Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum Part III

This is the final in a three-part series by architect Eddie Jones on the topic we’ve been debating for years: Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?

Eddie Jones:
In Fort Worth, Texas, you will find THE museum. There is a large, tree shaded, grass covered park. Crossing the park—soft steps, birds singing—you approach a gravel court, passing under a tree canopy and find a composition of sixteen large concrete vaults.

image courtesy the blogger

This is the Kimbell Art Museum, designed in 1972 by Louis Kahn. The Kimbell is considered the touchstone of art museums by which all others, new and old, are measured. The architecture is simple, repetitive, functional and most importantly, beautiful. People will go see the Kimbell regardless of the collection. No one can attend an exhibition and ignore the building. Generally everyone of any age, income, or education level will leave knowing they have had an unforgettable experience. The curators are happy, fundraisers never break a sweat, Fort Worth and Texas covet the bragging rights. Believe me, there is not an architect alive who would not honor this building.

Fortunately there are other excellent examples of architecture daring to be great, yet not at the expense of art exhibition. Many of the best museums are from the hand of Renzo Piano--The Menil Collection and Twombly Gallery, Houston (Texas again!); the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; and the Chicago Art Institute expansion.

Typically a new museum is commissioned by a municipality, foundation, institution or private patron. Apparently, there exists a misconception one has to make one of only two choices: between iconic, knock-your-socks-off architecture, or a program which recedes so the art projects. Frankly I am all for diversity! America is defined by diversity and we can never have too many museums, and we are in no danger of too much architecture. So bring it on!

Perhaps the rarity of another Kimbell makes the accomplishment that much more valuable. However, the aspiration remains the worthiest of goals, one to which I am intellectually aligned.

Marilu response:
Eddie raises some really important issues for me. What is the niche, core business of a museum in today's multi-media world? How do museums become as dynamic and interactive as the other entertainment options available to us today? How do new theories in visual literacy help our field understand our changing role within our communities?

When I visit museums I have many experiences, intellectual, physical, emotional, aural. How does the space embrace or reject me; what decisions have they made to foreground free, public access versus an immediate jump into the business end of the place, the galleries? How do all the art forms work together, or are traditional material separations kept in order? The answer depends on the type of museum you have, but often, non-aesthetic concerns swamp the delicate nature of space and art so that both seem compromised.

I was at the Kimbell in the spring for my first visit. After everything I had hear and read about the building I was somewhat disappointed--I've been trained to want bigger and better, shame on me!

While it was clear the space was elegant and well calibrated, I found the spaces overhung and ticky-tackied up with temporary panels holding one work each. I was thrilled to see the "new" Michelangelo panel, and loved the "for adults only" section of the "Love in the Renaissance" show (I had never heard of a birth tray before). Overall, however, the museum building should work on concert with the art works contained therein, and even the Kimbell felt pressed upon to give the appropriate honor to its objects. Even a glorious building can fail if its primary function--to celebrate and frame art--is overwhelmed by other issues.

This, ultimately, is the crux of my point with Eddie--the museum building still must serve its intended purpose, or it might just as well be a hotel or supermarket. While the other museums he mentioned have many great works of art and real iconic presence, they seem beholden to the Kahn.

Which museums, then, DO I like, for their chaos or control, their illumination or their modesty?

The Beyeler Foundation in Basel. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. The Louvre, Paris. The Coptic Museum, Cairo. The Broad Foundation, Santa Monica. A fancy one in Seoul whose name I can't remember, and I imagine the new contemporary space in Beirut is crisp in its elegant simplicity. Each is what it truly is, a product of its place and time.

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