Charting an evolution in form and function from traditional architecture to buildings that are radically transforming today’s built environment.
Nobel-laureate novelist and author of The Museum of Innocence (2008), Orhan Pamuk, refers to museums as the place “where Time is converted into Space.” From baroque masterpieces to experimental freestanding structures, gilded palaces to disused warehouses, classical to contemporary, the international definition of the museum continues to evolve, now encompassing super-structures that challenge the limits of architectural and conceptual possibility, capturing the imagination while embodying and even altering the identity of their environs. Designed by luminary architects, these buildings transcend their function as repositories of artefacts.
They become works of art in their own right, renowned as much for their cost and design as for their collections, such as Daniel Libeskind’s Danish Jewish Museum (2004) in Copenhagen, the Ordos Museum (2011) by MAD Architects, located in the Gobi desert, and Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center (2012) in Azerbaijan. Today, museums face the challenge of balancing preservation with an increasing demand for accessibility, while competing with new modes of presentation – chiefly, the online exhibition and archive.
The internet may be seen as the world’s greatest collection: a mass of data exploring every imaginable subject, depicting every possible perspective and accommodating every medium from the archaic to the cutting-edge. However, in its lack of organisation and curation, as a limitless collection it is also incomprehensible and, too often, dangerous. Still, the existence of our digital world and its ease of access has impacted attendance in our physical world – reducing visitor numbers to libraries, cinemas, theatres, galleries and museums. This shift has caused some to question the pertinence of the museum – is it outdated? Architect Willem Jan Neutelings firmly asserts that it is not: “Collections of all kinds will continue to grow in the future, despite destruction and deterioration, and people won’t want to see them on tiny screens – the museum will always harbour the civilisation of humankind.” And it does, not only via the collection it contains but, significantly, through its architecture. Unlike the internet, the “authors” of the museum – be these private owners, architects or collectors – are clearly visible: their culture, the era in which they worked and their social standing.
It is now possible to describe the vinyl collection in a garage as a micromuseum, but the very first museums grew from the art rooms of popes, noblemen, aristocrats and monarchs. These enormous spaces were hung in salon style to display the wealth of their owner, laid out as an “enfilade”: literally meaning “a series” that visitors would be carried through.
Renowned institutions such as the Louvre and the Hermitage came into being when revolutions turned grand homes into museums, opening them to the public. Although the old enfilade style provided easy viewing, it allowed no room for exploration – this is where the alternative “proto-museum” or Cabinet of Curiosities had its role. Filled with a miscellany, the displays were crammed and curated subjectively – categorised but not necessarily correctly. Art movements such as Surrealism and Dadaism and even contemporary installation have emanated their eclectic style. Often designed as floor to ceiling displays, visitors would stare up with wonder – hence the description Wunderkammer.
The layout of these “cabinets” is now influencing a whole new style of museum: the Schaulager. This new model bears powerful contrast to the architectural style of modern mega-museums such as Tate Modern, the Pompidou and MoMA, which finally replaced the enfilade in the late 20th century as the dominant model. Rather than adhere to the sets of enormous white galleries accessed by wide central corridors, stacked one on top of the other, the Schaulager – literally translated as “show store” – is an exhibit-depot, or a viewing-warehouse. The first named Schaulager was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, for a site in Neumünchenstein, near their own Basel base, to fulfil a 2003 commission for the Laurenz Foundation. Appearing from a distance as a single cube, the building is in fact a polygon with one inverted side, creating an overhang – as if one wall has been pushed in on itself. Upon close inspection, the walls are built up in layers from the pebbles excavated for the building’s foundations and the windows resemble deep cracks in the walls, or waves. The Schaulager does house temporary exhibitions; however, the intention is really to provide visitors (who come by appointment, to ensure that climate control is sustained) with an accelerated course in the museum body, as they receive near-open access to its inner mechanisms. Today, where space is often limited and always expensive, the Schaulager also rejects the sparse, white cube approach of contemporary galleries – harking back, somewhat, to the salon hangs and the Wunderkammers.
Neutelings says that: “The biggest challenge facing the modern museum is that of nding a balance between preserving the fragile artefacts and unveiling their meaning to an ever expanding crowd of visitors.” The Schaulager offers an unprecedented ability to preserve works of art and historical objects while exposing them for view – allowing the conservator to become the visitor assistant, and solving all issues of what to present to the public while necessary restoration is taking place. On the other hand, it cannot serve an ever-expanding visitor population as open doors would surely negate any of that precious conservation work.
Ful lling this latter need is the mega museum, many examples of which follow the form of the Parisian Centre Pompidou designed in 1977 by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. They considered the logistics of crowd management, multi-functionality and exibility because, as Neutelings acknowledges, “Museums now organise parties, conferences and gatherings; they are more than a place to hang a picture but also a somewhere to be together.” This means that, in some cases, the spectacle can overtake the work: the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (whose extension is also currently being built by Herzog & De Meuron) being a perfect example, firstly with the heavily discussed “crack” or Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo in 2007 and secondly in 2010 with Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. While Shibboleth was intended to symbolise the immigration crisis and the Sunflower Seeds to represent economic exchange between the West and China, there was criticism that the cause became lost in the display.
Despite the criticism, this is a clear example of architecture’s ability to open up the art gallery or museum to a wider public audience, and of the capacity of an industrial site to be transformed into a cultural hub through architectural intervention. The enormity of the Turbine Hall allows for exhibitions, performances and events that simply could not fit in a classical enfilade setting. As Neutelings affirms, current museum commissions now demand increasingly large spaces, as do libraries and schools, as they can provide a “marketplace where people can undertake many activities”, as “different media creates a dynamic way of learning.”
While museums can promote different modes of education through their structure, the architecture itself can also be a teaching point. Neutelings’ Museum aan de Stroom (Neutelings Riedijk Architects, 2011) in Antwerp is a clear example of this: set within the city’s old dockside, each of the building’s 10 storeys provides an alternative outlook, giving a 360° view of Antwerp’s new city and industrial past. Not only is this building an architectural feat, standing as several stacked boxes in red Indian sandstone, which tells a city’s story via both internal objects and external views, it is also the first new museum to be built in Antwerp in over a century. Acting as a 62 m high red beacon, it has drawn attention from the city’s adjacent historic core to a once derelict waterfront: in 2013 the Red Star Line Museum rose up in its vicinity and the entire Het Eilandje is now being revitalised.
The dramatic transformative ability of the museum, and its role in metropolitan regeneration, was coined as the “Bilbao effect” in the late 1990s as Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum (1997) turned that city into a thriving cultural capital, visitors bringing in over €100 million in revenue for the regional government in the museum’s first three years.
However, this is not always the case. For example, in 2013 a record 451 museums opened in China, more than one a day, as part of a five-year plan for the country to have 3,500 museums by 2015. China lost countless artefacts during its Civil War (1927-1950) and the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976). Many of China’s new museums are closed or open only sporadically as a stunning but empty museum building cannot draw a crowd. This is of course especially true for the modern model that most new museums, aside from the Schaulager, follow today – in which an impressive façade can give way to a series of clinical, white cube spaces which act as a “theatre stage, where the pieces come in as actors and the curators direct a play, setting them next to each other to start a dialogue of confrontation.” Although the museum is essential as one of the few public meeting places available today, it cannot exist without its works or its curator, just as a stage is defunct in the absence of actors or director. As Neutelings states: “Spectacular museum architecture cannot be created unless the museum director has a strong vision for the collection and for the public.”
This returns to the question of the necessity of the museum today, when one can view any work of art online, research any object, or even virtually experience a building. What the museum provides over self-directed research is a comprehensive experience via the organisation of works within a unique space, and the collective moment. Real life discussion over accessing specific pieces of information is necessary to broaden knowledge, and the museum is an essential part of civilisation which Neutelings calls a “treasure trove in which the past provides the basis for celebrating the present, and the future is shaped.” Whether in the modern order, where cavernous rooms allow for every conceivable event; the Schaulager, where visitors really take a further step inside; the early cabinets of curiosities; or the en lade, the museum, anchored to the ground, will continue to have a dedicated audience as people will always desire “the unique experience of standing eye to eye with the original.”
Museums. Published by Roads Books in March 2016.