4.16 / The Museum, Part 1: The Mutable Object

Architecture and the Museum

By Alex Bigman May 27, 2013

Image: Schematic design, SFMOMA expansion aerial view southeast. Courtesy of Snøhetta and MIR, Oslo and New York.

Museums are on the move. Los Angeles’s Grand Avenue is swarmed with construction crews working to complete the Broad, the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad’s largest namesake contemporary art museum to date, coming at the heels of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University that launched in November 2012. In New York, the Whitney Museum prepares to relocate to bigger digs in the Meatpacking district in 2015. When the Whitney moves out of its Marcel Breuer–designed home, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will move its contemporary collection into the building for a period of at least eight years while its own modern and contemporary galleries undergo renovation. Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will soon occupy a full four-fifths of a Midtown city block. The museum made the scandalous announcement last month that it plans to raze its recently acquired neighbor, a lauded twelve-year-old structure previously home to the American Folk Art Museum, and to rebuild it with the MoMA trimmings.1 The Miami Art Museum, in addition to taking on the name of the real-estate magnate and arts benefactor Jorge M. Pérez, will exchange its current downtown building­––what has been described as a “postmodern Mediterranean bunker”—for a light-filled waterfront pavilion in time for Art Basel Miami Beach 2013.2 These are just the largest and loudest instances of impending change that have reached the mainstream national media. The total number of museum constructions, expansions, contractions, relocations, shifts, and swaps now occurring is untold.

The subject of museum architecture is particularly salient for Bay Area art lovers, as two of the region’s most prominent contemporary art museums, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), will be largely unrecognizable as of early 2016. SFMOMA’s much-anticipated expansion toward Howard Street will double the museum’s current size and introduce a distinctive new form, designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, to the San Francisco skyline. A corollary renovation of the current, Mario Botta–designed building promises seamlessness between the old and the new structures. BAM/PFA, meanwhile, will bid adieu to its cast-concrete abode of forty-two years, a Brutalist exemplar by Mario Ciampi that unfortunately no longer meets seismic safety regulations, and will move into a former printing plant at the corner of Oxford and Center Streets in downtown Berkeley, which will be repurposed by the New York firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro (the architects also behind the Broad).

In view of these momentous redesigns, the importance of architecture—the look and shape of the structures, the distribution and presentation of space—is thrown into high relief. Indeed, as solid as SFMOMA’s off-site programming for the next three years may be, it is hard to muster the same enthusiasm for it that a visit to the Botta space would have summoned. We may go to the interim sites for the art, but there is no denying it: the museum, in the most literal sense, matters.

It bears noting that, beyond adding to the pleasure of the visit, a museum’s architecture is inextricable from the experience of the art it holds. Consider the following examples: Art historical accounts of Primary Structures, the watershed 1966 exhibition of minimalist sculpture at the Jewish Museum, have explicitly noted the contrast of the austere, geometric forms of the works of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Ellsworth Kelly against the museum’s parquet floors.3 Comparably, in a review of the recent Picasso Black and White at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, writer Jarrett Earnest poetically expresses how “the spiraling interior of the museum becomes a churning engine of consumption: a masticating mouth”––a reference to the inverted-ziggurat shape of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building.4 Looking locally, consider Barry McGee’s recent mid-career survey at BAM/PFA, which reprised massive past installations involving upended trucks and animatronic taggers. It is difficult to imagine that this exhibition would have had anywhere near the effect that it achieved (or would even have been possible) if not for Ciampi’s open, raw concrete interior.

Needless to say, architecture exerts a decisive influence on the layout of an exhibition. The New Museum seemed to acknowledge this in the introductory wall text for its recent exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which posits that “the exhibition takes the form of a kind of vertical cross section of artistic production in New York City.” Presumably, the phrase “vertical cross section” is not intended to suggest any sort of normative hierarchy organizing the works shown but rather is a literal reference to the building’s tall and relatively narrow form, which requires viewers to traverse the five-story exhibition by stairway or elevator. At the Whitney, meanwhile, exhibitions are often striking in their seemingly profligate use of temporary walls. In the recent exhibition Wade Guyton OS, an irregular scattering of narrow panels, sometimes holding as few as two paintings, served to eschew the typical linearity of museum display for a much more dynamic experience, allowing for countless possible paths through the survey. In fact, the institution’s curators owe the possibility of this approach to Breuer, who ingeniously thought to keep the ceilings relatively low and outfit them with a precast concrete grid designed to suspend modular wall panels and lighting fixtures in any number of orientations. It may be ugly, but it allows for flexibility that a sleeker design might have forbidden.

Based on these observations, it would seem that any critique of a museum exhibition must, to some degree, imply a coextensive critique of its architecture. And yet, critical discourse in art is rarely directed towards the buildings themselves. Reflections on museum architecture are left to architecture critics and, even then, only when dramatic changes occur. Of course, there have been some artists—typically ones engaged with a certain form of institutional critique—who have refused to exempt museum architecture from critical consideration. Andrea Fraser’s videotaped performance, Little Frank and His Carp (2001), in which the artist writhes erotically against the famously curvaceous exterior of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, comes to mind. For the most part, though, the reigning logic seems to be that building or remodeling a museum is, in its tremendousness, costliness, and complexity, beyond critique. The consensus is there isn’t much good in harping on something with which one is stuck.

American Folk Art Museum

53rd Street façade of building designed for American Folk Art Museum by Bilie Tsien and Tod Williams, New York. Courtesy of Vanity Fair.

In view of the present flurry of architectural shifts noted above, though, one begins to feel at least a little less stuck. The sensation may be illusory—the giddy effect of an uncommon coincidence of major changes—but the result seems to be real: critical engines are turning in high gear, questioning the movements of these museums and what they might be displacing in these acts of migration, expansion, and transformation.

Nowhere is this clearer than the tremendous backlash against MoMA’s recent plan to impose its Manifest Destiny. When MoMA announced its intention to tear down the former American Folk Art Museum, the public responded with a maelstrom of indignation, raising objections to undoing one of Midtown’s more praised and distinctive additions in recent years. Designed by the architecture firm Williams and Tsien, the Folk Art building sports a sculptural bronze facade that contrasts sharply with MoMA’s sleek, reflective glass exterior. MoMA has made it clear that its desire to raze the structure is not primarily for aesthetic reasons but rather because of an alignment issue: the smaller space, if preserved as is, would have to remain awkwardly disconnected from the larger museum, which is not ideal for exhibition design. There is also the fact that the American Folk Art Museum’s interior space, a mere forty feet wide, has always been a challenging one for exhibitions. The institution often resorted to hanging art in staircases, nooks, and narrow corridors.

The art critic Jerry Saltz has gone so far as to praise the pending demolition, condemning the space as a specimen of self-indulgent architecture that turned out to be “absolutely unusable for the purpose of showing art” (he cites Guggenheim



1. Following a vehement backlash, this decision is being reconsidered. See Robin Pogrebin, “To Raze or Not” MoMA Rethinks Plan,” New York Times, May 9, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/arts/design/moma-reconsiders-plan-to-raze-folk-art-museum.html?_r=0.

2. Carol Strickland, “Miami Museum Looks South to Go Global,” Art in America, May 17, 2013, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/news/2013-05-17/miami-museum-looks-south-to-go-global/.

3. James Meyer, Minimalism: Art And Polemics In The Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 13.

4. Jarrett Earnest, “Hungry Kisses: Tongues in Picasso,” Miami Rail, Spring 2013, http://miamirail.org/visual-arts/hungry-kisses-tongues-in-picasso/.

5. Jerry Saltz, “Saltz on MoMA’s Plan to Raze the Folk Art Museum: Good! Build Something that Has Room For Art,” Vulture, April 12, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/04/saltz-on-moma-plan-to-raze-folk-art-museum.html.

Bilbao as another museum that placed “architecture before art”).5 These widely acknowledged issues notwithstanding, Saltz’s position is the minority one by a seemingly huge margin. The general response has instead aligned with the architecture critic Justin Davidson in his proclamation that “if the museum’s architects can’t figure out a way to use Williams and Tsien’s ingenious stack of rooms, that is a failure of imagination."6

There is another step in MoMA’s expansion that bears upon this debate, if only tacitly: In addition to appropriating the former home of the American Folk Art Museum, MoMA also plans to move into the lower floors of an eighty-two-story apartment tower that is soon to occupy the adjacent lot. Altogether, the expansion totals fifty thousand square feet of new gallery space for the museum and will make MoMA into a veritable behemoth of both modern art and museum architecture. However disappointing it is that MoMA cannot tolerate the weirdness of the little building directly west, the contrasting ease with which the museum meshes with luxury apartment towers is perhaps more dismaying. A realist will say that it is but a matter of engineering. However, as literal as architecture may be, it also always carries symbolic resonance, often suggesting the politico-economic nexus in which it takes form. Reflecting on MoMA’s expansion plans and how his opinion of MoMA’s architecture has changed over time, Davidson hits this ideological nail on the head: “When Taniguchi’s expansion opened in 2004, I was awed by its sleekness and ostentatious quiet. Since then, the design has shrunk on me. The corporate chill has intensified, and so has the sense that the museum is a sophisticated apparatus to keep crowds flowing.”7


View of the original Museum of Modern Art building, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone from across 53rd Street. Courtesy of MoMA.

Indeed, it is impossible to discuss museum architecture without considering the politics and economic forces behind it, and as far as this goes, the situation on the West Coast is perhaps the messiest of all. The Bay Area received an unpleasant reality check in 2008 when the economic downturn necessitated that BAM/PFA scrap a marvelous-looking design by the Japanese architecture star Toyo Ito. Ito’s design was breezy and generously spacious, and it would have lived up to its Brutalist predecessor in distinctive albeit diametrically opposed character. The institution’s Diller Scofidio and Renfro alternative is a more cost-effective building that, judging by the boxy renderings released so far, looks like exactly that: the work of a top-tier firm for a client on a strict budget. For a state university system in dire financial straits, this modest reincarnation of BAM/PFA, in contrast to the bold grandiosity of its predecessor, makes for a somewhat painful reminder of the times of its conception.

Broad Museum

Schematic design, the Broad at the intersection of Grand Ave and Second St., Los Angeles. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, New York.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the eagerly awaited Broad seems set to open in the darkening shadow of its foundering neighbor, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where Broad also happens to serve as a trustee. Financially strapped and lacking strong leadership, the once respectable institution has become the object of art world censure of late for decisions such as pushing the resignation of its head curator, Paul Schimmel, in June 2012. Interestingly, Broad is blamed for the museum’s decline about as often as he is credited for keeping it afloat. Either way, his present position is an awkward one. As the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who is vehemently anti-Broad, points out,

Perhaps Mr. Broad has grasped that the diminution of the contemporary museum, over which he and the board have presided, could undercut the  museum for his own collection that he is building on the opposite side of Grand Avenue. The new Broad museum will thrive only if there is a  healthy, truly autonomous institution across the street; yet this health can be achieved only if Mr. Broad disengages from the contemporary museum.8

The Broad promises to be beautiful. Consisting of a massive, opaque center ensconced in a honeycomb exoskeleton, its design has been nicknamed “the veil and vault.”9 The vault, the interior of which will be devoted to archival storage in support of the Broad Foundation’s lending activities, will serve as ground to a column-less, forty-thousand-square-foot gallery bathed in ambient light streaming through the honeycomb veil. Let’s hope that MOCA recuperates. If Broad becomes implicated in its failure, the billionaire’s nearby “vault” may take on an uglier symbolism.

By way of epilogue to this survey of museum architecture and its present state of madness, I turn to a single artwork, W-120301 (2012), by Sarah Oppenheimer. Installed (if that is the word for it) at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the work consists of three rectangular tunnels, one receding into the museum’s second-floor ceiling, the next into the wall of a newly constructed third-floor gallery, and the third into the wall of an adjacent, two-story rotunda where a stairwell connects the two floors. Forming a rough Y-shape, Oppenheimer’s tunnels meet in the building’s center bowels—a hidden volume that contains the museum’s pipes, wires, insulation, and the like. This internal and unseen core tends to expand and develop odd pockets with each renovation, as new structures rarely align perfectly with preexisting ones. Oppenheimer’s piece was commissioned and executed during the museum’s latest expansion, which yielded the new third-floor gallery as well as the spatial void that renders the optical effect of the work possible.

The appearance of W-120301, as Julian Rose describes in an Artforum feature, at first seems to constitute its substance.10 From afar, the tunnels appear completely black, almost like monochromatic canvases. Upon approach, they reveal the museum bowels’ unexpected depth, ultimately yielding clear views through the building to the spaces at the tunnels’ other ends. The trick is, however, that the spaces apparent through these tunnels are not necessarily positioned directly ahead or on the same plane as one another, as they seem to be. The spaces that one glimpses through Oppenheimer’s tunnels may actually lie on a floor below or adjacent to the viewer. Oppenheimer cleverly achieves the illusion with tilted mirrors placed at the tunnels’ converging points. Through this perceptual rug-pull, the artist prompts a viewer to think about one’s real experience of museum architecture, what it includes and excludes, and how it might differ from representations thereof.

But Oppenheimer’s work is further significant in how it approaches architecture. As Rose notes, most artwork that addresses museum architecture does so unilaterally, treating it as a static given. In contrast, Oppenheimer’s work sets up a bilateral relationship between art and architecture; it necessitated ongoing discussion between the artist and the architects, with both parties having to make concessions in order for the endeavor to work. By thus wedging itself into a moment of architectural change, the work reveals the museum as a mutable object, ever subject to expansions, contractions, and shifts like the ones discussed above.

Perhaps the current bout of museum changes will end, and we’ll simply find ourselves with a new set of buildings that architecture critics will scrutinize for a time and against which particular artists will lob their critiques in the manner that Fraser did against the Guggenheim Bilbao. Perhaps, however, the rate of change that Bilbao initiated is here to stay, and we are indeed in an era characterized by such acceleration. Taking up this postmodern idea, Blake Stimson writes of altering views toward museums and such classic institutions. “Even their marble-and-mortar materiality seems surprisingly archaic, surprisingly unable to keep up with the accelerated shape-shifting of our present day, technologically enabled capitalist globalization,” he ventures.11 One can at least imagine such a state, not too far off, in which museums are emblematized not by their fixed form so much as by their flux. If such a world indeed approaches, then Oppenheimer’s work, which wedges itself into change in order to expose it and keep it literal, emerges as an important example. Critics might do well to mirror the gesture.


Schematic design, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, building as viewed from intersection of Center and Oxford Streets. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio and Renfro, New York.


NOTES (cont.):

6. Justin Davidson, “Davidson: It’s a Form of Betrayal for MoMA to Tear Down the Folk Art Museum Building,” Vulture, April 11, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/04/davidson-on-moma-plan-to-raze-folk-art-museum.html.

7. Davidson.

8. Roberta Smith, “For a Museum on the Ropes, Survival Means Hard Choices, New York Times, March 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/arts/design/los-angeles-moca-at-a-crossroads.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

9. Linda Yablonsky, “The Veil Lifts,” T magazine, New York Times, January 12, 2011, http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/12/artifacts-the-veil-lifts/.

10. Julian Rose, “Mirror Travel,” Artforum, April 2013, 241–43.

11. Blake Stimson, “What Was Institutional Critique?” Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 20–42.

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