new(ish) museum architecture

i’ve been in a few of the new museum projects lately.    here’re my impressions — newest to oldest:

the addition to museum folkwang in essen, germany opened the last week of january.   the 172,000 square foot expansion designed by the british architect, david chipperfield, cost 55,000,000 euro ($74,000,000).  from the street it’s not flashy — a good-looking, modern building that sits comfortably within the fabric of the city.

the facing, made of slabs of recycled glass, looked like jadeite in the snowy, late-afternoon light.

six pavilions are organized around four courtyards.  a beautifully leggy steel structure surrounds each courtyard —  cloister-like, except that it’s mostly enclosed in glass — connecting the pavilions.    details throughout are refined but not fussy and perfectly executed.   well-proportioned exhibition spaces with polished concrete floors and soft even light are some of the nicest exhibition spaces in any of the museums built in the last twenty years.    david chipperfield has impressed me.   he’s self-confident enough to build a  building that doesn’t scream for attention.   an effortlessly beautiful place that functions perfectly to exhibit art — this building is a winner.

below:  the entry courtyard with an enormous bookstore (and i mean bookstore, not gift shop) on one side and a chic asian restaurant on the other.

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the second museum is the nerman museum of contemporary art at the johnson county community college in overland park, kansas (suburban kansas city).  it’s a 41,000 square foot facility designed by kyu sung woo architects at the astonishing cost, according to the museum, of under $15,000,000 (i strongly suspect there’s some number manipulation going on).    clad in kansas limestone, with a dramatic cantilever over the entrance, the building is elegant, if somewhat out-of-place on the suburban campus.

nine, well-proportioned galleries flow smoothly from one to another.     and the details are nice — such as this stairway that functions as access between the ground and second stories, as well as allowing natural light (from a skylight above) into the ground floor space.

from below (image from the architect’s website):

from the lobby, looking out the main entrance, underneath a piece by  leo villareal, (that’s more flash that content):

overall,  a lovely exhibition venue.   there were a few mistakes:  a window not-quite-the-right-scale for a space, a lintel  that shouldn’t have been expressed, a stair, that while quite beautiful, was made from an imported spanish stone, rather than the more eco-friendly polished concrete it appears to be…

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still in kansas city, i finally had a chance to see the steven holl addition to the nelson-atkins museum.   it opened in june 2007 to a great lot of critical attention and i’ve been dying to see it.   holl deserves credit for building an enormous addition to the existing 1933 neo-classical structure without overshadowing it.  the addition’s galleries — all underground — are naturally lit through 5 glass buildings that are illuminated like garden lanterns at night.     i lifted the first two photos from holl’s website:

pretty, isn’t it?

unfortunately, during the daylight, the glass structures are less handsome.    i’m afraid they look a bit like butler buildings…

we entered the museum, through one of the glass pavilions, into this grand space.    though i wanted to kill the person who left the table trashing up the entry, i was impressed.

you move down this ramp, to the exhibition spaces…

and i started to feel uneasy.     isn’t this a bit of overkill?     an awful lot of architecture (and money) spent just getting you into the building?    and where’s the art?

then, you get down to the galleries…    and they are heinous.   i mean, the spaces would be romantic and lovely if they were part of an ancient underground sewage system or catacomb.   but as a place to look at art, they suck.

this is another pilfered image from the holl site (you can tell because the exit signs have been photo-shopped out).    while it makes for a nice photo shoot, how are you going to look at art here?   the tilt-a-whirl of arches, planes and curves is enough to make you queasy.   the natural light that enters through the glass structures is splotchy.  a few areas are horribly over-lit, but most are shadowy.   the ostensible purpose of the glass lanterns —  lighting the galleries — doesn’t work.    it gets worse.   the walls are generally far too tall for scale of the galleries.    i don’t  like feeling like i’m at the bottom of a well.    do you?     and sadly, neither the installation of the contemporary collection nor the “magnificent gifts for the 75th (anniversary of the museum)” was up to competing with the wall height,  much less the architectural cacophony that is the monument to the ego of steven holl and the insecurities of the trustees who approved this.    some talented curating and choice acquisitions could help, but…

holl’s building suffers the same problem as gehry’s guggenheim bilbao — a beautiful sculpture from the outside with terrible galleries inside.    when will museum boards quite letting themselves be bullied into architectural folly by egomaniacs?   and why don’t architectural critics understand that a building is only successful when it serves its function?    in the case of museums, the function is to provide flexible spaces that recede to allow viewers to experience art.   period.

the icing on the cake is the price.   this addition is 160,000 square feet — a little smaller than museum folkwang.     the cost of this building, according to the museum, is $95,000,000.    though the general contractor’s website states the construction cost at $175,000,000 and rumors peg it at $250,000,000.    the very generous philanthropic community of kansas city got ripped off.