by Erin Golightly
Editor’s note: Several major new museum buildings set to open within the year are sure to grab global headlines. These include the Shanghai Science & Technology in China designed by ARCADIS; Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates designed by Jean Nouvel; the Berkeley Art Museum/PFA designed by Diller/Scofidio and Renfro, The National Museum of African American History and Culture designed by a collaboration of four firms: The Freelon Group; Adjaye Associates; Davis Brody Bond; and the SmithGroupby and, of course, SFMOMA’s 300,000 square foot expansion designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. USF Museum Studies has been involved in these projects this year, through training, consulting and advising. Given the occasion of these rising new architectural icons, USF museum studies graduate student Erin Golightly sat down with Tanu Sankalia, Associate Professor and Program Director of Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco to re-visit the history of art museum architecture around the world. –Marjorie Schwarzer
In the 1990s and early 2000s, “build it and they will come” seemed to be the consensus for art museums looking to gain global attention as well as attendance. Today, that idea is evolving. From community centers to housing developments, many of the new trends in art museum architecture will unquestionably get visitors in the door but may leave them wondering why. To peel back the layers of meaning and material that make up art museum architecture today, I spoke with Tanu Sankalia, Associate Professor and Program Director of Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco. Professor Sankalia suggests that the role of the architecture of an art museum is, “to create the perfect background for the presentation of art.” However, some trends may suggest otherwise.
For decades, traditional art museum architecture reflected neo-classic roots. The frame and ornamentation of the museum were just as stylized and European as the art inside. The two, representing a trend chosen for the public and deemed popular by wealthy robber-baron collectors, were allowed to coexist. Frank Lloyd Wright who turned the industry upside down. His design for the Guggenheim in New York City positioned the art museum structure as a work of art itself, distinct in its appearance from the rest of the city’s landscape.
Today “starchitects” like Renzo Piano, Yoshio Taniguchi, and Frank Gehry have also envisioned architecture that has transcended our ideas of the art museum’s architectural purpose. Piano turned the walls of a museum inside out, Taniguchi made the structure disappear, and Gehry designed a museum resembling the ships that stood in its place on a once bustling Spanish port. The architectural trends here have transformed the notion of economic development and identified museums as economic engines for cities, on par, as Professor Sankalia describes with shopping malls, theme parks, and other attractions. “The Bilbao Effect”, was inspired by Gehry’s ship-like 1997 Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Once an industry port generating high revenue for the city, this area eventually turned desolate and was in desperate need of revitalization. Then Frank Gehry waved his magic wand and poof Cinderella was ready for the ball.
Another trend in art museum architecture is mixed-use spaces, “the museum and…” fill in the blank. Local examples of this are the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) and Yerba Buena Centers in downtown San Francisco and the soon to be completed SFMOMA building, all within walking distance of each other. The MOAD and Yerba Buena both serve as alternative use spaces where exhibitions can be changed quickly, and the structures themselves fall into a greater landscape, for instance an adjoining park or neighboring hotel. For the new SFMOMA, Professor Sankalia explains, the idea here is to increase the amount of non-ticketed space, adding 40,000 square feet of free access to sculptures, art, and even exhibitions, “integrating free space into the fabric of the city.” Incorporating non-ticketed exhibition spaces could result in an increase in visitors and possibly an increase in membership as well.
The world awaits an array of grand openings on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. Three high profile projects are currently underway on the island. One is a museum designed by Sir Norman Foster dedicated to the personal story of Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayanand and the heritage of the United Arab Emirates. Another is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, being designed by Frank Gehry. And finally the Louvre Abu Dhabi is slated to open in December 2015. Aside from difficult and highly public labor rights issues involving the treatment of construction workers, controversy here comes from the price tag on museum branding, as Abu Dhabi has spent the equivalent of billions of dollars to buy the prestige and international attention that follows the Guggenheim and Louvre institutions. Professor Sankalia raises the idea that arguably, this model reflects an induced and inorganic process of building culture, where many feel time and attention are needed for what would be an evolutionary-like process.
To wrap up our discussion, I asked Professor Sankalia what his favorite art museum was and whether it was because of the art or the architecture. He couldn’t choose just one so we settled for a three-way tie. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, a 19th century neo-classical style structure filled with Vermeers, Breughels, Rembrandts and other jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spent a generous amount of time strolling through the museum when he visited last winter a time of year then the museum was virtually empty. His second vote goes to the Frick Collection on the Upper East Side of New York City. His final choice is the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, France because its bold presence stands as a central magnet attracting people from all corners of the city.