March 1, 2011

Museums as "Public Rooms"

Witold Rybczynski has a short piece on Public Rooms which is worth quoting in its entirity:
Philip Johnson once called museums the modern age’s cathedrals, and museum’s are sometimes thought of as the architect’s commission of choice. But a museum is basically a series of display rooms whose architecture is—or should be—subservient to its contents. The reason that places of worship were traditionally the acme of the architect’s art, is that they are (very large) public rooms whose design is usually required to celebrate and elevate their religious function. Theaters, like concert halls and opera houses, are likewise more challenging than museums. Unlike museums, which are places for private contemplation, these are places for a shared experience. They are also buildings in which the architect can ply his art. Once the curtain goes up, the hall belongs to the performers, but before then the architect is free to pull out all the stops.
Too many museum have been the victims of architectural hubris.  I completely agree that large performance spaces are a perfect place for architects to ply their art.

However, the public areas of museums are also ripe for architectural exuberance. The lobbies of museums are growing ever larger as they begin to embrace their role as community centers as well as places for "quiet contemplation" (and as museums realize the economic potential of such spaces). The public space can be a "pull out all the stops" kind of space that Rybczynski describes, but the exhibit areas need to be contemplative and/or functional  depending on their content.

This is a distinction that I.M. Pei got right years ago at the East Wing of the National Gallery and that Daniel Libeskind didn't understand at the Denver Museum of Art. Mediating the interface between the public space and the museum space is an additional challenge, which Foster + Partners got right at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' new wing. The lobby and gallery spaces are visually connected, which helps keep visitors oriented, but are separated by multiple walls of glass, which acoustically and visually isolates them from each other. The atrium at the MFA is not the East Wing, but it does serve as a very effective model for the functional program for other museums.

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