Arts & Opinion.com
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 4, 2006
 

REFLECTIONS ON MUSEUM DESIGN

NOUSHIN EHSAN

Noushin Ehsan is an architect with 30 years of international experience. She has taught and lectured widely.

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Museum design presents a special challenge, situated between the need to create thoughtful spaces that enhance our experience of the artwork they contain and the desire of many architects to generate buildings that are works of art themselves. The design of a museum ideally creates a harmonious space that invites visitors to have an enchanting experience with its contents instead of demanding attention through its own distinctive form. The architect who is humble enough to create a soulful space that best supports the artwork it is intended to contain might not achieve individual fame but practices a holistic approach that works toward the fulfillment of a larger purpose.

Reflections on certain museums - their function, design, and content - can illustrate the challenges that architects face in this type of project, though what may have proved to be successful in a certain context may have been less so elsewhere, and the other way around. Throughout my travels, I have come to appreciate the design elements of museums built upon different cultural contexts, which serves as a good illustration of the varied principles behind “successful” museum design. I will use my reflections on a number of these spaces to demonstrate a general understanding of how an architect can make the museum experience more memorable and rewarding for everyone.

An example of a subtle architectural element that can elevate one’s experience of space is the threshold. We architects value the threshold for its ability to punctuate our experience of moving through space. Traditionally, such details have been used in order to change the rhythm within spaces. The threshold can serve to alter or prepare the user’s mood in anticipation of the space to come.

Another effective instance is the slight alteration to the rise of stairs in critical areas. In response to this otherwise unremarkable change, we shift our physical pace which in turn can trigger a new thought, or altogether alter our perception of what is passed by or come upon. These subtle design elements may not register consciously but the subconscious experiences they elicit fulfill the larger purpose of the structure.

I was a young architecture student at Tehran University when Kamran Diba, a notable Iranian architect, designed a fine art museum near my home. It became a natural part of our conversation as students to critically analyze the work of this respected architect, as we could observe first hand the all the phases of the structure’s development. At first, the unusual forms that appeared during the construction seemed purposeless; as such, we were unwilling to give the project much credit until it was finished. After a visit to the museum, our critical thoughts were transformed by the sensual experience we had within the magnificent building. Light streaming through the unusual shaft-like forms, extrapolated from Persian cooling towers in desert cities, became uplifting sources of connection. The contrast between the enclosed spaces of the galleries and the height of these shafts prepared us for a new experience. Maps, which can distract from the artwork, were not needed because the light coming through the shafts acted to orient us, as did the connecting courtyards. Here Diba has employed a traditional Persian architectural device used for cooling homes, taken it a step further by modernizing its physical form, and has also manipulated its use to serve a purpose specific to the sitting and needs of the project. This choice of form and transformation made traditional Persian architecture come alive, especially to those familiar with the cultural precedent employed, while also creating a cohesive design that heightened the experience of the artwork inside for any and all users.

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is a striking example of a building that desires attention. The impetus for the construction of the museum was stated by Gehry in the New York Times Magazine in 2003: “Bilbao’s Basque government asked for a Sydney Opera House. They needed that to happen. If it had been a quieter more provocative work, it wouldn’t have accomplished what we were seeking. The tightrope I walked was between doing what they wanted and having it work as a museum.” The architecture of the museum, in this case, becomes so provocative that it becomes difficult to reflect on the art it contains.

When driving towards Bilbao my emotions became charged from the moment I set my eyes on the Guggenheim. The building’s scale reduced its surroundings to mere dots against its dominant form. Admiring this unusual, yet well-balanced form from a distance, it was clear that Gehry’s striking building was the type of tourist attraction the Bilbao’s government desired. After parking, I realized that there was no focal entrance and the exterior made a different impact from different viewpoints.

I stepped through the main entrance, which gave the feeling of a service passage. The experience of the interior was a varied one: the light and form of some areas created an atmosphere that made me feel happy and want to laugh, while in other areas, I felt constricted, frustrated, and claustrophobic, restraining the impulse to scream and run outside. Excitement, not necessarily a positive or negative trait, filled every moment of my visit.

As I wandered around the galleries, my rapidly changing emotions did not support a contemplative mood appropriate for experiencing the artwork. Whether intentional or not, even the curatorial and display decisions made in the exhibitions seemed to reflect Gehry’s design. During my visit in the summer of 2001, one of the prominent installations was a maze of high walls specifically intended, according to the artist, to provoke and produce an emotional response, so much so that before entering the pieces visitors were asked if they had heart problems or claustrophobia. The emotional impact of this piece and others like it perfectly mirrored the experience of being in the building itself. As a result, I came to question whether this museum is only appropriate for works of this type, and left unsure of how I would react to these pieces elsewhere.

The presence of these installations solidified my view that the Guggenheim Bilbao is not particularly interested in being an art museum, but rather a work of art itself. As such, and as an economic boost, the Guggenheim is a great success, but we never get the chance to truly appreciate the art within.

Upon visiting the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind, one feels uncomfortable, equally affected by the architecture in a way that dominates and cannot be ignored. However, in this context the design choice enhances our emotional experience of receiving the subject at hand, one which is specifically intended not to be happy. When considering the goals and uses of both museums I believe that the two are incomparable, as the focus of the Jewish museum is the remembrance of the Holocaust, for which it is fitting to employ a powerful design that charges emotions. The inclusion of sharp, angled windows, a disproportionately tall and narrow shaft, or a shattered façade, all of which would distract from the neutral experience desirable in another museum here reinforce the emotion surrounding the subject matter. Libeskind’s ability to house visitors in a contemporary building and yet convey the horrors of what the victims experienced is a remarkable achievement. His clear integration of concept and program results in an architecture uncommon in traditional museums.

Beautiful and inviting, Richard Meier’s Getty Center embraces its environment and the spirit of its vista. Entering the space, one is aware of an abundance of sunlight, never sacrificed at the service of the work. The relationship between the interior and exterior is evident in both the use of light and the organic feel of the space, even though the complex is comprised of white boxes connected by simple lines. One might assume that such a building would feel contrived and academic, but the experience is completely different. Mind, soul, structure, and the natural environment of the site are seamlessly connected. Meier’s sensitive approach to this museum’s design reminds me of the subtle elements often displayed in Ancient Chinese architecture, central to a tradition of creating spaces that are calm and responsive. These spaces often inspiring and liberating, while never overpowering.

The newly renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York is one of the best spaces to experience the art of others. If people describe MoMA’s architecture as “nothing,” I believe that it is a complement to its existence as a museum. The structure itself is not memorable but it achieves a higher goal: a visit to MoMA leaves one with a long-lasting memory of the art, not the architecture. I often find myself fatigued after only an hour in a museum, but this is not the case at MoMA, which I credit directly to the way the museum was designed. A musical change between high and low spaces, vistas into other galleries, and uses of natural light acted as subtle details vital to marking paths and enhancing spaces throughout the museum.

Not only do these spaces distinguish transitions in exhibitions, but they provide gentle emotional responses to support the artwork. As I stood on one set of stairs, the cutaways allowed me to see three levels below, providing a connection to spaces that I had already passed through. These creative acts of architecture engender a subconscious sense of place and give visitors the energy to keep walking from one gallery to the next. MoMA’s architecture has augmented the spirit of space in ways that not only do not overwhelm the art, but also encourage users to extend their exploration.

A final example is the Nomadic Museum designed by Shigeru Ban to house Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow Exhibition. What may at first have seemed to be a makeshift warehouse was in fact an ideal solution to the ongoing challenge of designing an effective museum. Its conceptual grounding -- that of clarity in design and discipline in approach -- are the keys to its inspirational and purposeful atmosphere. This temporary “warehouse,” although simply a proportionate box, evoked the feelings one encounters in a grand cathedral. Ban’s solution to the architect’s challenge was achieved through a simplicity that masks the complexity of design. In addition, the mundane, inexpensive, and salvaged components utilized in the creation of this structure prove that neither a big budget nor exotic materials are necessary to create an evocative space.

Although the design language employed by these museums is quite different, they are all provocative in one way or another. All of them break from the traditional concept of museum design, which is expected to be classical in style with a heavy stone façade. However, as these spaces have illustrated, the challenge of creating museums that allow visitors to best experience the work on display goes beyond provocation or style; when this is done successfully, it vastly differentiates the architect from the artist.

In the Nomadic Museum, Shigeru Ban responded perfectly to a single exhibit which was temporary and moveable. In the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Libeskind has made a more permanent installation of emotions, the design of which reinforces the impact of a specific historical event. In the case of Tehran’s Modern Art Museum, the Getty Center, and MoMA, both exterior and interior are appropriately responsive to the art they house. In Bilbao, Frank Gehry has responded to the government’s request and sets a stage that attracts people, but neglects the basic purpose of any museum, which is the display of a diversity of art. The Guggenheim Bilbao acts as an amusement park with great effect, but fails at both the goal of education and the opportunity to offer its visitors a soulful, lasting experience.

These diverse examples suggest that museum design need not follow a set formula, be it through the use of conventions -- such as a post-modern, neo-classical or classical façade --- or by the demonstration of grand innovations. One can emerge into an amazing and serendipitous future, celebrating this freedom from convention and creating dynamic design drawn from human interaction. Such freedoms allow - and actively encourage - a vast diversity of thought far more expressive of individual, collective and cultural characteristics. There is no longer a need for adherence to any one style of architecture, be it the bland “international” style or any other which ignores and homogenizes the human experience. We can now seek both diversity and unity simultaneously.