February 19, 2011

A Musical Review of the New World Symphony

There have been lots of architectural reviews (Witold Rybczynski likes it, too. See his review, Frank Gehry is Back, on Slate.)

More interesting is the review by the New Yorker's music critic, Alex Ross.  He looks at the building not as a work of architecture, but from the owner's perspective as a place that works for the students who are there, but as important, as a place that inspires new interest in classical music.  Apparently it fulfills both parts of the program beautifully.

As a performance space, the concert hall and the park are anything but "classical" and that seems to Ross to be a good thing. He was especially impressed with the quality of the sound in the outdoor sound system (167 speakers):
The [outdoor] speaker system has enormous impact, but without the fuzzy bloat typical of outdoor amplification. A few artificially beefy bass notes aside, it captures, to an amazing degree, the airy power of sound reverberating in space.
Outdoor speakers are in a series of tubes that rise from the landscape of the park.
An audio slide show is here. The article may or may not be available here. (The New Yorker is protective of their content.)

This is the kind of review that we need for museums.  It looks at how well the building fulfills the owner's program rather than focusing on the sculptural qualities of the building. Architectural reviews are useful, but they are only one part of the mix of what makes a building If only we had more museum reviews, like this one, that weren't focused primarily on the sculptural qualities of the building, especially one as ambitious and complex as this one.

Missed Connections at Boston's MFA

I was finally able to visit the new wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts last weekend. The architecture critics have hashed it over and, I think, generally get it right: It works well, but there is no passion there. (See Ada Louise Huxtable in the WSJ, for example.) The lack of passion perhaps means there is lots of room for art. The galleries are well proportioned, nicely lit, and the installations are just lovely. And, thankfully, my favorite paintings are now back on view.

A few notes:

Enviable circulation: The museum now has a circulation system that most large art museums would envy. Galleries flow out from the original central axis and it is remarkably easy to find one's way around. This is the beauty of several large additions (Pei and now Foster) instead of the hodge-podge of many small ones.

Atrium at the end of the day. Typically, it is filled with people.
Counters on wheels!
An Italian square in the middle of the museum: The new atrium space is inviting, despite the Foster-chill of slate, steel, and glass. It is used as a cafe during public hours, and was packed full of people and had a little of the feel of an European public square. That's good for visitors and the bottom line, but the best part of it is that all of the serving counters are on wheels.  Everything is modular and can be unplugged and rolled away (or reorganized) for the major events the space was designed for. It is, again, like that Italian square that is a local market in the morning (fish, veggies, flowers), a cafe at lunch and dinner time (tables and chairs), and a night club late at night (leather sofas, yes really, dance music, and soft lighting). I'd love to see it used as a market, but suspect that is not in the plans.
Air return vent

Techy note: The return air plenums are in the four-foot thick walls between the galleries. Peering through the grates, one can see to the top and bottom of the building.  The thick walls provide a nice transition between the galleries, but also act as giant air handlers.  It would be interesting to know more about Foster's thinking behind the building's systems.

Long, empty, corridor.
Missed connection: The missed connection is a place on two of the upper levels of the new wing called "Making Connections." This is an art learning space where they have some computer interactives ("What Style is It?" kinds of things) and small, but interesting, exhibits about the curatorial process. Sadly, the space is as disconnected from the galleries as possible, on the far east end of the building, off of the window-walled, wrap-around corridor that encircles the end of the addition.  It is a lovely space with very few visitors because the circulation within the galleries is so logical. The Making Connections gallery is recessed at the center of this long wall, so it is not visible from either end. It feels like someone wanted this space as far away from the art as possible. Could they not have come up with a more organic way to integrate learning spaces without disrupting the quite wonderful aesthetic experience that is the museum's principal attraction?

February 9, 2011

A Museum for the Un-museumed?

What would a museum be like that was designed from the ground up as a place for people who are not used to going to museums?
     It might look a lot like the church near Kansas City whose mission is to be "a church for the unchurched."
     The Heartland Community Church goes out of its way to eliminate the barriers that prevent people from going to church. Thinking about their site and building are central components of their approach. How is Heartland different from other churches?
  • Located in a former furniture superstore in the middle of one of Kansas City's "busiest retail centers" (their words), just off the highway and visible from 100,000 cars passing each day on I-35.
  • Surrounded by 1,100 parking spaces.
  • No mention of "church" in any of the signage.  What signs there are, simply say "Heartland."
  • A facade that is warm and welcoming–wood, trees, and lots of glass, ensuring transparency.
  • No religious iconography on the facade. No Christ on the cross, and, in fact, no crosses anywhere, inside or out.
  • A "welcome" booth near the entry staffed by volunteers.
  • A natural-light filled lobby that is designed to be 1.5 times as big as the room where the services take place so that people have a chance to socialize after the service. The building is 1110,000 square feet. The lobby is at least 20% of that and has multiple groupings of leather couches to further encourage people to linger.
  • A bookstore/gift shop and a small cafe with coffee service that also encourage lingering.
  • Large, clear signs identifying spaces, including the "auditorium," which is where services take place.
  • Inviting areas for kids that feel more like a play ground than Sunday School.
Much of this will sound familiar to museum-goers.  If they had areas called "Exhibits" or "Collections,"  I might have thought I was in a museum.
     The no-barriers approach continues with their customer service.  No one is ever asked for a donation during services.  You can wear what you want, come and go as you please, and are greeted with a smile wherever you are.  Despite the lack of  church-y visual messages, the service itself was what you might expect from a "good news" Christian denomination.
     Even for an unrepentant Yankee atheist, this felt like a very comfortable place to be.
     What can museums learn from this? Perhaps what it means to have an unrelenting focus on making the visitor feel welcome and a part of the community. To me, the most surprising thing is the huge lobby–doesn't church take place in the pews? It must cost a fortune to heat and cool that space. But the social part of church is clearly as important to Heartland as the spiritual part.  The church is meant to be a community center and the lobby gives them a kind of town square that is missing in many newer communities.
     Heartland worked with the Kansas City firm 360 Architecture who did a wonderful job on what must have been a tight budget (their portfolio has some lovely pictures).  The church clearly brought a very strong program to the design process.  The have some notes about the process on their web site.

The lobby with cafe tables to the right and auditorium behind the light well.

The bookstore
Sunday School entrance
Youth room

February 1, 2011

Igniting the Power of Art

According to the Dallas Museum of Art's PR department, over the past few years, the museum has had "a 100% increase in overall attendance and dramatic increases in the Museum’s visibility, membership, and public programming participation."

Sounds just like what every museum would like to see happen! What's the secret? A major new addition by a star architect?  Blockbuster exhibits? A major marketing campaign? Nope. Visitor Studies. While many museums spent the past decade or so planning, designing and building new buildings (or major additions to existing buildings), the DMA spent the 90s trying to better understand their visitors and reshaping their practices and programs to better meet audience and community needs.

Science centers and children's museums have long understood the value of understanding visitors, but this is the first time a major art museum has joined in. The DMA's new book documents their process:
Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museum.

Reading the book and visiting the museum are now on my short list.

Bonnie Pitman talking about the museum: