Monday, 30 May 2016

Venice - 15th International Biennale of Architecture : Thought-provoking symposium

Left to right: Adelina von Fürstenberg, Alberto Veiga, Fabrizio Barrozzi, Francisco Aires Mateus, Manuel Aires Mateus, Christoph Gantenbein

At the 15th International Biennale of Architecture in Venice, AFTW's Adelina von Fürstenberg moderated a thought-provoking symposium marking the launch of Plateforme 10, the new Lausanne museum complex which will together house the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (MCAB), Mudac and the Musée de l'Elysée on the museum experience and architecture together on one site. 

The invited speakers were: Alberto Veiga and Fabrizio Barozzi of Barozzi Veiga Architects, Barcelona (winners of the competition for Phase 1, the new MCAB, now in construction), Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus of Aires Mateus, Lisbon (winners of the competition for Phase 2, a combined museum building housing Mudac and the Elysée), and Christophe Gantenbein of Christ & Gantenbein, Basel (whose extensions of the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Swiss National Museum in Zurich open this year.) Art museums, once institutions with very focused missions of collecting, preserving and displaying important works, often of national or regional importance, have now become engrained in modern life for the public at large, for anyone with any level of interest for culture. No longer sacred, contemplative temples or mausoleums acting as repositories and storage places of masterpieces, since the post-world-war-2 boom, art museums have evolved to become interactive, welcoming, lively urban centers that are meeting places of people and ideas.  

Art museums have widened their scope with more focus on activites and performance, engaging the public and offering them outlets and programs with which to spend their increased leisure time. In the extreme, this desire to engage the public has its own dangers, as explained in visonary writer Guy Debord in his 1967 essai La Société du Spectacle.  Debord says, ‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. Tourism and human circulation is considered as consumption and fundamentally it’s nothing more then the leisure of going to see what has become banal. ”

The architecture of art museums are must-see destinations in many cities, in some cases, one of the sole reason for visitors to come to the city, as we have seen happen with Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, known as the Bilbao effect. Leaving aside tourists, with its own inhabitants, cities with great museums find that the surrounding benefit largely. The Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as the Tate Modern in London, are incredible models of what an art museum can do as driving force to regenerate economic and social life.  Beyond revitalizing areas in which they are built, museums are serving as forums for dialogue around the issues of our time, a voice and a force in shaping our future.

Given the incredible boom in museum building over the last decades, certainly there has been much debate about what makes a good museum design.  On one hand, some architects and city officials tend towards showpiece buildings that have a drawing power as art work in itself. On the other hand, artists, curators and art critics often see an overly dramatic design as upstaging and interferring with the public’s understanding and experience of the art.

Though this controversy is a very much a contemporary issue,  the conflict between the building and its contents is as old as the museum itself. Even going back to the Uffizi in Florence and the Louvre in Paris, where royal palaces were transformed for use as public museums, there has always been a desire to represent man’s greatest achievements through magnificent architecture. The Louvre’s founding in 1793 is an especially interesting anecdote, as it was created after the French Revolution. Opening on the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy, most of its collections were from the French monarchs themselves and artcrafts and paintings requisitioned from churches.  Gustave Courbet, the great artist considered today one of the first modern painters, was in 1870 Chairman of the Art Commission of Paris. He worked tirelessly to protect and preserve the collection of Louvre, considered the art of the people and to transfrorm the Louvre, a former symbol of royal architecture into real democratic cultural instrument, open to all. Today Louvre remains the most visited museum in the world.


The conference approached the following themes : 1. Art and public/museum in the city/in the world, 2. Museum architecture and its relationship with the art, 3. Museum of the 21st century/future. You can find here below an abstract of the different subjects, with some of the main questions that have been discussed :

1.Art and public/ museum in the city/ in the world
To continue to remain viable, museums have to be more and more open to transmitting the work of contemporary artists to the larger public. Instead of functioning as temples or mausoleums, they have to be lively and living spaces, truly accessible to our contemporary world.

Q:  What are some of the new ways an architect can make his building have more engagement with the public, to have more reflexive interactions with the artists and public to encourage dialogue, and be inviting and open to a wider cross section of civil society?

Museum's roles in the city have increased such that today's museums are functioning as the new meeting place in a city for people and ideas. The museum provides educational programs directed to those who have more leisure time, directs the younger generation towards culture and art activities, helps to create work and volunteer opportunities in the third sector, and strengthens the public-private partnership. Museums are often dynamic cornerstones of today's urban regeneration and friendly-city aims.

The Centre Pompidou is a model par excellence: it’s a museum that maximizes the high quality of art and culture for a large public. Another example is the Tate Modern in London.

Q: How can the architectural design of a museum facilitate its role as the new agora, urban piazza, or town square? How can a building devoted to the arts and culture better serve various disciplines towards various publics?

The idea of an art museum that can bring together art and culture from specific different geographies and eras, now has to be developed in a way that creates a dynamic relationship for a local public that is more and more diverse, coming from different backgrounds, horizons and cultures.

2. Museum architecture and its relationship with the art
NY's Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959 marked the first steps towards architectural tourism, catapulting architecture into the mainstream and making architects celebrities in their own right. This phenomenon as we know, became obvious in Bilbao where Gehry firmly proposes his philosophy that the architecture must be art in itself. Critics and time have showed that these art museum designs have upstaged what is exhibited within, detracting from the public, and the possibility to fully appreciate and understand the art.

Q: Can you elaborate on how your designs for the Pole Muséal of Lausanne and the Kunstmuseum extension in Basel can help its visitors to understand and apprecriate the art which will be installed within your creations?

The white cube, for example, emerged as an art space to show conceptual and minimal art, is now often used as a model for museum everywhere, but is not always the most appropriate way to show all types of art.

3. Museum of the 21st century/ futureWith time, architect's roles have become more narrow as all professions become more specialized. Where once an architect was responsible for total building, from urban planning of the site to the design of details such as the door handles, today there are specialist consultants and professionals, such as scenographers, light specialists, interior designers, etc. that the architect must share his design with. Today, given his narrowing scope as well as increased constraints of regulations, budgets, and technology, the architect's task seems to be more about synthesizing all the many facets involved in architecture rather than being an innovator.

Q: How can the architects of the future be impactful, relevant and innovative with such a narrow scope and indeed is it important for architects to be avant garde in the 21st century? In what realms should an architect be thinking to innovate?

Thomas Krens, former director of the Guggenheim, used to say that a successful museum needs at least "five rides"- great architecture, a great permanent collection, strong temporary exhibits, shopping, and good food. However, we all know that the museum of the 21st century has to offer more, providing a wide range of programs and services.


Museum architecture is an essential part of today’s modern city’s practice and the conference was a spirited discussion of museum architecture, its relationship to the public, its relationship and duty to the art it houses inside, and thoughts for the museum of the future.

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