Thursday, May 7, 2009
top: © Steven Holl, Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, 2007 (ramp to board room)
middle: Steven Holl's KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (photo MK)
bottom: KUMU Art Museum, Estonia, Tallinn (photo MK)
This post follows up on the question I've been asking museum curators--what museums do you like--and conversations with architect friends--what function is the museum building intended to have?
Today's post by Tyler Green concerning the renovations taking at the National Gallery of Art's East Building raises similar questions. The NGA's lobby was never meant to be for art, but rather, as a gathering and orientation space for visitors afraid of museums (this is another topic altogether). That Green suggests that the NGA's new space by I.M. Pei, opened 1978, is modeled on hotel lobby architecture is a snippy quip--and it feels completely justified. The galleries are a jumble, hoping to suggest the diversity and conflict represented by contemporary art itself. So here's the schism: lobby vs. exhibition space--what should an architect prioritize? What do museums prioritize?
Can contemporary architects create a unique museum identity through the lobby? This issue came to mind during my recent trip to Helsinki for the IKT conference. I had the chance to finally see the Museum of Contemporary Art KIASMA, the break-out Steven Holl building of 1998 sited at a central plaza in downtown Helsinki. The soaring lobby entrance was very welcoming for my group, but the experience of the galleries was confusing--the ramps seemed to take you away from the exhibition spaces, rather than connect them. (No wonder the general public is afraid of museums!)
It was surprising to then experience the lobby at the KUMU Art Museum, in Tallinn, Estonia, which holds the largest collection of Estonian art in the world (and, according to the website, the Estonian character is protected there). The building, by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, is half-buried into the hill to not compete with the palace nearby. While the logic of this is understandable, the resemblance to the Holl KIASMA lobby was beyond astonishing. And this building, too, had the disorienting effect of jumbled, disconnected exhibition spaces--with one exception (stay tuned).
Both these museums bring me to Holl's 2007 Bloch building addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Holl's lobby is webbed with a complex pattern of curving ramps found at KIASMA, with one problem: no-one gathers there!
During my two visits (hi mom!) I noticed that people are still drawn either into the original Beaux Arts building or they scuttle quickly through the Holl lobby towards the light at the end of the tunnel, where the galleries are. The space feels antiseptic. One ramp leads to a board room only--and given the volume of space above, this might be the most expensive board room funders have ever paid for. The galleries are much more logical, but it feels like the staff is still trying to fit too many square pictures into this curved space.
No doubt that museums are in crisis, competing with all the other options in an entertainment landscape. If hotels are more legible than museums, you can understand why Pei designed the NGA lobby the way he did. If the arcing lobbies of the Holl and Vapaavuori buildings seek a zen-like feel, does that undermine the excitement the museum wants the visitor to feel? Do we judge the success of a museum by its lobby now? What happens to the spaces for art in new museums?
Let's hear what museums you like!