ART museums have become the chief patrons of trendsetting architecture. The openings of new museums such as the Getty Center, in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, are anticipated with the same sense of excitement that attends the openings of Steven Spielberg blockbusters. The anticipation is explained in part by art's quasi-religious status in modern society and in part by plain showmanship, resulting from the need of museums to increase attendance. Thus after the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, announced last year that it was going to undertake a major expansion, Herbert Muschamp, of The New York Times, described the commission as "one of the most prestigious plums that is likely to fall into any architect's lap within this decade."
The Museum of Modern Art has always seen itself as being in the vanguard of progressive architecture and design. In 1932, only three years after it was founded, the museum mounted an exhibition titled "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition." The show, which popularized the term "International Style," introduced the American public to European modernists such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The idiom of Bauhaus modernism -- free-flowing spaces with movable white walls, contained in a functional box -- was incorporated into the Modern's new building, on West 53rd Street. That was 1939. Today modernism has joined the mainstream. Home-furnishings chains like IKEA and Crate & Barrel have brought modern design to the mass market. As for the avant garde, well, many upscale clothing boutiques now outmodern the Modern. Being overtaken by Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein might cause a museum to worry -- which probably explains why the Modern announced that its expansion would also involve a substantial redesign.
Breaking with tradition, the Modern decided to hold a design competition, and it invited ten architects to enter. Neither Gehry nor Meier was on the list. Nor
were other prominent museum architects, such as I. M. Pei, who was responsible for the expansion of the Louvre; Robert Venturi, who won the international competition for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London; Renzo Piano, the architect of the highly praised Menil Collection, in Houston; and Moshe Safdie, whose National Gallery of Canada is a superb art museum. The trustees picked instead a group of modernists who are relative newcomers -- mostly in their late forties and early fifties, which is young for an architect. One could say that the trustees passed up blue chips to put their money on small-cap stocks. Architecture, like the stock market, is international, and the list included Yoshio Taniguchi and Toyo Ito, from Japan; Rem Koolhaas and Wiel Arets, from Holland; Dominique Perrault, a Frenchman; the team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, from Switzerland; and, from New York, Bernard Tschumi, Steven Holl, Rafael Viñoly, and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
THIS is hardly a representative sample of contemporary practitioners. The absence of a canonic classicist such as Allan Greenberg or John Blatteau is understandable, given the museum's roots -- although both these architects would be likely to argue that their buildings are as modern as anyone else's. Certainly, though, the net could have been cast wider. Some of the most interesting buildings today are the work of architects, such as Aldo Rossi in Europe, and Thomas Beeby and William Rawn in this country, who are exploring the blurred edges between modernism and pre-modern architectural traditions. The buildings of John Ruble and Buzz Yudell, of Los Angeles, demonstrate that in capable hands a postmodern approach continues to produce humanist buildings of richness, satisfying complexity, and even humor. And what about an iconoclast such as Christopher Alexander, whose New Eishin University, in Japan, is a compelling demonstration of the theories he has explored in his writings? Since the late 1960s, when doctrinaire modernism ceased to hold sway, architecture has splintered; but you would hardly know this from the Modern's list of orthodox modernists. Or, more accurately, neo-modernists -- architectural modernism is now more than seventy years old. Nostalgia is a relative concept.