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.