When the Museum of Modern Art announced in April that it would demolish its next-door, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects-designed neighbor (the 12-year-old celebrated former home of the American Folk Art Museum) to make way for its forthcoming expansion, it drew the proverbial line in the sand. If you (like Paul Goldberger, Annabelle Selldorf, or me) were an “architecture person,” you sided with the building, decrying MoMA’s “Hideous Act of Architecture-cide” and the loss of a rare, contemporary masterpiece. But if you (like most people) were not, you heard the news, read the Jerry Saltz verdict that “virtually every person in the art world believes that the Williams-Tsien building is a terrible place to look at art,” shrugged, and continued to work on your crossword puzzle.
So what’s the big deal? The intensity and contrast of these reactions speak to the strange underlying dynamic that has always existed between Big Art and Big Architecture. The two creative industries typically occupy separate cultural planes, but the inevitable task of designing a museum — the no-man’s land between the territories of two distantly related tribes — will occasionally foment a veritable clash of the Titans. These bastions of significant wealth, power, and influence are driven by egos with wholly different interests to serve. As a result, their perceptions of the world vary greatly, as do their criteria of what makes good museum design: Architecture takes into account a building’s interaction with its surroundings, its use of material, the expressiveness of its form. The art world, on the other hand, wants to know how the art is going to look inside and which floor the café is on.
Outcomes vary. Many times the two reach a harmonious, in some cases even glorious, compromise, but when their respective needs don’t align (and they rarely do), the ensuing fight can become downright undignified. The American Institute of Architects’ petition urging against the Folk’s destruction actually echoes a similar protest of a different time, but nearly the same place. In 1959, 21 artists, including Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning issued a formal complaint against an atrocity of a building that allegedly threatened their very ability to exhibit art: the Guggenheim, a sci-fi stack of concentric rings designed by architectural deity Frank Lloyd Wright. As the architect boasted that his new building would make the Met look like a “Protestant barn,” the artists argued that, “The basic concept of curvilinear slope indicates a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary for the adequate visual contemplation of works of art.” Today, we find that they were absolutely right.
The Guggenheim / Courtesy of Kwong Yee Cheng via Flickr
While the case of Wright v. Art has been settled, the ultimate fate of the former Folk has yet to be decided (MoMA expansion architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro recently made a request to explore schemes that would save their friends’ building, to which the museum said, “Okay”). While waiting for the final outcome of architecture’s efforts to save the slim, bronze-alloyed building in the shadow of the mammoth museum, ARTINFO surveyed this year’s stunningly contrasting responses to the places where two cultural entities, art and architecture, collided.
DOWNTOWN WHITNEY VS. DOWNTOWN NEW YORK
“It’s not about architecture per se,” Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg recently said of the institution’s new, currently under-construction Meatpacking District home. What the new Whitney is about is a kind of deferential design that poses no threat of detracting from the art, and for that reason, the staid, predictable architecture of Renzo Piano was the museum’s safest bet. The Pritzker Prize winner has fine-tuned the science of filling a space with the optimum amount and intensity of natural light for displaying art, namely because he’s done exactly that with designs in the past — formulaically, over and over and over again. The Whitney's risk aversion shortchanges the Marcel Breuer masterpiece it leaves uptown and will stand as a wasted opportunity to make a statement in New York City’s hottest hotbed of experimental architecture.
The architecture perspective: “A building that is not bad so much as it is aesthetically unremarkable…” — Anna Kats, ARTINFO
“… a thoroughly corporate museum—airy, spacious, efficient, and utterly sterile.” — Justin Davidson, New York magazine
The art perspective: “Artists will go wherever they can if you give them that space.” — Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo
“Better from the inside than the outside.” — Whitney drawings curator Carter Foster
Verdict: At least everyone is on the same page.
DILLER SCOFIDIO + RENFRO VS. HIRSHHORN MUSEUM
For four years, the Hirshhorn sought the appropriate funding to build the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, a massive bubble designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro that would house the temporary “cultural think-tank” of former museum director Richard Koshalek’s dreams. The subtle implication of this temporary pavilion, installed in the center of Gordon Bunshaft’s concrete donut to connect it to the exterior, is that the architectural spectacle would attract visitors that the art alone could not. In light of inflating (pun intended) costs, the museum burst the Bubble in June, and Koshalek left along with it.
The architecture perspective: “It is a shame… It offered an alternative to the tendency of everything in Washington to turn into stone, a monument, a memorial to past values and ideas, and an example of mediocrity.” — Aaron Betsky, Architect Magazine
The art perspective: “Without the prospect of needed funding, we cannot undertake this project at the same time we are facing significant financial challenges that affect the entire Smithsonian.” — Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough
“…the Bubble seems like little more than an inflated take on the event-as-art endeavor… The interior of the cylindrical donut would be a no-man’s land for the purposes of showing art… But it doesn’t sound like art has anything to do with the Bubble.” — Kriston Capps, The New Republic
Verdict: Truly, the outcome was probably for the better.
JAMES TURRELL VS. CITY OF LAS VEGAS
James Turrell’s blockbuster “Aten Reign” (2013) on view now at the Guggenheim is arguably the best artistic use of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda ever; its illuminated rings speak directly to the spiraling ramp hidden behind its scrim, demonstrating the sublime potential that exists when art and architecture work in tandem. Defying all art exhibition convention, Turrell has simultaneously accomplished the same feat in the most unthinkable of places: Las Vegas (in one location, a luxury department store, no less). Despite the perpetual vulgarity and neon signage that would compete with the meditative works of light Turrell has installed there, the city possesses a quality that makes it utterly compatible, as architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown articulated in their 1972 book “Learning From Las Vegas.” Amid the billboards and slot machines, “Space is limitless, because the artificial light obscures rather than defines its boundaries,” they wrote in this earlier independent context, unknowingly casting Las Vegas as a city-scaled Ganzfeld. Despite the shattered planes on the interior of Daniel Libeskind’s Crystals at CityCenter department store (art exhibition always prefers right angles), Turrell’s “work is a startlingly seamless fit for this schizophrenic setting,” ARTINFO’s Ben Sutton found. “Up close they frame views of Libeskind’s sweeping skylights.” There is no butting of heads there.
The art perspective: “Amazing!” — opinion at large
The architecture perspective: “Amazing!” — opinion at large
LACMA VS. LOS ANGELES
Like Los Angeles as a whole, LACMA’s sprawling, discordant, difficult-to-navigate campus is the result of design-as-you-go grafting — in addition to many a compromise to trustees’ whims. Director Michael Govan’s mission to raze four of the museum complex’s original buildings does not illustrate a case of art versus architecture, but instead a bridging the gap between the two. His current $650-million proposal replaces the deteriorating, unloved buildings of William Pereira’s 1965 design with a singular dramatic structure by Pritzker-winning architect Peter Zumthor, much to the delight of architecture wonks and mild appreciation of art enthusiasts. Zumthor’s solar panel-clad “Black Flower” design is an inkblot shape that appears to ooze out of the adjacent La Brea tarpits. With its floor-to-ceiling glass, it opens the institution to the surrounding neighborhood and has the potential to elevate LACMA's visible presence — once the museums find the funding. In opposition to the designers of LACMA’s ungainly past, neither director nor architect are willing to make any compromises.
The architecture perspective: “Zumthor's plan… has the potential to be the most thrilling piece of civic architecture built in Los Angeles since Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.” — Christopher Hawthorne, LA Times
The art perspective: “It’s very gutsy.” — Terry Semel, LACMA board member
Verdict: While the jury is out until the funds are in, Govan's take-no-prisoners approach to LACMA's redesign is a force we fully support.