Critic’s notebook: Museums building on a renewed civic life

The new outpost of the Pompidou museum, which opened in the spring in Metz, a city of 125,000 in eastern France, is not what you would call a conventionally handsome building. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and France’s Jean de Gastines, the museum has a translucent, Teflon-coated roof that appears to have melted over the top of its long, tube-shaped galleries. Inside it is full of cavernous spaces, some dramatically scaled and others merely bloated.

Museum architecture: An article in the Sept. 19 Arts and Books section about museum architecture said that a proposed inflatable addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., was not subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission. It is subject to such review. —

Still, it hardly makes sense to judge the new Pompidou solely in terms of its architectural form, or by comparing it to the original 1977 Pompidou Center in Paris by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. The museum is also an intriguing experiment in urbanism — to be exact, in the relationship between high-design architecture and high-speed mobility. It sits directly adjacent to the central train station in Metz, a stop on the high-speed TGV rail line between Paris and Luxembourg. That means you can step on a train at the Gare de l’Est station in the heart of Paris and step off in Metz, 200 miles to the east, exactly 83 minutes later. About three minutes later, after a short walk through the large sloping plaza that connects the station and the museum, you’ll find yourself at the new Pompidou’s front door.

The $91-million building is emblematic of a rich new phase in museum design, which continues to be a surprising bright spot for architects otherwise struggling through a dismal couple of years. Although the sputtering economy has forced a handful of museums to cancel or scale back expansion plans, many others, seemingly against all odds, are building or raising money for renovations, new wings or satellite facilities.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open its second building by Renzo Piano, the $54-million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, on Oct. 2, even as the museum’s director, Michael Govan, pursues plans for the eastern half of the LACMA campus with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. In downtown Los Angeles, New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is racing to finish designs for the 120,000-square-foot Broad Collection building while also at work on two other museum projects: an inflatable event space for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and a new home for the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in downtown Berkeley. After an ambitious international competition, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer chose Norwegian firm Snohetta to design a $250-million extension that will add 100,000 square feet of gallery space.


From an aesthetic point of view, these new museum designs cover a wide range, from the wildly inventive to the coolly restrained. (Compare the unusually faceted design by Foreign Office Architects for Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, to Norman Foster’s crisp extension of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, set to open Nov. 20.) But the most intriguing among them are able, like the Pompidou in Metz, to move past tired arguments about how respectful a building is — or isn’t — to the artwork on view. Instead they provoke a conversation broad enough to include museum identity, neighborhood character, transit networks and urban form. Instead of art versus architecture, or the white box versus the eye-catching icon, these designs make clear that the more interesting relationship is between the museum and the city — or cities, as is the case with the Pompidou, the Guggenheim, the Louvre and other museums with expanding architectural portfolios around the globe.

After Frank Gehry’s branch of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, opened to rapturous reviews in fall 1997, ushering in a new era of high-profile museum buildings, there was a lot of talk about the so-called Bilbao Effect: the potential for bold new architecture to bring declining cities and even whole regions back to life. Gehry’s museum was a chief catalyst in a civic transformation that also flowed from major investments in new infrastructure, including an airport and subway line. One survey of foreign tourists in Bilbao found that a remarkable 80% came primarily to see the Guggenheim.

But Bilbao was in 1997 a remote place. (It remains so even in an age of EasyJet and high-speed rail.) That was part of the appeal of the museum, this sense that you were making a pilgrimage to a corner of Spain to see the building that had made architecture central, in a cultural sense, for the first time in decades.

Compare that to the job Zaha Hadid was handed by the leaders of MAXXI, a contemporary art museum in Rome. The Italian capital hardly needs a piece of new architecture to put it on the cultural map, of course, and yet museum and city officials identified a location in Flaminio, a quiet, low-rise neighborhood wrapped on three sides by a curving section of the Tiber River, as a spot where an inventive building could provide a significant urban boost. The $220-million MAXXI, which took a full decade to go from first sketches to ribbon-cutting, is not perfect. Some of the detailing is quite rough. After buying tickets in a soaring, thrilling atrium, visitors are funneled through a series of stairways and narrow, corridor-like galleries. The quieter artworks on view are not so much overshadowed by the muscular architecture as bullied by it.

But outside, where the museum meets the neighborhood, Hadid has produced one of her most layered and persuasive urban compositions to date. Rather than putting a formal front facade along the sidewalk at its main entrance, the museum turns its entry 90 degrees from the street — and then bends away again, to the west, to fill the remainder of its large site even as an upper-level gallery thrusts forward in a daring cantilever. This complex dance of advance and retreat not only creates a large public plaza in front of the main entry but also manages to lower the museum’s profile in the city — where any effort to compete with the landmarks of classical Rome would have surely have ended in disaster — without blunting the ambition of Hadid’s architecture.

A similarly sly approach to issues of size and conspicuous monumentality can be seen in Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s plans for an unusual addition to the Hirshhorn that is scheduled to open in 2012. The museum occupies a circular 1974 building by Gordon Bunshaft on the National Mall in Washington, which has become an increasingly crowded patch of land. The powerful National Capital Planning Commission spends a lot of its time asking supporters of proposed memorials and museums to consider sites off the Mall, to preserve some elbow room around the existing landmarks.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s proposal, commissioned by new Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek, calls for an event space that could be blown up to fill the center of Bunshaft’s drum-shaped building and used for exhibitions, lectures and other gatherings. Given the contested urban space the museum occupies, the bubble design is an appealingly anti-monumental gesture that recalls earlier experiments in temporary architecture by Archigram and other architects. At an initial projected cost of $5 million, it is also a send-up of self-important, oversized museum additions — and perhaps of inflated egos in the museum and architecture worlds and in official Washington. And because it will be a temporary structure, it is not subject to review by — you guessed it — the National Capital Planning Commission.

Trickier to assess are the recent cases of museums not just commissioning new buildings but in the process abandoning old homes with real architectural significance. That’s the story now unfolding at the Whitney Museum in New York, which is raising money for a new six-story, 195,000-square-foot building by Renzo Piano near the High Line elevated park, on the far West side of Manhattan, leaving the fate of its 1966 building on the Upper East Side up in the air. The Whitney has discussed leasing that building, designed by Marcel Breuer, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but no plan has been finalized.

The UC Berkeley Art Museum has settled on a similar plan to trade its seismically vulnerable 1971 Mario Ciampi building for a facility in downtown Berkeley by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. The move will undoubtedly be good news for Berkeley’s urban core and will put the museum within a block of a BART subway stop. But in the long term it will also likely mean the demolition of Ciampi’s building, which like Breuer’s possesses real architectural character despite being a tricky place to show art. In each case, it’s hard not to view the exchange with ambivalence.

When this new batch of museum buildings is finished, five or 10 years from now, it will surely include both architectural triumphs and disappointments. What remains to be seen is how far the buildings will advance a discussion about the relationship between museums and civic life — particularly in Los Angeles, a city still finding its mature shape.

At LACMA, even as Piano’s Resnick Pavilion, the product of a master plan commissioned by Eli Broad and former director Andrea Rich, suggests a turn away from Wilshire Boulevard to create a series of protected open-air walkways, Govan’s discussions with Zumthor anticipate the arrival of a subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, under new director Jeffrey Deitch, the Museum of Contemporary Art is exploring the controversial possibility of taking over the city-owned Municipal Art Gallery building in Barnsdall Park. That would give it a new outpost west of downtown and four facilities altogether — allowing it to match at a small, local scale the global growth pursued by museum behemoths such as the Louvre, which is busy building new branches in northern France (by Tokyo firm SANAA) and Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel).

Even the most intelligently planned museum extensions are hardly urban-planning cure-alls. It is asking a lot of any museum to carry the fate of a neighborhood, let alone a whole city, on its shoulders. But given the trouble cash-strapped cities have creating public space on their own these days, one of the few available paths to urban revitalization is to leverage the initiative of wealthy cultural institutions and then bend that initiative toward civic engagement. That’s one reason I have called so repeatedly for Broad to pay more attention to the connections between his planned museum and the rest of downtown.

When the first major European museums opened in the 18th century, their goal, a natural extension of Enlightenment thinking, was to open royal collections to the public — to introduce citizens to their own cultural heritage. In Los Angeles and other highly privatized urban landscapes, new and expanding museums may have another role to play: to introduce us, in effect, to our own cities.