Design June 2001

Architecture for Art's Sake

Exciting new buildings can burnish art museums' reputations, and museums are commissioning lots of them.

I s it "the Bilbao effect"? After Frank Gehry's visually pyrotechnic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened its doors, in the fall of 1997, and saw more than 1.3 million visitors stream through them within a year, that museum was widely credited with having sparked an economic boom in northern Spain. Now its success seems to be a prime factor in igniting a building boom among art museums all across the United States. In the past four years at least forty American art institutions have announced, begun, or finished additions or new buildings, and a goodly proportion of these involve architecture as spectacle. Robert A. Ivy, the editor in chief of the journal Architectural Record, explains the phenomenon this way: "Gehry's Bilbao has conflated cultural, economic, and political interests, alerting all to what a dazzling object in the cityscape can accomplish."

As might be expected, much noteworthy activity is occurring in northeastern and West Coast urban centers. Widely publicized plans call for a lower-Manhattan branch of New York's Guggenheim Museum, a new bundle of titanium ribbons similar to Bilbao's and also by Frank Gehry; and an extension to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art by the visionary Dutch firm headed by Rem Koolhaas. In Philadelphia the Alexander Calder Museum has been announced, designed by Tadao Ando, the Japanese Zen master of light and concrete. In Hartford, Connecticut, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest public art museum in the country, is planning an expansion designed by an experimental Dutch team called UN Studio, known for its high-concept work. And in Boston three art institutions—the Museum of Fine Arts, the Harvard University Art Museums, and the Institute of Contemporary Art—also have ambitious building plans.

On the West Coast, Bellevue, Washington, boasts a brand-new art museum by Steven Holl, who has been acclaimed for his recent museum of contemporary art in Helsinki. And San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums, seeking to redesign the historic M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, have chosen the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, which is best known for having recently turned a former power plant in London into the monumentally scaled Tate Modern.

Mid-American cities, though they are often considered to be more culturally conservative than cities on the coasts, are not lagging behind this trend. Denver taxpayers two years ago approved a $62.5 million city and county bond initiative to fund a 146,000-square-foot extension to the Denver Art Museum which has been designed by the Berlin-based avant-garde architect Daniel Libeskind; the museum is raising another $50 million in endowment to cover operating costs. Last July the city's mayor, Wellington Webb, predicted that the jumble of metal-clad, faceted geometric forms that make up Libeskind's design will "put us on the map as a world-class destination city."

St. Louis will actually be the site of the first Tadao Ando museum in the country, when the private Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, created to house the Pulitzer family's famous collection of modern art, opens this fall. Also in St. Louis, Washington University has plans for a new museum and arts-department building by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, who is known for combining high tech with high craft; and the Forum for Contemporary Art has broken ground for a new building, sited next door to the Pulitzer Foundation, that has been designed by Allied Works, a sophisticated firm in Portland, Oregon.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee is introducing the first U.S. project by the futuristic Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava: an extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum's existing building. And Cincinnati will have the first U.S. project by Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born, London-based architect whom many regard as one of the field's most exciting practitioners: a new building for the Contemporary Arts Center. Art institutions in Savannah, Georgia; Kansas City, Missouri; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; and the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina have also recently announced building plans.

Needless to say, architects and museum professionals are delighted with the trend, seeing it as a chance to create or commission great art. A museum building is now often thought of as monumental sculpture—potentially the most important work in an institution's collection. How paintings and sculpture actually fit into the bold new forms remains somewhat controversial. Mimi Gaudieri, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and other enthusiasts among professionals in the field insist that there's no conflict between a museum's mission and high-profile architecture. "On the contrary, an exciting building lends itself to art," Gaudieri says. "It's part of the growth of the whole museum field. Years ago we were just sleepy institutions with no profile, and all of a sudden things have changed. Museums have woken up. We are much more aware of the community and are working more closely with it." Museums realize that an engaged public expects not only new galleries but also grander lobbies and more lecture halls, libraries, cafés, and shops, all of which may help to further engage the public—including potential donors. "I see financial support for this," Gaudieri says, "but I also see community support."

M ilwaukee, Cincinnati, and Savannah provide good case studies in communities' response to innovative architecture. In Milwaukee the daily Journal Sentinel has published a number of articles over the past year about Santiago Calatrava's 142,000-square-foot extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum. More than a few of these gleefully contrasted the stereotype of Milwaukee as a frozen outpost of beer and blue-collar values with the reputation that international acclaim is sure to bring. A piece published last June quoted the executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau, William A. Hanbury, anticipating the Calatrava addition (and sounding very much like Denver's Mayor Webb): "We've never had that one icon—except for maybe a bratwurst—that we can say is most reflective of Milwaukee as a world-class city and destination."

The budget for the Milwaukee project has grown from $35 million, the figure announced when plans were unveiled five years ago, to $100 million, and the museum has already raised $83 million of that, most of it from private donors. The museum's director, Russell Bowman, says that at first he worried that the dramatic design might be controversial, but his fears turned out to be needless: "It was immediately embraced and became the driver of the capital campaign."

Calatrava, who is known for his spiky, organic shapes, has designed a long, low appendage to the museum's building (originally designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, with an addition by David Kahler that was completed in 1975) on the shore of Lake Michigan. New galleries inside the appendage opened last month. The civic "icon" appears at the far end, away from the original building: a soaring, ninety-foot-high kinetic structure with curved fins of high-tech carbon fiber. This is expected to be complete in the fall, once some engineering glitches have been worked out. Called a brise soleil, it is functional as both a sunshade—controlling heat and light in the dramatic glass entry pavilion below it—and an image builder. It can be seen symbolically as a sail or a wing, and locals have already anointed it, according to Bowman, "our St. Louis arch, our Sydney Opera House."

For a time it seemed as if all Milwaukee had developed a crush on Calatrava. By the middle of last year he had been asked to design four other projects in the city, including a high-rise apartment building and a gymnasium complex at a local engineering college. All but one of these, a footbridge over the Milwaukee River, have been quietly shelved—which is for the best, Bowman says. "Many people saw the impact ambitious architecture had on our project and thought to emulate it. That's an important idea, and I hope some of the projects can go forward, but I don't think Calatrava should be the only architect for Milwaukee."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In