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."

Cincinnati would appear to be just entering its crush phase with Zaha Hadid. Her new building for the Contemporary Arts Center broke ground this spring and is scheduled for completion in 2003. Hadid's doings are frequently mentioned in the local press, but she has so far received invitations to design only modest additional local projects, such as sets and costumes for a production of Aida (since postponed) and a pig for Big Pig Gig (this is Cincinnati's version of the charity events now held in many cities in which celebrities are asked to decorate things of a particular kind—plastic cows, fish, hats—which are then auctioned off).

The low-key but positive reception Hadid is getting is notable in part because Cincinnati is where a decade ago the arts center and its director at the time, Dennis Barrie, were prosecuted on grounds of obscenity for presenting an exhibition of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe. Seven "transgressive" images among the 175 photographs on view were hotly denounced—and defended—nationwide. "People outside this region remember the Mapplethorpe exhibition," the center's current director, Charles Desmarais, says, "and they conclude that the CAC is somehow in conflict with the community." But, as Desmarais points out, Barrie was ultimately acquitted. "This is a largely conservative community," he says, "but we have some of the most influential, progressive people supporting us."

Fundraising in Cincinnati, as in Milwaukee, took off when the celebrity architect's vision was unveiled. Also as in Milwaukee, at that point it needed to: Before Hadid signed on, the budget was a modest $15 million. Afterward, Desmarais says, "we kept upping the goal, and we've now raised over thirty-three of the total thirty-four million." He adds, "The enormous attention this building has gotten in the press has been a huge part of why we've been successful." More than two thirds of the money has been privately raised.

The arts center, which does not collect but presents temporary exhibitions, broke ground late this spring for the 82,265-square-foot building. Desmarais says, "We had a pretty good sense from the start that we'd have success." The only doubts expressed by his largely Jewish selection committee were about whether prospective major donors might object to funding a design by an Iraqi woman. "The question was raised, and they came up with the right answer—that they were not going to be limited by their fears but would make sure people knew why this choice was made."

The reason for the choice, Desmarais says, had everything to do with exciting design. Hadid's plans will allow the arts center to function as an organism within the downtown cityscape. They feature what the architect calls "a kit" of interlocking galleries of different sizes, shapes, and heights, unified by an "urban carpet" of concrete that starts at the street and sweeps up all six levels. The renderings depict square concrete horizontal tubes in a loose, vertiginous stack that is cantilevered toward the street. The design has been widely praised by critics as breakthrough museum architecture.

Desmarais explains that Hadid intentionally devised something that would respond to the busy intersection outside and the lively contemporary art inside. "What we said we wanted was a building that was not just a container for art, and Zaha has taken up this theme with a vengeance. Without having a permanent collection to care for, and with a desire to broaden our audience, we took some major risks in terms of how a building might work and what it might look like." The eccentrically shaped galleries, for example, might inspire artists to create site-specific installations. "Zaha is a very avid fan of contemporary art," Desmarais says. "She is giving us a place where you will see works of art as you can see them nowhere else."

M ilwaukee and Cincinnati may be conservative cities, but their identities are less fixed than that of historic Savannah. Here a crush on a contemporary architect is less likely to form. Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art, an encyclopedic museum housed in an 1819 Regency-style mansion, needed more room for twentieth-century and contemporary art, and the museum's board chose the Israeli-born, Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie to design a 63,000-square-foot annex nearby. Safdie has designed museums in cities all over the world and won special admiration for his persistence through long, delicate political negotiations in the building of the Hebrew Union College and the Children's Holocaust Memorial, both in Jerusalem.

Persistence was also needed in Savannah. Two years ago the museum's capital campaign was abruptly halted after the city's Historic District Board of Review rescinded its approval of Safdie's design. Over the following eighteen months the debate escalated into a shouting match between those who wanted no modern building at all in their city and those who felt that contemporary architecture sensitive to Savannah's heritage could only enhance the city's beauty. The fuss wasn't about anything as showy as titanium-ribbon bundles, mechanical wings, or stacked concrete tubes: the design of the annex, to be sited on one of the many squares laid out by General James Oglethorpe in the eighteenth century, is sleek and modernist, its proportions and demeanor almost classical.

With twists and turns worthy of a southern-gothic saga, the review board put Safdie and supporters of the annex—led by the museum's director, Diane Lesko—through a series of emotional meetings in which minute details were wrangled over. The Savannah press was barraged by equally emotional letters to the editor from local residents on both sides of the issue: Safdie's design was compared to an airplane hangar and an aquarium—and, after requested changes were made, to an ant farm. Readers supporting Safdie and Lesko evoked the censorship and conformity imposed by Nazis and Communists.

Finally, last July, the board gave its approval to a much revised design, and the fundraising campaign is under way again; the budget for the project is now nearly $22 million. Safdie had initially planned an all-glass façade that would—depending on the time of day—have revealed the lobby and an undulating stone wall behind it, or reflected the trees in the square. But the review board insisted on less glass and more masonry, and on a reconfiguration of the scale to help the building blend with the surrounding nineteenth-century architecture. "It is a bit more deferential," Safdie says. "Is it better or not? I can't really answer that. It will be okay. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think so." For her part, Lesko is happy that things are finally moving again. "There has not been one innovative twentieth-century civic building in Savannah, ever," she says. "We've always said we want to do a building that Savannah will be proud of in the twenty-first century. This one will set the standard."

At least Safdie and Savannah stuck it out. In late 1999, after less than a year of negotiations, the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron gave up on their plans for a flat-roofed, glass-walled building for the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, at the University of Texas, in Austin, and walked out. The museum's trustees decided somewhere along the way that the new building should blend in with the unified 1930s campus of limestone and red-tile roofs, and last fall they replaced their first choice with the Boston firm of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, which is known less for designing architectural landmarks than for assimilating new buildings into college campuses. Perhaps one lesson to be learned from Austin and Savannah is that the Bilbao effect may be more easily replicable in cities that are—as Bilbao was—in need of a cultural identity. There are still plenty of places in America, though, where a dazzling new object may be just the thing.