Once upon a time, America’s art museums shouted from their rooftops, facades and galleries their European origins. But after two world wars, these treasure houses sought to free themselves from historical references and even from their American roots. In 1939, the Museumof Modern Arterected a building in Manhattan that stood like a proclamation of independent thinking.

Primacy of architecture over art

But banishing Old World garnishments didn’t guarantee that clean-lined building would be any less showy. So say artists and architects who responded to the Art Newspaper’s recent question “What makes exhibit hall successful?”

Artists Thomas Demand said that architects often build museums for their taste, rather than for the collections that will housed them.

He said that Philip Johnson disliked certain artists, like the Minimalist sculptor Carl André. “You will never see a Carl Andre in one of his museums.” Artist Cornelia Parker called out Zaha Hadid’s MaXXI in Rome for indulging her tastes, too. The interior spaces of this new national museum are dominated by her ego, she said. “The artists’ work always looks compromised as a result.” Agreeing with the artists, architect Adam Caruso used the going word for ego-driven designs that hinders the art experience: “Starchitecture.”

Size matters

Whatever you call modern architecture, it doesn’t seem to always suit the purpose of an art museum. Vast yawning spaces can reduce pictures on the wall to postage stamps.

In 1972, Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes rapped the Houston Museum of Art for its towering ceiling height of 22 feet: “One can hardly imagine a less sympathetic space for showing art.” Walter Gropius, past dean of architecture at Harvard, said that out-of-human-scale space not only overwhelm paintings, but also the people who view them.

Hitler and Mussolini, he said, received people in rooms of colossal size, seated at the opposite end of the entrance so that the approaching visitor was made to feel uneasy. “In our democratic civilization where the emphasis is on the individual the architect must not indulge in dictatorial superscale.”

The shape of things to come

Besides size, there’s the shape of a building to consider.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan for the Guggenheim Museum makes clear that a roof over an exhibition should be as awe-inspiring as anything on the walls. Maybe that’s why Andre Malraux, French minister of cultural affairs, said that America’s cathedrals are its museums and Wright called the Guggenheim bordering New York’s Central Park “a little temple in a park.” His schema for the interior space – a continuous curling, descending ramp - may be more dizzying than awe–inspiring. Lewis Mumford, architecture critic for The New Yorker wrote, “Short of insisting that no pictures at all be shown, Wright could not have gone much further to create a structure sublime in its own right but ridiculous as a museum of art.“

Maybe Jens Hoffmann, deputy director, Jewish Museum in New York had it right when he told the Art Newspaper, “I like very neutral spaces that are just straight white cubes.”

Follow the page Android
Don't miss our page on Facebook!