, natural light passes through glass walls from roof to basement. It is too small for crowds, and in some narrow spaces, works are shown vertically or objects are installed in staircases. “The building was conceived to hold its own collection and not to compete with its neighbor,” Williams says. “Certainly, we wanted to avoid bigness. We thought it one of the great opportunities here. Just as MoMA needs to grow and be even bigger with larger and larger accommodations, folk art is really done by the individual, and so we said, ‘No, this really needs to be a kind of house of art.’ In fact, it intentionally went against the flow of a museum type that we know today.”

Williams and Tsien’s approach succeeds because it creates a synergy between the building’s design and its contents. So far, museums in Toledo, Providence, and Washington, D.C., have seen the writing (or the cracks) on the wall and are offering their own modest proposals for structures suited to their collections, and to budgets in the range of $25 million to $40 million. They could have company when donors recognize that specificity, not scale, is the key to museum design. After all, no one wants to pay another architect to get the same building right 10 years later. 

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