21 September 2010

A bright spot for architecture: Museum Design

Press from the Los Angeles Times, September 18th, 2010

"Architecture is going through a pretty dark period at the moment, with the troubled economy weighing heavily on the profession. But there is one surprising bright spot amid the gloom: museum design.

Even as a handful of high-profile museum expansions have been scaled back or canceled because of the recession, many more are going forward -- in cities around the world, and in diverse range of styles. Renzo Piano is opening another of his precise, restrained gallery buildings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art even as New York firm Diller, Scofidio & Renfro advances designs for Los Angeles, Berkeley and Washington D. C.

Zaha Hadid's MAXXI museum in Rome and a new branch of the Pompidou, by Shigeru Ban and the French architect Jean de Gastines, are in their first months of operation, while an outpost of the Louvre in the northern French city of Lens, designed by New York firm Imrey Culbert and Tokyo architects SANAA, is under construction. An additional Louvre branch, plus yet another Guggenheim, are planned for the United Arab Emirates state of Abu Dhabi.

As I argue in this Critic's Notebook, the most intriguing of those museum projects are interested in moving past tired arguments about how respectful the architecture is -- or isn't -- to the art on dispaly. Instead, they have something important to say about the relationship between the museum and the city."

Christopher Hawthorne, The Los Angeles Times

29 April 2010

Shared impulses/Opposite results: the work of Schütte and Nouvel in Madrid

Jean Nouvel's expansion of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) lacks, not surprisingly, any modesty. As a recent visitor to the museum several years after its completion, giving it time to have found its own "pace" among Madrid's 52 other museums, its own exhibition rotation, and as a former employee of the Pritzker-Prize architect, I expected two things of this visit, neither of which came about: some degree of awe - the feeling of something completely appropriate but totally unexpected- just right for this context; and secondly some unease, a provocation that he, the architect, had again surprised me with something less than neutral, disarming, yet just right for this program, that is to say for the museum spectator.

In the case of his latest museum, those feelings were displaced altogether. The grandiose entrance courtyard created by the expansion, was exactly as the renderings: lifeless, with an impression of a nighttime scene while in broad daylight (thanks to his red and reflective surfaces, now his trademarks); and purely formalistic with a razor-edge overhanging roof spanning the full site and blocking the Madrid sky.

In this way Nouvel's huge expansion has imposed itself on the site, on a context that needed far more modesty and a much better sense of scale and detailing; all it is, is a device of the architect’s own making, his own signature. The original Reina Sofia building is now rendered invisible, by the new facades and the floating roof, literally shielded from view. The circulation between the new and old galleries is left painfully unresolved.

The irony of it, or at least a saving grace for my visit, was the retrospective exhibit in the old galleries dedicated to the German artist Thomas Schütte. What could be more appropriate, then to be confronted by an artist that similarly has been driven by contradictory impulses: to be absolutely modern, as Nouvel advocates for, while eluding any “confinement” within current practice.

As one critic describes the avant-garde, it is a wish to avoid being superceded by any step in a historical progression, and this seems to be the one link between Schülte’s artistic approach, as well as Nouvel's. In Schütte's case - where the long white-washed galleries were a perfect stage for his series of hand-crafted models of Bauhaus styled-factories or museums as mausoleums - it is a reassuring provocation. We don't have to live in these mausoleums and the device he applies is one of "disarming" us, the visitor. Schütte succeeds, then, where Nouvel fails.

Somehow these models become quaint and we appreciate their handmade-ness, over their overt coldness and rigidity; even if there is in fact nothing quaint here at all. The lack of irony in Schülte’s work takes hold in this museum setting, and we are free to move on to the irony of a Pierre Huyghes drawing around the corner – or best of all to the even more literal “Guernica” accosted by huge crowds in it's own gallery as in a Thomas Struth photograph. From there we move to another corner gallery that leads to a dead-end, so that once again we, the visitors, are foiled in trying to navigate the link between the Nouvel and Sabatini wings of the museum. Physically and worse, subjectively, we are left pained by this experience.

"At the center of Schülte’s work is not an artistic genius but a certain void, an absence - an inner space presented in a way similar to the neutral space of a modern museum, not an eruptive space, as found in the work of many of his colleagues. He ironically demonstrates his subjectivity by demonstrating a loss of subjectivity".

The new architectural expansion delivers what this museum did not need: a far too heavy dose of contemporary subjectivity and architect-as-genius authorship. Schütte’s models appear subtle and magnificent in the "Retrospección" exhibit, where they would normally conjure loss and distance anywhere else. This may have to do with the generous space, the form of the old vaulted galleries, with beautiful natural daylight. Yet it may also have to do with how they act as a welcome antidote to the adjacent Nouvel galleries that are seen first by the visitor and for opposite reasons then one might think: the understatement of the sculpture models, the artisanal approach to their making is reactionary when seen against Nouvel’s love of machined materials, his preference for seemingly effortless structure or unexpressed cantilevers.

In this respect, the Schütte 's models make the ultimate sacrifice – appearing superfluous, when in fact it is the context, the museum itself, that has become superfluous to the art here at the ‘Nouvel’Reina Sofia.

Italics: See Boris Groys “The Case of Thomas Schütte”, Dia Art Foundation, Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, No.3 and Thomas Schütte, Retrospección, Reina Sophia, February-May 2010.

19 April 2010

There is more then one artful way to expand a museum

In a New York Times article by art critic Roberta Smith her wishful thinking on the Piano-designed expansion in the Meatpacking District was right on: "A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles.... It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly." I would add Dia:Beacon to that compliment.

If the Whitney would expand at the old DIA Chelsea site as it has been rumored, or better yet, if the DIA would take on the site originally proposed for the Whitney without a starchitect to design it, most of us would be content. In all cases, New Yorkers would not be getting the short end of the deal, but more space for art - as despite the number of museums in the city they all remain log-jammed with visitors. So, for us, more museums the better.

I would take Smith to task for one comment, however, when she states that we should put all our faith in the current museum building trend in the hands of dealers and artists (NYT, April 12, 2010): "Whom should the people in charge of museums listen to? Perhaps to those who have consistently made art look best because they are most directly dependent on it looking best: artists and dealers. A well-chosen committee of such people would probably be able to pare down and improve....... the design even more."

It has been a proven track record that artists are generally the poorest at considering how art (theirs or others) should be viewed; and dealers experience in what a wide range of visitors need to take away from art viewing (the visitor is their to learn something after all and not just have a breathtaking moment) is far more complex than providing for airy spaces, even as beautiful as they come in the pared-down versions by Gaggosian.

Smith fails to mention that there are professionals out there, committing most of their time and energy to actually doing what she says the dismal quality of museums built in the US lack - or her expectation on what the Whitney expansion will deliver – great new galleries and installations rather then another event-space with art tucked into a corner: "The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned." Our young track record should be a good antidote to that comment, but more is a stake then how our practice is doing.

This week, Smith writes, as others , that the museum curatorship should be pulled out into the streets just as we see architects taking the reigns of museums (newly parted director of the Miami Museum of Art now under construction; the current director of the stalled expansion of St. Louis Museum of Art are two examples of note). In essence we are seeing revisionism of the advice given freely ten years ago and which colored every article on the building of new museums and expansions at the time (the Getty and Bilbao notably): art dealers are not to be trusted. To let the least trained in the field run the museums, and rely on the artists to advise on how best to install them are ideas that are doomed approaches and hopefully the Whitney and Dia's expansions - financial and land logistics apart - will take that advice for what it is - a provocation and self-interested reversal of what journalist have espoused before.

But this discourse is becoming mainstream: we are seeing collectors and their artists take over full-handedly the New Museum (Skin Fruit by Jeff Koons and Dakis Joannou) with questionable results; art dealers leading major museums (the much written about Jeffrey Dietch at the much maligned MoCA); and dealer-sponsored art fairs have taken the wind out of so many "block-buster" exhibits (the Serra retrospective and the current Marina Abramovic are exceptions). But the off-off pier fairs, favored by newly minted artists and galleries, such as Independent, are worthy new collaborations and art viewing strategies that are far more inspiring then the art/dealer paradigm advocated by Smith.

There are professionals, however, that have lasted the time to see the nature of Smith's discourse reversal (dealers are now to be trusted, to catch-up on wasted time ignoring each other), as committed as ever to both the art and the visitor (a changing, hard to pin-down group). And there are those new in the field that are doing stunning jobs, without the baggage of an older generation of curators (the Times highlighted a few of these under 30-curators in "The New Guards Step-up", March 18, 2010). And there are newly minted museum designers – or museographers, a word taken from the French - that are filling the void of a field that was largely held by theatre lighting designers and in-house museum installers for the last 25 years. All of this is good news, in the right hands.

These new museographers are advising colleagues (architects or exhibit designers) and museums on everything from the proportions and lighting of spaces, to vitrine fabrication and performance, to exhibit installation themselves. Coupled with an eye for three dimensional space and a trained background in art (or the reverse: trained in 3D space design, with an eye for art and aesthetics), the new museographers should take back from all of the Pritzker architects the core value and the core vision of museum projects - putting art back in mind.

Footnote: The writer - an architect and museographer - is an unabashed lover of the Marcel Breuer's Whitney, designed the galleries and vitrines for Piano's "event-space expansion" of the Morgan, as Smith would call it and has worked in various roles on the design of museum projects by 5 Pritzker-Architects - Nouvel, Koolhaas, Pei, SANAA, Piano - mostly invisible to the public and journalistic world. A thank you to Roberta Smith for raising the unanswerable question on how to expand a museum, such as the Whitney and to Rirkrit Tiravanija for his reflective ping pong table at Independent.

Competition Up-Date: Ex Aequo (2nd Place) on the MNBAQ

Copyright all images: BarkowLeibinger + Imrey Culbert Architectes

We are hitting our stride in placing second - or Ex-Aequo - on the international museum circuit. This is not always bad news: those that place first are usually not paid the promised funds for these invited competitions, but have them deducted from the first contract phase. This means - as is the case of the recent competition won by OMA for the National Museum in Quebec (MNBAQ) - that the group of runner-ups can hope for payment in the next weeks after a grueling 6 month selection period. To those not in the profession this may seem a questionable business model: Unpaid RFPs to land in a select group that includes two design phases, model production and an oral with no financial advance. Yet this is the dominant practice today if one is to secure a coveted museum project abroad (in the US, the practice is on pre-selection and interviews, with a few rare exceptions such as the Smithsonian's NMAAHC and the on-going SFMoMA expansions).

In the specific case of the MNBAQ, we set-out again to find a good partner to aim for the invited Stage 1, who had not yet done a museum project but would bring to our team experience in industrial/efficient/green design, for a 12,000 new building aimed at a very low square foot-cost (1/3 of the norm stateside). BarkowLeibinger fit the bill nicely. We created the team for the RFP, complemented by our frequent collaborators: Buro Happold, ArupLighting et al to make the first round out of 108 teams from 19 countries. The odds, as in any lottery, were highly weighted against all of us, without star power. But we aimed right, in the sense, that we read the PR announcements correctly, then looked into the specific invited jury members, the various local press announcements on the project aims over the course of the last 2 years, to expect that the jury would select half of the teams from within Canada, the other half abroad, one from each country perhaps.

Phase 1 line-up turned out indeed to include 15 firms and each team had 2 months to present a design. Phase 2, narrowed the selection down to five firms, of which we were one: BarkowLeibinger+ImreyCulbert; OMA, Rem Koolhaas; Nieto Sobejano; Allied Works Architecture; and David Chipperfield Architects. Here we were pretty pleased having bested a few favored architects working today: Gigon Guyer Architects of Switzerland, David Adjaye Associates, Kengo Kuma and BIG among others.

At the end of Phase 2, another 2 months of design, model making, schematic design engineering and cost estimating - including an oral presentation - gave the project to Rem Koolhaas out of the New York office under partner Shohei Shigematsu. The OMA scheme harkens back to the simplicity, 60'ies inspired typologies that Koolhaas played with in the mid-80'ies, minus his fabulous rhetoric, perceptive programmatic reading and clear genius - yet lost on us here was the following project description submitted with the design: “Our ambition is to create a dramatic new presence for the city, while maintaining a respectful, even stealthy approach to the museum’s neighbors and the existing museum.” There is nothing stealth about the OMA project, and actually little need for dramatic presence either on the site - largely a parkland considered a national monument where the final military campaigns were held between the British and French in 1759 (the British won) and disparate buildings, from a former Prison, a Church and Presbytery, to a failed 1990 expansion entrance to the museum compound and a large Neo-Classical building, the first phase of the museum when it sole focus was the Natural History of the region. Pressed up against a 19th Century church and requiring the demolition of its monastery building, the OMA project could have applied its rhetoric of being stealthy (sic) in such a context - instead we see an entirely glass-clad building stacking up to a huge cantilever at the front entrance. A project that will certainly come in over budget.

Despite this, the project's response to the competition brief is truly a good scheme, providing for the variation of gallery formats for art that spans Inuit artifacts, to industrial design, to Quebec romanticism painting, to traveling exhibits from the Louvre or the Rodin Museum in Paris. In other words, a traditional, provincial take on an encyclopedic museum, that has struggled for 75 years to find an identity of its own (it’s most recent naming - MNBAQ - is the last and most recent iteration as a Beaux Arts Museum). So, perhaps Koolhaas/Shigematsu's scheme will indeed be a catalyst for greater cultural tourism in Quebec, as the town's fathers hope for and its single women director. In any event, with more visitors or not, it will be an outlandish presence along Quebec's main drag to its historic center. Let's hope it improves in the next design phases, or that the environmental concerns of a region blanketed by snow most of the year, will obligate more radical changes to the design to reduce operating costs and to better serve its neighbors and its art. Our second place, for the second time to OMA, is not that bad a place to be just now.

Note that the invited jury members included: Architects Xavier de Geyter and Nasrine Seraji.

To see the OMA project go to:

15 April 2010

Manfred Grohmenn's Calculated Eccentricity

"Style is just the outside of content"
Jean-Luc Godard

Last month I was driving through the Canton of Vaud, where Godard has lived for years in relative isolation, returning from a visit to the Rolex Center in Lausanne. This is the latest building by SANAA to be completed this year, part of the expansive university campus of EPFL that fronts Lac Geneva. All said, it's a great building. Style is the main theme, however, and it is worth pretty much every penny of it. The content, as Godard referred to, is not in the architecture per se, but in the users, the mobile devices and the relaxed way the EFPL students have appropriated the building, working in groups, lounging on the sloped floors or alone at a white-on-white Eamesesque round table with an Artemide lamp.

I did write lamp. One of the key beauty moments of the project other then the steep undulating floor plane that will soon be on the cover of most design mags once the project is fully complete, is the lack of any light fixture in the ceiling. All lighting is either from single desk lamps placed randomly on tables or rare up-light fixtures - huge "light cans" in fact - on the slender steel columns that are equally randomly placed throughout the building. The ceiling can then appear as a calm, uncluttered surface that follows in parallel with the slopping floors.

In terms of style, then, it is found in the project's overall fluid and randomness of form (this does not go unappreciated to most visitors: the project has become a place to visit on weekends by young families, retirees on an outing and some star-struck architects literally frozen in place as they contemplate what they never thought would be possible to build - an image of an idealized future - that every paragraph in the Swiss building code would rule-out); randomness found equally in terms of the structural design of the large spanning undulating concrete slab touching the ground at odd locations, as well as with the steel columns that support the roof above.

This overall freeform appearance - the stylistic randomness - clearly was less difficult to conceive formally, as to build. This is the work of Manfred Grohmenn, the structural engineer, who is largely quoted on the design theory of the project in the local Lausanne press. He would probably cringe at the concept of randomness in a colloquial sense, but in fact this is the greatest per formative challenge (or fun, at the expense of the project) offered to structural engineers today: optimizing slenderness, stress and strain (all measures of structural performance-based loading calculations, their alignments or lack of, or their susceptibility to buckling) in asymmetrical architectural designs.

Manfred's response to this challenge is what makes the supporting form seem effortless. There are few lateral braces in the project, huge in fact, that catches one’s eye every so often, and clearly says that this eccentric design, was a difficult exercise in eccentricity of structural loading. It appears that no vertical weight, is positioned to pass vertically to the ground, but has to be taken up off-center by the "floating" concrete floor of the building. This introduces a rotation that would normally pull the roof over to one side - an eccentricity (a structural engineering term) that is quite literal in this project - as all of the walls in the project are in glass offering no bracing and there are few if any cores to stabilize the building as would be the case in a typical building type.

The apparent effortlessness of the project, the ease with which it appears to float and land simply on various curved edges of the elliptical openings that define the interior spaces (and roofscape, if ever seen from above), is the hard work of German engineers Bollinger + Grohmenn, working in tandem with the local contractors. They have given style to the outside of SANAA's Rolex Center - in the best sense of the term - leaving the content and the choreography of uses to the students within. Let's hope that the soon to read blogs and articles on the project give equal weight to both qualities of this striking project by our friends in Tokyo.

16 March 2010

Looking Back / Looking Forward

2000 - 2010: 10 Years of Collalborations:

2x4 Acconci Studio Adjaye Associates Allied Works ArupLighting BBB Barkow Leibinger Petra Blaise Boucher Landscape Buro Happold CSA LERA Michel Desvignes Takashi Murakami Diller + Scofidio Exploration Architectures FMSP Front Hood Design Innovision Jean Nouvel Max Fordham MGMT Design Mosbach Paysagiste Paratus Group I.M.Pei Repérages Dominique Perrault Renzo Piano RFR Richard Smith SANAA SAPS Studio Rodel Tillotson Design Associates Tod Williams + Billie Tsien Tombazis Transplan Transolar Vanguard William McDonough


When not doing our own design projects - many of which may be familiar to you, from the Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum (SAAM) - we prepare a steady stream of shorlist RFP’s, of which a sampling is found on this poster.

These demonstrate our efforts to forge new collaborations with other architects or engineers we have not worked with before. By initiating each of these RFP’s and creating the team specifically for a given site or museum type, we remain faithful to the reason why we started our studio in the first place: making architecture in collaborative teams that can bridge two design firms and various partners on a single project.

Now in our tenth year, the museum list below, from new construction to expansions, feasibility to exhibit installations, is the result of many of the or our RFP proposals, a list that remains inevitably incomplete and open to new collaborations.


Asian Society & Museum
New York, NY

Centre Pompidou Paris, France

Dar Al Bacha, Patti Cadby Birch Morocco Palace of Arts Marrakech, Morocco

Guggenheim Museum
New York, NY

Institute for the Study of the
Ancient World New York, NY

Institute of Contemporary Art
Boston, Massachusetts

Japan Society & Museum
New York, NY

Kuwait National Museum
Kuwait City, Kuwait

Miho Museum of Art
Shiga, Japan

Morgan Library & Museum
New York, NY

Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée Marseille, France

Musée Dobrée
Nantes, France

Musée du Louvre-Lens
Lens, France

Musée Européen de la Photographie Paris, France

Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec, Canada

Museum of Arts & Design
New York, NY

Museum of Modern Art (mudam)
Kirchberg, Luxembourg

National Museum of the
American Indian New York, NY

New York Public Library
New York, NY

Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts

Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
Bangkok, Thailand

Rubin Museum of Art
New York, NY

Saint Louis Art Museum
Saint Louis, Missouri

San Antonio Museum of Art
San Antonio, Texas

Sheikh Zayed National Museum
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) Washington, DC

The Jewish Museum
New York, NY

Toledo Museum of Art, Glass Pavilion, Toledo, OH

World Trade Center Memorial Museum New York, NY

Yale Art Gallery
New Haven, CT.


Vito Acconci

Anthony McCall

Daido Moriyama

Takashi Murakami

Yoko Ono

Dennis Oppenheim

Mike & Doug Starn.

For more on the Louvre-Lens ground-breaking, go to:• www.dezeen.com/2010/01/08/louvre-lens-by-sanaa• www.bustler.net/index.php/article/musee_louvre-lens_breaks_ground

10 March 2010

Renovation and expansion of an archeological museum in Nantes, France

Imrey Culbert in the role of museum architect and gallery designer, in association with architect Dominique Perrault (DPA) of Paris (Mandataire), have won the competition for the expansion and renovation of the Dobrée Palace, a campus of 14th to 19th Century structures and an enclosed garden within the historical centre of Nantes, in North-West France. The team bested five invited firms from a pool of 131 submitted RFPs. Kengo Kuma of Tokyo placed second in the final jury decision based on submitted design proposals on November 24th, 2009.

The project includes new underground skylight galleries and public facilities and the renovation of the existing galleries geared to new display and media strategies for the largest collection of archelogical artifacts in the region, covering 75,000 square feet. Perrault's overall design strategy has been to conceal all new construction under an expansive horizontal glass roof that literally becomes the plinth of the historical manoir building. This scheme resembles an un-built project by Perrault from the mid 80's, where a circular glass roof becomes the plinth of an historic villa. Culbert was a draftsperson more then 20 years ago at Perrault's 6-person fledging office, when early competitions were marked by what has since become his signature design move: excavated or concealed building volumes such as the Berlin Velodrome and Olympic Swimming Pool and the recent Ewa University Campus in Soeul. This project is DPA's first museum project despite having built major public buildings on three continents. Our firm's role and experience with museum expansions in landmarked sites, was key to the team selection for pre-qualification and in the winning design.

Our interventions in the 3 storey Palace, are to place archeological artifacts in rooms that are far from the standard materials and tonality of enthnographic installations. Taking references from artists Anish Kapoor, James Irwin and Rachel Whiteread the design features free-standing plinthes made of booring in the existing brick, concrete and site fill; circular casework, double-tiered in reflective materials; reverse casting of damage features of historical rooms (fireplaces and door features), and rooms sheathed in scrim unifying the rooms and allowing for diffused backlighting from the numerous and oddly sized existing windows. In this way, the sequential experience of the galleries in small and confied spaces will be appear more expansive and the viewer challenged to see the objects out of "context", first as individual aesthetic objects, then as culturally linked to a greater storey line defined by the curators.

Competition Design Concept Text (in French)

Le concept de Trace :
"L’idée conceptuelle générale repose sur la notion de conservation du Palais Dobrée et la notion de trace.
Dans cette perspective, la trace comme lieu d’un croisement entre passé et présent et la question du rapport (des individus, des sociétés) à la trace constitueront des objets privilégiés de réflexion.

Le concept de Transversalité :
« Un Parcours a l’attention de tous les Publics »
Notre culture consumériste nous insiste a chercher différemment. Notre comportement change, nous développons une attitude séquentielle. Il faut donc répondre par un modèle de flexibilité. Refléter un changement culturel dans la perception narrative. La nouvelle génération de visiteur, habitue à l’utilisation de l’internet ainsi que d’autres media de recherche et de savoir électroniques, expérimentent le mode de façon moins chronologique que leurs parents. Sauter d’un point à un autre, revenir en arrière, raconter l’histoire sans ordre particulier. La culture s’adapte à une forme de consommation plus personnalisée. Donner le choix au public ou plutôt aux publics (familles, touristes français et étrangers, scolaires, spécialistes) est l’une des composantes majeure du procédé scénographique proposé.

Le concept de « Carottage » et couches sédimentaires:
Forées verticalement à travers un mille-feuille de sédiments, elles permettent une lecture directe du temps, de bas en haut. Une mémoire du passé. Compression de couches successives, elle contient en réduction les effets de la puissance tectonique et de la transformation au fil du temps. Principe fondamental de la stratigraphie, branche de la géologie qui étudie la succession des couches sédimentaires.
La notion de superposition, de stratification, de surimposition et à la façon dont ces procédés permettent de marquer le temps, en le compressant ou en le dilatant.
Ce carottage temporel, c’est aussi doter l’objet d’une valeur d’échantillon, ignorant toute forme de hiérarchie sociale, enregistrement-témoin des transformations de la société, enclenché au temps zéro de la modernité.

Descriptif des dispositifs architecturaux et muséographiques

Inspiré de l’intervention artistique de Robert Irwin, le dispositif détourne à son profit certains caractères propres au lieu. Une structure légère de membranes translucides blanches tendus entre lesquelles on circule s’installe le long des murs existant, créant ainsi dans un fonctionnement proche de l’autonomie, un espace dans l’espace, dans un dédoublement des parois existantes. Préservant à la fois la Trace d’un passé existant afin de mieux le détourner dans une redéfinition des lieux d’exposition.
Provoquant des phénomènes visuels il s’agit là de perception. Les voiles-écrans de tergal quasi transparent captent la lumière naturelle, absorbant ou au contraire renvoyant avec la netteté d’un miroir les images. Projection, diffraction, obstruction, superpositions... Le dispositif fonctionne sur plusieurs niveaux temporels échelonnés – on observe, on s’observe, enfin on observe les autres. Ce sont ces temps décalés d’un visiteur à l’autre qui permettent à l’expérience de fonctionner à plein. Processus de «dévoilement» progressif, dans cette performance qui positionne les individus tour à tour en sujet et en objet.
Chaque espace revêtu ainsi de leur voile-écran, explore les variations colorées de la lumière artificielle en retro éclairage et donne ainsi a l’espace son identité propre. L’impact lumineux permettant tout à la fois d’atténuer ou au contraire de dévoiler le traitement du mur existant (ex. plaquage de bois sculpté) selon l’abstraction du contexte des objets exposés. La couleur, quand a elle, sera utilisée comme repérage des différents espaces, créant un flux intuitif dans les lieux. La couleur sera définit pour une mise en valeur et une lecture de l’objet. Elle permettra aussi, par modification dans le spectre de couleur, une adaptation aux changements progressifs de la lumière naturelle extérieure au cours de la journée.

L’utilisation de la couleur ainsi que ces vitrines écrans introduisent ainsi la notion de Modularité.
Puis à la manière de Rachel Whiteread, c’est un travail sur l’empreinte que nous proposons de développer. Utiliser comme « moule » les éléments du Palais Dobrée afin de pérenniser « le vécu » et pour créer une sorte de « carottage négatif », une inversion du procédé." Ludmilla Cohen et Tim Culbert

Vito Acconci. Courtyard in the Wind,Darren Almond. A Bigger Clock, Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig, 1999, Sophie Calle, Olafur Eliasson, 360° room for all colours, 2002, Tim Hawkinson, Damien Steven Hirst. Lullaby Spring, 2002,Robert Irwin. Excursu: Homage to the Square3, Anish Kapoor,Carousel 2004, James Turrell. Skyspace, 2006, Rachel Whiteread. Ghost (1990)

09 March 2010

Buffer Space and Mobility: Defining parallel performative use in a singular structure

Centre Pompidou Mobile: A limited invited competition for a mobile art structure.

Concept Description: Our reading of the project, that may distinguish the potential design from those of three other competing teams, is to see the enclosure of the built project - architectural and engineering-wise – as distinct from the performance of the art display within it.

Though the performance of casework (vitrines), humidity control, artifact security, access to art works for rotation, as well as the design for new flexible format for display, much meet a high integrated performance – this does not mean that enclosure of the public and enclosure of the artifacts are equal and the same thing.

To distinguish our team’s future design work, and how to respond to the exigencies of the programme, we see the mobile structure as a climatic and environmental buffer, where low-energy means of comfort control, that would need to respond to a wide public use with widely varying visitors at various times of the day. Developing such a structure and its energy performance, to allow for both passive and active environmental controls, will be the challenge of this design: To create a performative space that at its scale and level of costs, will be iconic and demonstrative at the same time.

With certain art on display for shorter periods, or in materials that warrant natural light, we will consider a roof enclosure that is operable to respond to this need – operable as in stationary mobility. Equally this operable natural daylight source, should allow for controlled lower light levels, without resorting to a black-box performance, yet allowing for various projected or integral media that may be used in the galleries or adjacent spaces.

By “loosening” the environmental performance of the public spaces themselves, even within the galleries, without sacrificing comfort, security or other performative criteria requested, leaves us much larger room to focus on the casework (vitrines) as the focus of specific art/conservation requirements.

In this way, the project will entail a two tiered consideration in design, on the mobile building structure itself, and the secondary interior enclosure to artifacts on display. This two-tiered system, though typically present in standard museums, is oppositional and strategic in our design proposal, allowing for far more creative and performative responses to both – separately and intertwined.

The mobility of the design, will be not be solely established by the efficient mounting and demounting of the structure, but in the mobility of the viewer in the volumes and the perception of the art, in an active role.

We see that “Mobility” will be best served by creating a buffer architectural and engineering enclosure, leaving the highest performing spaces to the art itself – the vitrines or other installations – and in the process giving the centre both its identity and its performative use.
In this way the Centre Pompidou Mobile will be a singular performative structure for art.

Conceptual competition text by Tim Culbert for the joint-venture team of Explorations Architecture (Mandataire) + Imrey Culbert. Three firms were selected to make design proposals for the mobile Pompidou structure in 2009.

UP-DATE : Expansion of the Musée National des Beaux du Québec

Agrandissement du MNBAQ International Architecture Competition, Quebec

We have been shorlisted for a design competition for a new pavilion for the National Beaux Arts Museum in Quebec City (MNBAQ) against OMA, Nieto Sobejano, Allied Works, and David Chipperfield, from a list of 108 firms. Phase 1 of the design by our joint-venture team, BarkowLeibinger Architecken + Imrey Culbert Architects, bested Kengo Kuma, Big, Adjaye Associates and Gigon Guyer among others to move on to Phase 2 of the design, which was recently submitted to the jury. The museum will make their final decision between the five finalists by the end of March. We are in good standing.

Though we cannot share the design proposal yet, we believe this on-going competition is another successful example of our approach to creating collaborative teams for international competitions (We similarly invited Sanaa to join us, as well as Tod Williams Billie Tsien on two other successful RFP shortlists in France).

Here’s an outline on how we approached the MNBAQ:
We believe our project reinforces a keen program directive of the museum committee for this competition: to create a coherent additive pavilion to a complex site of buildings and historical landmarks - from the small scale of the Wolfe fountain, to wide views of the Plaines d'Abraham; from the vertical height of the St. Dominique church, to the over-shadowing presence of the rehabilitated Prison - so that the new Pavilion neither dominates nor recedes in their presence.

The typological form of the building – a two-storey mat-building - acknowledges the very dichotomy of the design challenge: by creating a mineral form, above a light base it acknowledges that the pavilion is to be both additive and visible - the new face of the MNBAQ - while at times able to recede and fuse with its site. Designed equally from interior to exterior, it is everything but overpowering. The visible, open, public spaces at ground level are there to support the temporarily of art production or art display on the vast floor above. Temporality and Permanence meet. The two vocations of the art museum merge: presenting art (over defined periods) and conserving art (for future generations).

Our joint design is straightforward and keenly economical to build. It uses natural daylight saw-tooth roofs through-out, which defines the formal quality of the building. The sculptural effects of the facades - a solidified and facetted form - will allow the building to come to the fore, the transparency and reflectivity of the ground level, reflecting and connecting visitors approaching the building, the surrounding landscape, and responding to the unpredictable lighting conditions by week or time of day. In this way, then, the building operates on a very functional level, intended like a Dan Graham pavilion in a park, to instigate these encounters and frame a context - here, in Quebec, both historical and new.

Art commissioned works, will be challenged with this building and in the process the new or repeat visitor, will be made that much more aware of the art, their place in its viewing, how spectatorship is created and questioned, or just to rethink how one "does" art. This is a more immediate encounter with art: a jestering for attention.

Given the competition's ambitions - and to paraphrase Andreas Ruby - not to create a generic space for the experience of art, the potential here is for a project that aims to create different modes of relationship between art and the viewer than the encyclopedic museum or other art spaces do. Named a "pavilion", rather then an addition or a wing, as commonly done, the museum committee has taken a delightful risk: that the budget-conscious project is to be seen primarily as one of transitory experience. If we are not mistaken, says Ruby, the etymological origin of Pavilion, is the word papillon, French for butterfly, who's short life is so transitory. The reference is more than metaphor: in our design the pavilion literally takes flight above its base, taking the visitor with it. There is now an interior encounter to instigate, to curate and that is where the director and her curators come into play.

Internal to the pavilion, is the former Cloister, recreated as a triple height multi-faceted, user-directed, "auditorium". There is no "cloistering" of programming here, but one of multi-tasking experience by the visitor. This is the transitory, non-curated encounters that the museum as a whole – four interconnected pavilions from various periods - desperately needs. But why?: for the risk-averse, it is harder to make our case. For those keen on expecting non-prescribed uses and needs for a museum-come performance/lecture/production space in the future - then this is indeed where it will happen, how the pavilion will remain competitive and relevant.

We will have to wait and see if the Jury – chaired by Xaveer de Geyter (Bruxelles) and Nasrine Seraji (Paris) – agree. The project was designed with the excellent support of Buro Happold, ArupLighting, CSA Agency among others. Imrey Culbert initiated the RFP and established the complete project team.

Artist Andreas Ruby’s reference above is from a moderated talk by Daniel Birnbaum on the Thyssen-Bornesmisza Art Pavilion by Olafur Elisasson and David Adjaye.©TBA21.org

Viewer and the viewed: Defining visual and social encounters in the museum.

The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok (second of two posts)

My projects are born in the course of encounters. This fits with the principle that the museum or exhibition is a specific site for encounters. Each day, I imagine the organisation of potential encounters, in museums, in different countries, in political or religious institutions, at historical sites, etc. I sometimes reorganise their spaces, imagine what might be done to encourage people to look and make thamoment individual. It is also a matter of scale and means, you can’t approach encounters with individuals and vast audiences in the same way. I enjoy being challenged on different scales.”©

A major focus of ours for the Museum of Textiles in Bangkok, which defined much of our internal design debates, was centered around the very nature of the costumes on display in the permanent galleries – ceremonial, formal and Royal – that would establish a strong hierarchical relationship of the viewer and the viewed. Embodied in the costumes themselves, is this very relationship, an inter-subjective experience, one that should not pose any challenges or uneasiness in the viewer. To produce an equal amount of respect and deference, in the viewer as confronted by an image of the Queen herself (or her rare but possible physical presence), necessarily requires a display approach that will activate these emotions.

Perhaps, in paraphrasing the artist/curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, if the viewer initially perceives the costumes as objects on display – when they first declare themselves to be on show - we then need time to recognize them as subjects ©. The viewer as a subject to the Queen may require ample time or space for him/her to see the artifacts as other then embodiments of HRH. This dynamic works in reverse as well, where a visitor or group of visitors, first recognizes the “on show” presence of costumes as the Queen herself, requiring time – or some form of constituent elements of the exhibit design - to recognize them as artifacts, unique, fastidious products of specialized weaving and design. With this in mind, we were aware that the display would necessary have to confront this dichotomy (This will not necessarily be the case in the temporary or thematic galleries showing tribal costumes).

At the early stage we tested these thoughts focusing primarily on the central Queen’s Gallery, where her formal wear, most designed by Pierre Balmain in the 70’s to 80’s using traditional Thai textiles, are to be displayed. The design of a central vitrine in this space, accordingly an object of unusual scale and form, allowed us to define multiple views of HRH costumes on mannequins, while reinforcing a frontal relation to them. Never is the visitor allowed to be fully “behind” the costume – in deference to the hierarchical construct – while simultaneous allowing for framed or reflected “rear-views” of these same costumes, when visually or aesthetically valid.

The vitrine acts in this way as a highly functional structure framing various angles, reflections and positions (both of the objects on display and the viewer themselves) while simultaneously asserting social hierarchy. The scale of the vitrine, the curvature of singular panels of glass, while others facetted in non-reflective glass, the internal lighting, the tinted dual-vision mirror glass partially behind the costumes, assures the visual complexity and functionality of the display. One creates visual movement in this way, with “frozen” works of art.

However, from a design perspective, certain details of the vitrine will define a more ambiguous role of the enclosure – is it to protect, reflect, secure or separate us from the artifacts? Place them on a stage? The vitrine’s panels of glass, as we conceived one version, may not form a sealed corner, leaving a separation – not unlike a Dan Graham glass pavilion – reversing an expectation of complete protective enclosure of the objects (the museum building and gallery should perform this duty).

Staged this way, one compels the visitor, to be aware of what they are seeing and their movement (and of their own image, of being on show themselves). The Queen, physically absent, is present in maintaining the visitor’s distance and position as subject.. The visitor’s gaze is egalitarian, while the display maintains the necessary social hierarchy at work. The “choreographic tension” is there, and each viewer, in one instant of time, whether individual or in large groups, will feel this to some degree – to what degree will establish the effectiveness of our design – and then be free to move on to other galleries.

© The quote and term choreographic tension is from Olivier Bardin’s interview with Hughes & Obrist, 2008-12-07 Liverpool Univesity Press, as is his discussion of exhibitions as a specific site of encounters. Reference to the pavilions of Dan Graham courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Zürich.

Weaving Inside Out: A design process for a museum of textiles

The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok. First of 2 postings

“Exhibition is, for me, the opportunity to create a physical encounter between myself and a spectator, and between spectators. In a context where experience dominates, it is left for me to construct the scene. What I create, the formal element which can be transmitted and reactivated, is the set-up itself. The system is fixed, it is an architecture. I don’t tell how it should be occupied, but the visitor is immediately subjected to its influence.”©

We defined the working strategy for this new museum project in Bangkok – a museum dedicated solely to Thai Textiles - from two opposing directions allowing a healthy tension in our design process.

We write tension in the best sense we can imagine – taught, not static, balanced as a creative device.

So this was our approach: to design from inside to out, and, conversely, outside to in. Conceptually we looked at an artifact to be displayed and proceeded backwards to consider the museum-goer outside in the public realm; and naturally we considered a standard route - another visitor, standing at the new museum foyer, proceeding from the exterior, inside to an encounter with an artifact in a defined gallery condition.

One of these two approaches helped us define the gallery architecture, lighting and ceiling designs, derived for example, from geometries found in classic Thai textiles. The other obliged us to consider very closely, multiple and potential viewer experiences in the galleries and to factor in the wide range of potential museum-goers and what their (pre)understanding of the artifacts might be.

Designing the project in this way, taking queues from opposing directions of influence, set the stage for both physical and conceptual encounters – between the architecture and gallery design, between viewer and object; between various spectators – young Thai school children or visiting tourists; between informal or highly constructed installations; between free movement in the gallery to the static positions of objects (finely dressed mannequins) separated and enclosed in glass volumes; and between singular and multiple viewing pleasures.

What we began to create from this approach, in the visitor’s future experience of the museum or the gallery is a direct response to these formal oppositions. The constructed spaces, gallery sequence, proportions, the ability to move freely or in a defined way (e.g. chronological movement), the scale of the vitrines and the materials in the space, became the “constituent elements” of the display environment and the tools we were to work with. Combined in the design and drawing process, they activated the design tension we hoped for. Combined physically in the galleries, they will activate the visitor experience, and in the process bring him/her into a greater awareness of her surroundings and of the visual narrative on display.

This is not an artifice of process, but a means to explore the duality in inherent in the museum – in any museum - weaving together very different expectations of the visitor, inside and outside the building and in the exhibition itself.

The quote above is by Olivier Bardin, Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist in The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking. Image by Thomas Struth and the Queen Sirikit Support Foundation

04 January 2010

Bilbao Redux: The ground breaking of the Louvre-Lens Museum

In typical year-end ritual, we are seeing internet postings and mainstream press announce the worst dressed buildings to date: apparently Libeskind's ROM has been nominated twice as the "ugliest"1 of the decade. We can forgive him; the responsibility lies more with the generous philanthropist who made it possible, and for any museum professional, or elected officials that gave even an ounce of support for such a flawed building.

The ROM is hopefully one of the last museum expansions planned under the banner of the Biblao Effect, relying on form giving to lure a public into Escheresque spaces, where art plays second place to architecture. Gehry's phenomenal Guggenheim deserves to have generated far better progeny then we have seen, from Qatar to Queens, Manchester to Manhattan.

Our design for the new Louvre satellite in Lens, falls into the same predicament, in that the local elected folks have used the tired Bilbao term to effectively win over their local constituents, to bank a large portion of the $115 million new museum (The mayor of the Metz-based Pompidou Center by Shigeru Ban, which opens this May, has unabashedly referred to the project as their very own Bilbao).

Hopefully we will succeed where ROM and other similar projects have failed. As the winning design and the outcome of an international competition in 2005, our design for the Louvre-Lens is an exercise in restraint and visual simplicity, besting a few noted formalist of this last decade Hadid, Holl, Ricciotti among others;.

How did we succeed, with our two counterparts - Sejima and Nishizawa - who had never set foot in the Louvre Museum prior to our winning the commission? Perhaps by using that very handicap to maximum effect: without any "patrimony baggage" we withheld any reservations about creating huge empty spaces with no hierarchy, on one level, (nicely dovetailing with the featureless, flat character of the landscape, a former mining site) and using to certain affect a feigned ignorance of the art that the galleries could hold.

As in many competitions, the Bilbao Refrain remains alive, largely because the winning scheme is frequently based on a political wish-list for local revitalization - thus the star power of the architecture- to the detriment of real programmatic solutions. Of the 5 invited museum competitions we have participated in lately, only one gave a program for the art collection and museographic intentions of the new wing or expansion (an archeological museum in Nantes, France, which we won last month in a competition with DPA, was a rare exception).

The Louvre-Lens competition was no different in this respect. And perhaps wisely so: who, after all, had not visited the museum or was intimately familiar with the Louvre's collection from Taichen publications to framed posters in Tokyo sake bars.

Well, actually, our two Japanese partners hadn't. This gave us some advantage over Hadid and Riccotti, already earmarked to design the Islamic galleries in the Sully Wing, with Holl maintaining his stance as the sole practicing architect who considers art first (he is married to an artist and claims this podium frequently in his conferences). Ourselves, having lived more then a decade across the Seine from the Louvre prior to the Pei Pyramid, we held an original claim as frequent visitors - not so by any of the other 6 competing architectural firms (the two firms from France in the line-up were based in Bordeaux and Marseille).

Thus Sejima and Nishizawa's most effective contribution to the team, was one of actual and partially affected ignorance of the museum's western art. A rare species that required special handling - a task fallen to us - to shield this potential embarrassment from the Louvre as well as from the paying regional counterparts (the museum is being built with funds from the EC and the Regional Government and none from the Louvre itself or the State). It was up to us, then, to give this weakness some place in the scheme we designed together and more importantly to articulate the project design in a oral jury to the French Senate (Sanaa never made it to France to be present at this last ditch effort to win the commission; it was at this oral that we firmly bested Hadid for first place).

It had also been our role to define the building volumes and how an untypical visitor, expecting to visit the Louvre 2 in a familiar classical vein, would navigate such a straight forward building, linked so perfectly at corners where long immense spaces, entirely skylight, would be joined. It was our firm, then, that gave the Louvre-Lens its future and defining aspect: non-hierarchical spaces as a counterpoint to the frustrating and stilted connections of the Louvre's Palatial wings (Sanaa would give it its materiality, or absence of it, with an almost joint less facade of polished aluminum).

To this, we added, finally, in reversal of the Paris Palais where the myth of hidden treasures in the basement is a constant refrain (there are almost none - all or most of the Louvre's collection is on display, and eventually on loan to Abu Dhabi or Dallas, both great windfalls for Henri Loyrette, the Louvre President, keen on financing investments that have little to do with bettering art and content display, contrary to what his two predecessors had done for two decades) - a large visitable study-storage, viewable from the generous entrance pavilion. In this way, the core responsibility of the museum - to preserve and conserve art for future generations - would be given a new visible priority at the center of the building.

This is now a process that is 4 years in the making - in design work, in design battles over money and political opportunism - that only this last month of the decade has seen the first symbolic shovel of dirt scattered at the construction site. This is good news indeed, despite the delay, as we can now be certain that the project will be built.

Last month's site ceremony was widely covered in the French local press, in part due to the attendance of Jack Lang and current Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, the nephew of the former President who originated the agenda of decentralizing art and culture from the overreaching centrality of Paris, for which this project is a direct beneficiary.

At the December ground-breaking under gray Nord Pas-de-Calais skies, despite having invited Sanaa in a joint RFP, shepard the project from team creation to final jury presentations, from concept design to construction documents, our firm remained conspicuously absent from any credit lines, press announcements or articles on the event. Our time would have been better spent at the Serpentine Gallery, also clad in polished aluminum.

Sanaa's rise to stardom over the last decade and the opportunism of the Louvre's director, were forces to compete with that we had underestimated (as was the press's new found interest in the Louvre 3, planned for Abu Dhabi and designed by Jean Nouvel). Our focus on the design vision and dialog with museum conservators, had left us less than vigilant on the politics of architecture and public commissions.

The project, at the start of construction, will now take on its own life. With an aimed completion for 2012 - three years late - and the depressed industrial region preparing for the influx of visitors from neighboring Belgium, it will be hard not to expect the Louvre-Lens to be seen as another example of the Bilbao Effect.

The writer is a co-designer of the Louvre-Lens Satellite Museum now in construction. The opinions above, do not reflect those of his firm Imrey Culbert LP/Architectes SARL.