In more formal times, the buildings we call museums were reserved for the display of such items as paintings and sculptures or for serious scientific subjects like anthropology or natural history.
Just passing through the portals of such palaces of high culture made you feel solemn and somehow uplifted, as if you were stepping out of your mundane life into a loftier realm of the mind and spirit.
Today, however, museums are created to house everything from vintage automobiles to dollhouses. In the process, the word has become demystified, and a visit to a museum no longer automatically confers a cultural high.
The new $8.5-million Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills is the latest twist in this process of museum demystification.
Designed by Richard Meier, the architect of the $700-million Getty Center under construction on a Brentwood hilltop, the Museum of Television and Radio is a highly formal building created to preserve and celebrate the products of two essentially ephemeral media that most of us cast from our minds like the contents of yesterday's newspaper.
The paradox of a formal architecture housing such thoroughly informal contents lies at the heart of this sleek new building on the corner of Little Santa Monica and North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills' Golden Triangle.
The building's severe Modernist style, and the choice of Meier--rather than a more funky designer like, say, Frank Gehry--comes from the cultural aspirations of the people who create television and radio. It reflects their desire to be taken seriously as artists rather than as mere entertainers.
One of the world's most accomplished museum designers, Meier has built several cultural complexes in the United States and Europe, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, Spain. His buildings are known for their abstract compositions featuring white metallic surfaces and wide expanses of glass.
Meier's strategy in conferring the architectural status of high culture on TV and radio is subtle and extremely skillful. The three-story museum, finished in enameled white metal panels between huge windows, manages the difficult trick of being simultaneously formal, airy and inviting. It is a popular venue that is also a temple to the fleeting images and voices of these popular arts.
"The main purpose of the building, like that of the media it celebrates, is communication," Meier explained. "We made it as open and transparent as possible, and devoid of mystery, so that people passing by can plainly see what happens inside."
The museum's ground floor is dominated by a soaring three-story sky-lit rotunda whose circular shape is dramatized by a mezzanine with a curving balcony and a stairway to the roof that clings to one wall. A smaller rotunda at the rear of the lobby beckons you toward a 150-seat theater. To the right is a glass-walled gallery displaying life-size figures from "Star Trek." A small radio listening room and a museum shop complete the layout at this level.
The ground floor gallery, called the Promenade, doubles as a place for receptions and other public events. The theater is equipped with a large-screen video projection system and satellite-linked two-way teleconferencing capabilities that can transform it into a television studio with audience participation.
A combination stair and ramp leads up the second floor. This ramped stairway, which follows a travertine marble wall, forms the main feature of the museum's facade. From the sidewalk, it provides the spectacle of the continual movement of visitors climbing to the second level. From the interior, its landing on the corner of Little Santa Monica and Beverly Drive offers a platform for viewing the life of the street.
However, the ramped stairway has resulted in the one clumsy element in the museum's design. The awkward, slanting space left under the ramp has been filled with a slightly silly shallow pool that will become a prime place for castaway plastic cups, hamburger wrappings and other urban debris.
On the upper level is a library with a "console center" where visitors can call up old TV programs on video screens. An adjacent Scholars' Room serves serious researchers. The top level has the museum's boardroom and a wide roof terrace, with a spectacular view of the Santa Monica Mountains, for receptions.
Meier has limited his range of interior finishes to white paint, travertine and blue-gray carpeting for the floors and a light maple for some areas of paneling and for such furniture as the ground floor reception desk, library carrels and the boardroom table.
The new museum is partly a renovation of a Bank of America branch office and an adjoining restaurant that previously occupied the corner site. The back of the new building, housing the museum's administrative offices, has retained the old structure and its facades, refinished in white enameled metal. The bank's underground parking garage has also been retained.
The museum wears its aesthetic sophistication lightly, though it is clearly a cut above the Golden Triangle mixture of high kitsch and bland mediocrity that surrounds it. Its clean, simple lines have the good manners not to shame its neighbors while still making it clear that the building boasts a far more urbane architecture.
The Beverly Hills facility is also more sophisticated than the somber, limestone-covered tower that houses its Manhattan twin. The New York City building, designed by Philip Johnson and opened in 1991, replaced the original location where founder and veteran broadcasting executive William Paley started the Museum of Television and Radio in 1976. Meier's building is lighthearted where Johnson's too obviously strives for a somewhat ludicrous monumentality.
"We wanted to create a pleasing public place on the corner of Little Santa Monica and Beverly Drive," Meier said. "A place that invites people to participate in the pleasures of these popular entertainments that are now so much part of our daily lives."