October 27, 2009

The End of an Epoch?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has an interesting piece in the NY Times. It is titled "An American Architectural Epoch Locks Its Doors," and would seem to be about the end of the era of architecturally exuberant public buildings. Not surprisingly given Ouroussoff's own longstanding exuberance for innovative architecture, the article turns out to be an subtle defense of such buildings.

Ouroussoff argues persuasively that a wide variety of architectural expressions can help to create a richer and more engaging city, especially if they are part of a larger, community-centered urban plan.  He cites Chicago's astonishingly successful Millennium Park as the prime example with its Gehry and Piano's buildings facing off across a park that has intimate connections to a city with a history of architectural innovation and diversity.

As usual, the failures are more instructive than the successes. He cites Dallas' ambitious arts district as a place that still has not succeeded, despite buildings by Foster, Koolhaas, Pei, and Barnes.  He says:
What the planners could not easily overcome was the scale of destruction [of the old neighborhoods], and the resistance many felt toward breaking down old barriers. Nearly 30 years after the plan was unveiled, most of the commercial lots remain empty. And the divisions that continue to separate this enclave of high culture from the nearby communities remain deep.
To Ousousoff the epoch that is over is not one of architecturally distinctive museums, but one where such buildings operate in isolation from their communities. He is convincing when he argues that we need to recognize that architecturally significant buildings must work together with the city's existing urban infrastructure, neighborhoods, and communities in order to succeed.

While subtly defending what some would call "starchitecture," Ourousoff also acknowledges that sometimes exuberant design goes wrong:
The problem with freedom, after all, is that it allows for horrifying imaginative failures as well as works of stunning genius. When artists fail, you can ignore their work. When architects fail, you walk by their buildings every morning on your way for coffee shaking your fist. (The Milwaukee and Denver art museums come to mind.)
Going for a dramatic design and getting it wrong is one risk that museum planners need to assess.
Almost as bad is to have successful design that doesn't fit the community, especially when the real new "epoch" of museum planning is one that is driven by community. As Ouroussoff reminds us, planners need to think well beyond the museum building itself and really understand how the building and its programming engage the neighborhood and serve the local community.

October 6, 2009

The Barnes Museum new design is unveiled

The conceptual design for the new Barnes Museum in Philadelphia has been released, not without controversy, of course. The Barnes is the quirky museum with an astonishing collection of impressionist art that is currently housed in a specially designed building in suburban Philadelphia.  Barnes, like Isabella Stewart Gardner, wanted his collection to remain as he left it, displayed in the building designed for it. The probate court has authorized the Foundation to move the collection to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, where it will be more accessible and generate more revenue to support operations.

The design itself, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, seems remarkably restrained. It attempts to create a garden in the city, similar to the experience of visiting the current museum. They will even replicate the current galleries and hanging locations.

If it wasn't the Barnes, it might be easy to say that I like it.  It seems sensible, clear, and well organized (given the detail that can be seen in plans that are designed for a site plan review).  From a visitor's perspective, the new location will be a boon. Many more people will get to see the art in a setting similar to the original.

But, in the world of art similar to the original isn't the same thing as the original. To Barnes, the garden, the gallery and the art were a unified whole, something to be experienced together--in many ways the combination was a work of art in itself. Recreating the galleries can never recreate the full experience that Barnes intended. The art itself might be more accessible, but the experience of the collection will never again be what Barnes envisioned.

On the other hand, the Barnes Foundation's successful argument to the court was that there was no way to maintain the current facility without additional revenue and other support that would be earned at the new location.

There has been strong opposition to the move and the court case was in the headlines for many months. The opposition will continue as the design works its way through Philadelphia's approval process.  Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi is strongly opposed to the move, as outlined in an article in the LA Times, which also quotes Henri Mattisse who "described the ensemble of architecture, art and gardens as 'the only sane place' for aesthetic experience that he had seen in America."

It appears that the move is inevitable and the planner in me wants to like it, but I will be sure to see the collection in its original location before the new building is completed.

Update:  A thoughtful preliminary review by Inga Saffron in the Inquirer and a better slide show with more renderings.

Update 2: Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times hates it. They also have a slightly different slide show.

Update 3Witold Rybzinski weighs in. (He's not particularly happy with it.)

New Name for the Blog

When I began writing these occasional posts, I wanted to focus on museum architecture.  As it turns out, my interests in those two topics reach into many other areas related to museums, particularly how visitors respond to a museum and its exhibits and programs, and the economic ramifications of the decisions that museums make about their visitors and their buildings.   Oddly enough, these same issues are the ones I deal with in my work. It now makes sense to align the blog and the work more closely, hence the new name and broader scope of interests.

We'll still have a strong focus on architecture, but you can expect more diverse postings about a variety of museuological issues.