March 20, 2008

More on the Broad/BCAM

A not particularly enthusiastic Martin Filler weighs in on the Broad/BCAM in "Broad-Minded Museum" in the New York Review of Books. Couched as a book review of Renzo Piano Museums, by Renzo Piano with an essay by Victoria Newhouse, this long essay puts the BCAM into the context of Piano's other museum work.

Bilbao Fatigue

Good piece in Architectural Record called "Debunking a myth about museums that pay for themselves." A snippet:
Today’s architectural post- traumatic-stress syndrome—call it Bilbao Fatigue—was brought on by a glut of increasingly outrĂ© museums calculated to attract media attention, rather than enhance understanding of art. Copious evidence confirms the folly of overspending spurred by the premise that extravagant museum expansions will pay for themselves with increased attendance and tourism revenues.

March 18, 2008

The new "Newseum" in Washington, DC

On a recent visit to DC to make a presentation at the Building Museum conference I was fortunate enough to get a pre-opening tour of the the brand new Newseum, a museum of news sponsored by the Freedom Forum. The museum's mission is to help people to understand the role of freedom of the press in building and sustaining a democracy, hence its location in the heart of Washington, DC on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the National Archives and in view of the Capitol.

The museum's architect is the Polshek Partnershp with exhibit design by Ralph Applebaum. Polshek is perhaps best known for his work on the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Applebaum is best known for the Holocaust Museum in DC. The project budget is officially $350 million with and additional $100 million for property acquisition. (This seems low for a building of 650,000 square feet with 250,000 square feet of exhibits.)

As befits its location, the building is in many ways a monument to the first amendment--a six-story stone panel with the first amendment engraved in it dominates the facade.  The panel both announces the museum's mission and gives a solidity and permanence to the building that is appropriate for its generally stodgy setting. The rest of the building is lighter and unabashedly modern --lots of steel and glass--and fits comfortably into its context, with massing similar to the Canadian Embassy which is next door.

In its seven stories, the museum has what have become the usual museum tropes: a soaring atrium; the requisite cafe, store, and upscale restaurant; iconic objects; multiple party spaces (four different events can take place at once); and lots and lots of media. It also has a two story conference center--apparently sorely needed in downtown DC, plus a significant apartment tower at the rear. 

I liked a lot of things about it:
  • The several hundred daily newspapers from around the world that are updated daily.
  • The consistency of the message--they hammer you with the first amendment, and we need that.
  • The atrium space that works to both impress and to orient. As you move through the building, it is always clear where you are.
  • The three oversized glass elevators designed to take 50 visitors at a time to the top floor where the exhibits start--and which are popular as bars when they have big parties.
  • The huge video screen that dominates the atrium--more impressive the nearby helicopter--and that works.
  • The idea that they are continually producing all their own media in house--although I think the daily papers are richer and more compelling.
In an hour and a half tour, we couldn't see much of the exhibits, but they looked promising. Much of the interpretation will take place in the 15 theater spaces scattered throughout the exhibits. It will be interesting to see how this all works with the anticipated million visitors a year.

There were a number of things that I wasn't sure about (the 4D theater, some of the artifacts, some of the messages), but I want to see how these play out after opening before offering any opinions.

The Newseum opens April 11th and will have an admission fee of $20 for adults.

(Thanks to Mark Hayward for the photos.)

March 14, 2008

The NY Times' special Museums section

The NY Times' latest special Museums section has a number of interesting articles (log in may be required).  First, a cautionary look at museum directors who leave after a major building project. The article offers a wonderful overview of the challenges of shepherding a new building to completion. One tidbit of oft-forgotten common knowledge stands out:

Too often, Mr. Wilson said, building plans are sealed with a director’s promise to lift local employment, revitalize urban centers and lure out-of-towners. “Expectations are based on hype,” he said. “And directors go along with it because they can’t raise the money any other way.”  The good news is that for a year after the opening of a new building, a major spike in attendance can be expected. The bad news is that attendance consistently levels off after two or three years. That’s when directors typically depart.
Other pieces are as interesting, including a nice overview of how museums are becoming centers for special events, coverage of new exhibits at the NSA's Museum of Cryptology, and a good piece on "Creative Visions, but for Millions Less" where we are reminded that "Good design doesn't know finance." Amen.

Update: The Washington Post has an interesting museums section as well.

March 7, 2008

New Autry Center in LA

The Autry National Center in Los Angeles has just announced their new master plan, which includes a fully integrated landscape plan. The overall plan looks good, but is especially compelling as explained by the architect, Brenda Levin FAIA, in this video. It is highly contextual--in an interpretive rather than an architectural sense--which is perhaps why I find it appealing.

Update: Here is the L.A. Times on the plan: Natural look planned for Autry Museum

March 5, 2008

Visiting BCAM

I had a chance to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new Broad Contemporary Art Museum last week. (LACMA would have us call it "B Cam," not "the Broad.") The new building was was designed by architect Renzo Piano whose most recent museum project was a major addition to the High Museum in Atlanta. 

In a recent post, I dismissed the Time's architectural review as perhaps holding the building to too high a standard. But after seeing it in person, even with more modestexpectations, I too was disappointed. With his mix of marble and bright red steel, Piano seems to be striving for a mix of playful and formal. Theoverall effect, however, is neither one nor the other. The stairways soften the large mass, but also distract from it and I end up wondering"what is this place?"

Fortunately, the two amazing third floor galleries make up for the mish-mash of the exterior. The ceilings are all glass and let in an enormous amount of natural light, which is controlled by the louvers above. Each gallery is a fully open 10,000 square feet, perfect for the large scale pieces on display--and perfect for the parties sure to happen here on a regular basis. The other four galleries (the museum has two on each of three levels) are the same size and height and also offer exceptionally flexible space for installations. Sadly, these other galleries don't have the wonderful skylighting.

Piano's site plan is also meant to tie together the very long LACMA site. Piano's solution does connect the dots, but overall the site still feels like a jumble. The new atrium in the Ahmanson building provides a connection, but seems neither a part of the old plaza above or the new plaza below. More light might help.

I like how the new lamp post sculpture on Wilshire Boulevard defines the new entrance. The covered pavilion that is at the center of the new site organization underwhelms. The flat surface sits about 20' off the ground and feels dark, utilitarian, and somewhat oppressive on a sunny LA day. It is also clearly designed for parties, but offers none of the sophistication evident in so much of Piano's work. As the first experience of the museum, this space should be more graceful and more welcoming. 

The Times was also critical of the museum's opening exhibits, finding them to be not adventurous enough. I am a fan of contemporary art, but hardly an aficionado, and I found the exhibit very satisfying. The Serra sculptures on the f irst floor did seem cramped and could have used another 20' over them, but were still remarkable to walk around and through. The other pieces were in scale with the spaces and offered a rich variety of experiences and prompted interesting discussions with my companion. As a somewhat typical visitor, I found the opening exhibit just right.

Despite my reservations, does it succeed?  Absolutely. The new building is distinctive and well organized.  It is a good, and sometimes exceptional, place to experience art.  The new site organization adds clarity and structure that will be easy to enhance in the future and that visitors will find easy to navigate.  This is a solid step in the right direction with a clear path to the future.