Monday, February 28, 2005

architecture, museums and spectacle

a few days ago, Art News Online's stephen litt wrote about the "new serenity" in museum construction - a reaction to the spectacle of frank gehry's guggenheim museum in bilbao. the article claims that museums are no longer seeking the "bilbao effect," looking instead to build museums that dont compete with the art they house, but rather, complement it.

the most obvious example is the whitney museum in ny and lacma - both commissioned large scale projects to rem koolhaas and both then rescinded in favor of much more modest proposals by renzo piano.

Koolhaas' OMA's proposal for lacma

Litt provides a comprehensive overview of museum construction today and in the recent past. he also provides some of the numbers - the cost to build, the debt incurred, the scope of these projects.

unfortunately, I think the most salient point to his argument is buried halfway thru:

“Bilbao was an aberration,” says Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which will inaugurate its own expansion and renovation on the 17th of next month. “The aberration was that there’s only one Bilbao, in part because of Gehry’s architecture. It’s a place of pilgrimage, and I don’t think places of pilgrimage can ultimately be sustained. Pilgrims don’t sustain communities—local audiences sustain communities. And it’s the programs that are the heart and soul of any building.” Halbreich describes the Walker’s expansion—a $67.5 million project designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, renovation architects of the Tate Modern in London, as well as its recently announced, upcoming expansion—as “enormously mission-centered,” not an architectural gesture for its own sake. [emphasis mine]

most of the reports on the museum cite it as a success - it transformed a backwater, industrial spanish town in a cultural mecca. and cities from Guadalajara to Glasgow are looking to replicate that success. but there have been others that have questions the economic revitalization and its subsequent multiplying effects that the museum brought - who benefitted and who did not, what sacrifices were made in terms of social and cultural services, how sustainable the success is. litt hints at these issues here - he doesn't delve into them (it seems only academics are looking at those issues right now).

the overwhelming consensus among city planners seems to be that architecture is a potential avenue of recovery for cities in decline or potential decline. (sidenote: gehry's museum is just one piece in a municipally sponsored project, which also includes an airport and bridge by Santiago Calatrava, a subway system designed by Norman Foster and a high-rise development still under construction by Arata Isozaki.)

not long ago the nytimes, in talking about these types of projects, stated: “The goal: to change the city’s identity through architecture”.

as often happens in western culture, the pendulum swings back and forth. the extravagant, baroque, iconic architecture of gehry is supplanted by the more orthodox modernism of piano, herzog & de meuron, meier and others. at least according to litt. it seems doubtful to me at least that gehry, libeskind and their disciples will fall out of favor.

architecture is a strange visual discipline - it differs from painting and sculpture in a very fundamental way - to be considered a success today is must be avant-garde. no other visual discipline can claim that - the very definition of avant-garde implies that the cultural product is so radical, so original only a few 'get it.' For architects today, the measure of success is not whether their buildings have fulfilled certain functional, physical requirements. Success is measured by how great an impression the building makes: on critics, tourists, the public who must live or work or socialize in its environs.

Unlike most art, for a building to be considered a popular success it must embrace the avant-garde, defy the logics of engineering limits, display design bravado previously unseen and thrill viewers and critics alike with undulating walls and roofs. As with other forms of avant-garde cultural production, what is unique, new or “strange” is quickly absorbed by the cultural mainstream (or else suffer a fate of total marginalization). gehry’s buildings were quickly embraced not only by the public and critics but by another important constituency: advertisers. His buildings, almost as soon as they opened, served as the backdrop to several television commercials, playing a bourdieusian game of cultural literacy. (I'm not sure bourdieusian is a word, but I used it often in my two years of graduate school).

thus there is need for the gehrys and libeskinds to continue. its easy to view the 'new serenity' as the reactionary pablum of museum directors under increased pressue to practice fiscal orthodoxy. or to throw up our hands at the futility of trying to make sweeping statements about the popularity of a particular aesthetic style in a culture where essentially anything goes. clearly there is a need for both - the baroque popularity of a gehry and the understated beauty of a piano.

and in another tangent, I bought Great Leap Forward / Harvard Design School Project on the City 1 at the taschen store today for another 10 bucks. this goes nicely on my bookshelf with The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping / Harvard Design School Project on the City 2 that I bought a few weeks ago. I have a lot of reading to do in the next few weeks.


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