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As one critic describes the avant-garde, it is a wish to avoid being superceded by any step in a historical progression, and this seems to be the one link between Schülte’s artistic approach, as well as Nouvel's. In Schütte's case - where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.