05 March 2012

Another Museum RFP: Nothing fits automatically

In submitting to this RFP for a new museum wing in Florida, after a 4 year seduction period with the benefactor, we probably should have taken to heart this cover title on a recent issue of MARK: ‘Architecture is like fashion. Nothing fits you automatically’.

Well the jury of Florida bureaucrats thought otherwise – though we did make if from the broad 50 firm pre-selection to the final 4 – selecting a team (and not a design) hoping to get a piece of the old Greco-Roman J.P. Getty Museum at 1/8 the cost per square foot, while aiming to make it Asian Art friendly. It only shows that there is no fit – automatic, even wishful– with such opposing mandates to start with. We gave it our best bet anyway, as one would be hard pressed to find a firm with 25 years of museum design and Asian art display in its background…………..we were just did not ready to sell the unbuildable – or the least the appropriate –for this addition to the 1925 museum wing housing Raphael “cartoons” on this seaside town. We shall see what comes of this in a few years. In any event, we gave the jury three design directions, with two schemes for the existing wing to be rehabilitated, though none were asked for in the interview process for the architect selection. Here are some of the thoughts we shared just last month.

1987-2012: 25 Years of Museum Design

Given the project’s ambition and the nature of the benefactor’s Asian collection and her collecting approach – original and idiosyncratic - and 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 most encyclopedic or traditional museums tend to do.

Named a “pavilion”, rather than an addition or a wing, as is commonly done, the search committee has taken a delightful risk, matching the collector’s vision: that the budget-conscious project is to be seen primarily as one of transitory experience. If we are not mistaken, the etymological origin of Pavilion is the word papillion, French for butterfly, whose short life is so transitory.

The reference is more than metaphor: In our design thinking in each of our alternate schemes at this early phase, the pavilion literally takes flight above its base, taking the visitor with it. There is now an interior encounter to instigate through design, non-cloistered programming, that will allow for an interconnectedness with the program of the Asian Art Center and the rest of the historic museum wings.

The New West Wing Scheme 1: An ethereal experience for art viewing

This scheme uses a variety of strategies to bring what is primarily visual - in Asian Art to the non-initiated - “back into physical space to elicit an embodied response” under natural daylight.

From peripheral to central: the complexity of the linear West Wing scheme is based on an architectural “double-take”. From a distance as well as approaching the wing, there will be a moment when something shifts from being peripheral (the museum’s historic wings, the overall site overlooking the bay will dominate) to being the center of attention. This shift will change over the course of the day: at morning the new wing will be a dominant feature reflecting back to the visitor a visual completion of the courtyard; in the late afternoon as the sun sets through the vertical glass, this new wing will in essence disappear, become negligible to the view towards and beyond it to the bay. Mostly built underground with generous ramps to enter and exit, it’s vertical profile will be modest: in essence this new wing is a land-art project giving priority to a progressive discovery of the building in the site and to the viewing of art itself.

The Jade Pavilion and Study Center Scheme 2: A contemporary architectural statement with Asian themes

This scheme is built along the pond’s edge to the East allows for an architectural idiom that is distinct from the traditional “U” forming Renaissance galleries, uses strategies proper to Asian art to bring the visual experience of the artifacts into a physical space in more direct architectural form.

Built off axis to the historic museum wings with a geometric skylight of glass and sun-shading control above - it will be both visually stunning and provide for a different type of “double-take” experience: on program, the dual or multiplicity of offerings of the space - what all museums need to account for - exhibition (where natural daylight is an advantage, for the of jade in floating unique casework), with spaces for more in-depth study of the art centre’s offering, easily accessible in direct visual connection to the artwork. The jade pavilion is thus a contemporary interpretation of an art specific gallery, functioning as an introductory exhibition space, an entrance into the realm of Asian art, and a free-access study center on multiple levels.

South Wing Renovation Scheme 3: Vertical linkages between viewing and studying spaces

Spread through the main gallery floor level and with visual openings to the 2nd level, this wing will allow for a duality of curated exhibits for works sensitive to light in spaces that today have virtually no natural daylight and provide a visual link to accessible storage and art study on the upper level. The key to the “double-take” offering here is to keep the visitor of all ages or backgrounds, aware that they may take multiple routes in their initiation into Asian art, and that a separate more intimate zone of study upstairs and spread through the gallery is available with visual connections to the artworks at the same time. The linkages or co-mingling, between viewed artifacts and studying works is what will make the renovated South Wing or Asian gallery central to the experience of the new Ringling. Creating vertical height by a central void, will allow for the necessary vertical linkages between viewing and learning.

The SW Corner Scheme 4: Intertwining support programs and an exterior performative space

To wisely invest in providing for renovation and new Asian exhibit galleries and art study spaces - less in a monumental entrance pavilion at the furthest corner of the site - we envisaged a scheme of a support base to link the West Wing and the Conservation Wing, provide much needed loading and storage area, underground tunnel and electric visitor car storage and a large exterior terrace for sculpture display above for contemporary or ancient works allowing the existing wings to remain largely untouched except at their level 1. This new exterior terrace may become a performative space for art curatorship: we could see Big Bambu by Doug and Mike Starn, two contemporary artists highly influenced by Asian Art, installed here or a piece by Xu Bing - each would serve to “elicit an embodied response” to art.

A new Entrance Wing Scheme 5: Merging Asian art and social encounters in a new entrance wing

This scheme as defined in the program gives dominance to the art study center in the West wing to be renovated and an “open-format” entrance pavilion that will operate on a very functional level. Merging an architectural design ‘sympathetic’ with the existing Renaissance styled wings and to provide for public and conservation entrance at this corner of the site is a wise and efficient proposal, though not our preferred. Our analysis of the program and experience in museum design, will call for a greater intertwining of viewable storage, study center and exhibits in user-directed areas within this new pavilion. Ideally situated close to the bay’s edge and the pond, we see it function as an exit pavilion as well based on potential visitor routes into the large surrounding gardens, with commissioned contemporary Asian Art dominating a large void within this volume. In this way new and repeat visitors will be made that much more aware of art, their place in its viewing, how spectatorship is created and questioned.

The risk in this scheme, is a wing designed less around the nature of the collection and falling into the a pattern of many museum expansions with the bulk of the project investment going towards entrance/public facilities and not the art galleries and viewing experience that are the “raison d’ĂȘtre” of the institution.

The SW corner naturally calls for an expansion here, though we are less inclined to see it as a monumental entrance per se – as the RFP calls for - but to develop a new format to the pavilion that will provide dynamic visual and social encounters for a vistorship unversed in Asian Art.

Anyone of these schemes, or iterations of them, would have been a good ‘fit’.

Images: The Swiss artist Zimoun unique installations of sound and movement on view at the Ringling Museum of Art; Banyan Trees on the Gulf Coast sitting of the museum.