05 October 2007

Belated Recognition: Building the MUDAM, Luxembourg

Photographs: Concrete shell roofs being lifted in place, Luxembourg, November 1999

The author/architect Tim Culbert standing under a cast shell he designed for the MUDAM galleries, 1995-2000.

The museum, featuring recent European contemporary art, opened to the public in July 2007.

When we started our practice in 2000, we had just overseen the completion of Peter Rice's posthumous fink-cable structure for the glazed sculpture courtyards for the Museum of Modern Art, Luxembourg. The entire building structure was completed, and glazed in, while the cladding and final fit-outs of the public and gallery spaces were yet to be started. Having overseen the Pei designed building from the start - first as a draftsperson for the original design in 1990, eventually as the project architect on the construction site 10 years later - we had never imagined it would take another 7 years to open to the public.

Well here it is, in all of its slightly dated grandeur - a bizarre mismatch of a very classic Pei building in its relentless focus on geometry, to house no classic art, not even modernist art of the classic period - the Ecole de Paris as originally conceived - but an idiosyncratic "non-collection" of contemporary art, hobbled together by the combative director/curator Marie-Claude Beaud. The mismatch - Client-Architect as well as Building-Art, was one of the many reasons for the hugely extended design-construction-fit-out period, and encompasses the poor choice of sitting the building on an historical military fort protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Despite the above, with the building overshadowing both the site and the raison d'être of the museum itself, the MUDAM as it was later conceived and baptized (Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean), there are a few noteworthy spaces we were responsible for in design and execution, notably the stunning top floor, naturally day-light galleries.

The engineering and execution of the concret sheds are of interest (see posting below). Of more importance to us, the designers of the MUDAM gallery and in our on-going museum work in our studio at IMREY CULBERT, is the resulting natural lighting it achieves.

Effortlessly spanning the gallery length, the shells give a real physical presence to the spaces, both in terms of scale but also in the much harder to define notion of light quality: an ethereal indirect lighting, in diffused tones, on all six faces of the galleries. The galleries, an eschewed rectangle with two chamfered ends (thus six sides), have art display walls, over 6 meters tall, that face due South, due North, with contrast differences that are barely noticeable. The target performance we aimed for on natural and artificial lighting, where we work strenuously to avoid light-level contrast between adjoining surfaces - a real eye-sore in many early classic day-lit galleries - were exceeded here: all six gallery walls have close to identical light levels at all times of the day, all done with a passive, single form, roof profile, and unshaded clerestory windows.

Ten years after we designed this roof, with Andy Sedgwick of Arup to fine tune the daylighting profile for the MUDAM, it has become standard practice to use solar sun-tracking, to define museum roof skylights or laylights. Some museums end up using more complex active systems, as in the Baeyler Museum in Basel in a depth of 4 meters, or equally complex but passive custom shell-screens installed at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas in a depth of only 40 millimeters (both by Renzo Piano) to do the same job. Namely: to allow for natural daylighting in the museum gallery, for the quality of color rendering that natural light provides, and to allow visitors a view of the sky - thus the time of day and varying sky cover conditions - while not allowing a single ray of direct sun to hit an art work, or the gallery floor. This may sound easy, but it has taken the last century in museum construction, ever since the first natural skylights were opened in the Grand Galerie of the Louvre in the 1810’s (first conceived by Hubert Robert in 1796, but executed much later) to get it right.

Working again with ArupLighting, Imrey Culbert defined the natural daylighting for the future Louvre-Lens satellite museum that was key to the winning design. Currently in our joint-venture with Sanaa, we are developing a new approach to solar mitigation in what will be the largest glazed museum roof in Europe when completed in 2011. Stay Posted.