San Antonio, Texas. ART Magazine.
For some time there was a debate on whether museum and gallery architecture should reflect its holdings to become a piece of art or that if it should remain sterile to avoid detracting from the artwork. In the book NEW Museums: Contemporary Museum Architecture Around the World by Mimi Zeiger an exploration on the “New” philosophy of museum architecture is started. In the interior, the ideal architecture is still considered to be white walls, good lighting, no windows that distract the viewer, and a very sterile and minimalist architecture that will let the artwork be free to stand on its own world. But how a museum should look like on the outside has been a deeply investigated concept for some years.
After the Guggenheim Museum in New York City opened in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright, its designer, continued the ongoing conversation of how a museum should look like but he also set the path for the museum being a continuation of its holdings: art. Throughout history the role of the museum has adapted to our culture and its architecture has changed according to its function. As critic and historian Jayne Merkel writes in her essay “The Museum as Artifact”, “Not surprisingly, palace architecture—grand, classical, urban, and horizontal—was a principle influence when the first museums were designed. But like most public buildings at the time, they were built in the classical style for other reasons as well, including classicism’s association with government and law (Roman basilicas), with the sacred (Greek temples and Italian Renaissance churches), and with the culture and art of the past”. In the same manner, the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright was designed to be a temple for contemporary art. Its architecture does not limit to the outside, the whole concept of the building revolves around art. From outside, the building has a somewhat futuristic and minimalist façade where a cylinder made of cut across bands stands out from the horizontal architecture. Inside, as one enters the museum, a colossal open cylinder awaits. With a dome on the ceiling and a corridor that moves upward around the cylinder, the viewer is invited to enjoy the artwork while ascending. This infinite looking space was designed to contemplate art and as an extension of the artwork inside serving as a monument for contemporary art.
After Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, other stunning architectural projects followed. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is another remarkable contribution for museum architecture. Frank Gehry’s design goes beyond Lloyd Wright’s intent to create a building devoted to contemplate art. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is covered by metal panels that celebrate innovative building techniques while becoming an art form in its own. The shapes and rhythm of the museum and the relationship between form and context make Gehry’s design move forward from previous museum architecture. Another more recent example of where our architecture is heading to is the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, which was designed by the Mexican architect Fernando Romero. Similarly to Gehry’s Guggenheim, the Soumaya also has metal panels covering the whole structure. However, the Soumaya’s design does not lie in an horizontal structure. Its lines are mostly vertical and its shape is very organic in nature.
Contrary to past museum construction, the “new” museum construction seems to be going up in a vertical axis instead of horizontally, for example, the three museums mentioned above: the Guggenheim in New York, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and most recently the Soumaya museum in Mexico City. In Gothic architecture, the verticality of builidings was supposed to raise the building onto heaven. In the same manner, the new museum architecture is becoming very temple-like posing a spiritual verticality. Also, according to Zeiger in his book New Museums, the museum continues growing into a more populist role where education of the community and interaction is encouraged, similarly to when Napoleon opened the Louvre to display private collections. In Building Design and Construction Magazine, Arthur Rosenblatt, former vice director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now principal with RKK&G Museum and Cultural Facilities mentions seven new trends in museum design: “1. Museum structure as artwork and attractor, 2. Greater emphasis on retail space and restaurants, 3. Grand halls for hosting events, 4. Flexible gallery space for traveling exhibits, 5. More outdoor art and landscaping, 6. Handwiring for technology, 7. Parking becomes a top priority.” The new social function of the museum is determining its architecture becoming a masterpiece of its own.
When it comes to the inside space, there has been thorough exploration for decades as well. One of the most known books about the gallery space and its ideology is Inside the White Cube by Brian O’ Doherty. In this book, O’Doherty discusses our perception of what an ideal space for art is. Our idea of a gallery space comes from the Paris Salon where the walls would be plastered with artwork. Critics and artists back then would complain about this display since the artwork could not be appreciated. We began separating the work to dissect it and analyze it on our white gallery walls. “The ideal gallery substracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that this is “art”. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values. Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics”, writes O’ Doherty.
How important is to contemplate art without added context and distractions? There is a certain feeling of timelessness and detraction when observing art at an ideal space that does not occur when we have busy wall textures, windows, unappealing ceilings, or clips holding artwork. The quality of display not only speaks about professionalism and a polished craftsmanship, but it also interferes with the appreciation of the work. How much does the architecture of a gallery influences the work? Would a piece of art look the same inside a beautiful glass and stained steel architecture than inside an old house that was not designed to hold artwork? As long as the interior setting does not interfere with the piece it might not make much difference. However, the architecture of a building creates a complete experience for the viewer. Contemporary museum and gallery architecture incorporates rhythm, shape, light, and line into the environment that, some argue, might interfere with the artwork. Nonetheless, if interior architecture is kept simple, a stunning architectural design can enhance the experience of the viewer putting him into a psychological mindset for an esthetic exploration.