Friday, December 18, 2009

Other Worlds: Making Sense of Other Worldly Museum Architecture

Thinking more about that Proust quote:

In contrast to the historicist, monolithic, and temple-like museums that established the museum as an essential cultural institution and dominated urban landscapes (think the Met, parts of the Louvre), the last several decades have witnessed a dramatic shift towards innovative and often other worldly museum architecture. While many of these structures may appear to be entirely ground-breaking – alien, even – case studies of three seemingly other worldly art museums of our time demonstrate that such structures necessarily refer to nature, site, and surroundings.

Frederic C. Hamilton Building, Denver Art Museum, opened 2006, Daniel Libeskind

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum was finished in 2006 to reveal a metallic, building with multiple pointed projections. Its lead architect, Daniel Libeskind (who designed the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF) says in interview that he was inspired by an aerial view of the "craggy cliffs and complex geometries" of the Rocky Mountains. He asserts that the building is “closely rooted…with the spirit Denver” and emphasizes the importance of a “plurality of experiences” in such a cultural institution that must refer to its site and surroundings. Yet another reference to the city of Denver as home of the largest titanium-producing company, the exterior is covered with plates of titanium. The jagged structure and impenetrable metal walls suggest that the Denver Art Museum is signifying a shift away from the traditional and chaste temple-style of museum architecture and towards a style that seems to jealously guard its treasures within its walls by material rather than intimidating, historicist columns. In The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, Michael Kimmelman writes that “a vivid memory can play a mysterious role in the imagination out of proportion to its significance, like a smell or some notes of music of a breeze that triggers the recollection of a pleasant trip or a childhood game or a lost relative. It stays there, waiting.” In the same way, the Hamilton building incorporates familiar components of Denver’s geography and economy in a radically unconventional way.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, opened 1997, Frank Gehry

Just as the Hamilton Building was constructed in reference to the natural landscape of Denver’s surroundings, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was designed by Frank Gehry in the likeness of a ship and in reference to its watery site. The titanium panels fit to forms that seem to contour swiftly but randomly, catching sunlight at various angles. They are shaped this way in order to resemble fish scales and bend like the body of a fish or an undulating tide. As to the Hamilton Building, the hull of a ship and the curved form of a fish’s body are all familiar images, but have been translated in an entirely novel way to appear other worldly.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, opened 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright
(Solomon Guggenheim, Hilla Rebay, and FLW admiring the design)

The first building of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, located in New York City, is a radical departure from its contemporary designs in the 1950s as well as the predominantly rectilinear architecture of Manhattan and most skyscrapers. Possibly the most alien-looking of the three case studies, “starchitect” Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark building recalls several more familiar structures: a reverse beehive, a fat cactus, a white ribbon wound around a cylindrical base. Wright is known for his regard for nature, which "furnished the materials for architectural motifs out of which the architectural forms as we know them have been developed" (In the Cause of Architecture). While there have been many controversies as to the efficacy of Wright’s design choices (artists such as Kandinsky and critics were adamantly opposed to the winding and uneven spiral pathway to the viewing of art and unusual angles through which light streamed via the skylight), there is no denying that such a seemingly unworldly structure successfully carries connotations of more familiar objects.

These three museum buildings communicate to visitors memories and feelings that are simultaneously natural and alien. Due to this dichotomy of traditional with radical, art museums continue to remain relevant to contemporary culture precisely because they manipulate the familiar and occupy a state of wonder.



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Can't believe I just wasted an hour doing this/babbling rather than the thirty-some pages of essay/pain I have yet to write. Bad bad bad...

1 comment:

noncommittal said...

Good luck on your horrible paper! It sounds like a headache waiting to happen.

But also! Gehry is a genius.