The New Serenity

Architects who design museums have been retreating from explosive innovation to favor classicism, tranquillity, and a more restrained Modernism.

The facade of the Art Institute of Chicago in the expansion designed by Renzo Piano. According to museum director James Cuno, it is not intended to compete with Frank Gehry’s band shell across the street.


In 1997 Frank Gehry pulled off what many critics still see as an architectural miracle. His ebulliently sculptural Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, transformed a declining industrial city in the Basque region into a global tourist attraction. Art-museum trustees and directors in other cities quickly tried to imitate the so-called Bilbao effect. They hoped that a spectacular cultural facility would inspire a similar success story: rebranding their communities, boosting the local economy, and attracting tourists in droves. The Milwaukee Art Museum built a spectacular expansion with winglike canopies designed by Santiago Calatrava of Spain. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., plans to break ground next year on a shiny, metal-clad expansion designed by Gehry. And Daniel Libeskind, co-architect of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York, designed a craggy, sharp-edged expansion for the Denver Art Museum, scheduled to open in the fall of next year.

But eight years after Bilbao, a reaction is setting in. While art museums in the United States are expanding at a breathtaking pace, the desire to emulate Gehry’s Spanish miracle looks increasingly like the exception, not the rule. And while museum directors continue to justify large expansion projects in terms of the tourism and attention they attract, they’re talking less and less about spectacular architecture as a primary goal. Instead, they emphasize the importance of showcasing collections, creating larger spaces suitable for the demands of contemporary art, and serving local audiences rather than attracting tourists.

The new ethos is in part a response to criticisms that Gehry’s architecture in Bilbao, while a powerful artistic statement in itself, at times overshadowed the contents of the museum. Financial reality is also behind the shift. In today’s straitened economic climate, museums have been less inclined to market themselves as civic trophies that swagger on the skyline. Museum directors and their boards have been chastened by the example of Milwaukee, where Calatrava’s dramatic design led to a $25 million debt in 2000, from which the museum is only now beginning to recover. Also significant is the example of the Bellevue Art Museum outside Seattle, which closed its doors in 2003, shortly after having opened a beautiful $23 million building designed by Steven Holl—proving, perhaps, that eye-catching architecture isn’t everything. In this case, according to numerous press accounts, exhibitions failed to attract attendance, which led to a shortfall in revenue for an institution that was, in essence, undercapitalized. (The museum is scheduled to reopen later this year as a center for crafts and design.)

So while star architects such as Gehry, Libeskind, and Rem Koolhaas continue to design high-impact cultural buildings around the world, art museums in the United States have been retreating from explosive innovation to a more restrained Modernism and a mood of tranquil equipoise. At the same time, art museums are generally avoiding historicist quotations of architectural styles from the past. Postmodernism, as an approach to museum design, is out of fashion.

If one architect crystallizes the moment, it is the Italian-born Renzo Piano, whom James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, calls the “most sensitive and profound architect designing museums today.” Known for the luminous use of daylight he achieved at the Menil Collection in Houston in 1987, Piano has won commissions for more than a half dozen of the most important current art-museum projects. They include expansions proposed for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” says Willard Holmes, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. “People look at Piano’s architecture and see it as an antidote to Gehry’s architecture. They both build wonderful spaces, but Piano holds out the promise of something that is calming rather than energizing, something that is serene rather than active.” Of course Piano isn’t the only advocate of what might be called the New Serenity. Other examples of the more subdued approach include the $48.6 million Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, designed for a site along the Mississippi River by architect David Chipperfield of England as a series of rectangular forms sheathed in delicate lattices of glass and metal. Also notable is the widespread enthusiasm for the work of Japanese architects, whose austere esthetics have been embraced by many American museums. Japanese Modernists Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa have been chosen to design a recondite tower of stacked, boxy shapes on the Bowery in New York for the New Museum of Contemporary Art and a ghostly, minimalist building for the new Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art. Tadao Ando, known for his elegant use of glass and concrete, designed the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. And Yoshio Taniguchi, who just completed the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, has been tapped to design a new building in Houston’s museum district for Asia House of the Asia Society Texas.

“People are thinking twice about destination architecture because they’re beginning to realize that to survive and remain a very viable and good museum, you’ve got to have a good place to show the work,” says Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president from 1991 to 2002, Gund helped lead the museum through an $858 million capital campaign that paid for the $425 million expansion and renovation. Gund also played a leading role in setting the tone for Taniguchi’s minimal, elegant, and classically Modernist design, which has been praised widely. “Sexy architecture is very good, but it doesn’t work for the purpose that it’s supposed to serve,” she comments.

Citing similar arguments, other museum directors say their projects are not at all like the Guggenheim Bilbao, conceptually or architecturally. “Bilbao was an aberration,” says Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which will inaugurate its own expansion and renovation on the 17th of next month. “The aberration was that there’s only one Bilbao, in part because of Gehry’s architecture. It’s a place of pilgrimage, and I don’t think places of pilgrimage can ultimately be sustained. Pilgrims don’t sustain communities—local audiences sustain communities. And it’s the programs that are the heart and soul of any building.” Halbreich describes the Walker’s expansion—a $67.5 million project designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, renovation architects of the Tate Modern in London, as well as its recently announced, upcoming expansion—as “enormously mission-centered,” not an architectural gesture for its own sake.

The projects in New York, Minneapolis, and other cities are part of a wave of art-museum construction that certainly owes part of its strength to the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Despite the economic slump that started in 2000, and the impact of terrorism and the
war in Iraq, dozens of art museum expansions and renovations are under way from the coasts to the heartland, in what surely constitutes one of the biggest booms of its kind in American history.

Signs of a new mood in museum architecture include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney’s choices of Piano to design their expansions after having both scrapped flamboyant proposals by Koolhaas. The Los Angeles museum’s director Andrea Rich declined to comment on the reasons for dropping Koolhaas, who would have demolished much of the museum’s existing complex before replacing it with a gigantic canopy over reconstructed galleries. Whitney director Adam Weinberg, who joined the museum after its board decided not to proceed with Koolhaas, says he has no direct knowledge of the decision to cancel a $300 million Koolhaas proposal, which called for a tower that would have been cantilevered over the museum’s bunkerlike 1966 building designed by Marcel Breuer. “I’m a great admirer of Rem Koolhaas, and he had quite an amazing vision for the Whitney,” says Weinberg. “But I would like to get away, frankly, from the comparisons” between Koolhaas and Piano. Nevertheless, he says, “Renzo’s work has a kind of classicism to it. He has this way of finding that right balance between tension and composure.”

The Art Institute of Chicago’s $135 million expansion, for which the museum plans to break ground this spring, will rise on an unsightly, abandoned area on the northeast corner of the museum’s property, which faces the newly completed Millennium Park complex designed by Gehry near the city’s lakefront. Cuno says the addition is intended to bring the area to life. But Piano’s design for the project was driven primarily by internal needs, rather than by the desire to compete with the undulating sunburst of Gehry’s metal-clad band shell and concert facility across the street. “The project was designed to advance the core mission of the museum,” says Cuno. “It was designed to add more gallery and education space, rather than temporary exhibition space or retail shops.”

Despite the trend toward conservative Modernism in museum design, there are powerful exceptions. David Gordon, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, unabashedly champions Milwaukee’s decision to build the expansion designed by Calatrava, with winglike, mechanized sunscreens that open and close. He says the museum has raised $19 million to pay off its $25 million debt, and he believes it will gather the rest. A native of Great Britain, Gordon says he has adopted an American, can-do attitude. “In the States you do something ambitious, you go out on a limb, you find a way to raise money, and you ride on,” he says.

Mitchell Kahan, director of the Akron Art Museum, is confident he’ll raise the additional $10 million he needs to complete the museum’s $38 million expansion, which will be the first in the United States designed by the chic Viennese architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. The building, an addition to the late-19th-century post office that now houses the museum, will feature a dramatic, winglike roof floating over masonry-enclosed galleries and a glassy lobby with canted walls of glass. “If cultural institutions do not embrace innovation in architecture, no one will,” says Kahan. “It is truly our responsibility to push the envelope, because the commercial sector will not.” Kahan also believes art museums need to stretch financially to make significant architectural statements. “At Milwaukee the focus is on the cost overrun,” he says. “That’s a choice they made, and I admire it. A few years of tightening the belt is nothing compared with having something that serves the community for the next century. I don’t know why people are so critical.”

If there’s one museum project in the United States clearly influenced by Bilbao, it’s the Denver Art Museum’s $90 million addition, a Libeskind composition in jagged, thrusting shapes clad in titanium, like Gehry’s building and Libeskind’s own breakthrough project, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, completed in 1998. Denver museum director Lewis Sharp says he first dreamed of making an architecturally dramatic statement when he attended the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao at the invitation of a Denver Art Museum trustee whose company had manufactured titanium panels for the gleaming, fish scale–like facades of Gehry’s building.

“I was completely knocked over,” Sharp says. “It was an incredible visual experience.” He also remembers thinking that if he ever had the chance to expand the museum in Denver, “I hoped we would do something as bold and as exciting to house our future program.” Now, after eight years and a successful, $120 million capital campaign, construction of the Denver museum’s addition is well under way. A pedestrian bridge will connect it to the Brutalist castle designed for the museum in 1971 by Gio Ponti of Italy. Sharp estimates that when the expansion opens in late 2006, Libeskind’s architecture will be a major factor in boosting attendance to 1 million from 400,000 in the first year, before settling down to 600,000 or 700,000. “This building is going to attract people from around the country and around the world,” he says.

But Sharp also describes the project as a cultural expression of a moment of financial opportunity and civic optimism that occurred in the late 1990s—before the stock market downturn that started in early 2000. In 1999 the Denver museum raised the money for its Libeskind project with ease, winning $62.5 million in a citywide vote on a municipal bond, and then gathering another $61 million privately within three months. Emboldened by that momentum, the city added a privately developed condominium tower, also designed by Libeskind, next to the museum and its parking garage. But Sharp says that starting the project today, in the gloomier economic climate, would be impossible.

Libeskind defends the idea of the museum as spectacle. “I don’t admire neutrality,” he said at a panel titled “Beyond Bilbao: Museum Architecture in the 21st Century,” recently held in New York by the Art Dealers Association of America. “People expect more of life today, more of their coffee, more of their environment, of what they see. Why shouldn’t museums be any different?”

The Wadsworth Atheneum wasn’t quite as fortunate in its timing as Denver. The museum’s effort to raise $120 million in a capital campaign for a controversial and architecturally ambitious project designed by UN Studio of the Netherlands was hobbled by the stock market downturn, by 9/11, and by the sheer difficulty of raising money in a region bracketed by big museums in New York and Boston. After internal conflict over the UN Studio design, the Atheneum’s former director, Kate Sellers, resigned in fall 2002, followed by board president George David and five other trustees in early 2003.

“The museum came to the party of the 1990s late, and by the time it got its building designed and its campaign going, there was a huge competition within the Northeast region for dollars,” says Holmes. “I think there was an overreliance on dramatic architecture to solve the Atheneum’s problems.” Holmes adds that the project collapsed not only because of its polarizing design but also because it was a stand-alone effort, not part of a larger, civic revival. “There was not a coordinated effort on the part of state, local, and corporate interests to find a way to revive the fortunes of Hartford.” Now, under Holmes, the Atheneum is exploring the idea of a more modest expansion to provide additional exhibition space, along with moving its offices to a renovated building across the street.

In a less traumatic manner, the state-owned North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh changed course when it got a cool response from donors and legislators to a $100 million expansion plan designed by Richard Gluckman in 2001. The plan would have enlarged the museum’s original building, designed by Edward Durell Stone and completed in 1981. But it was judged too big a hurdle in the economic downturn earlier in this decade. The museum changed direction decisively when the state tore down an adjacent prison and donated the land to the museum, creating a new expansion opportunity. It hired architect Thomas Phifer of New York, a former associate of Richard Meier, to design five glassy pavilions separated by gardens and reflecting pools along the ridgetop site of the former prison. The new $70 million plan provides the space the museum needs, and it’s cheaper.

Other major urban art museums that embarked on expansions after the 1990s are moving ahead, although more slowly than they anticipated. After three years of raising money quietly for a $425 million expansion and renovation designed by Sir Norman Foster of Great Britain, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston announced last September that it had raised $245 million for the project. While it is a record for a cultural institution in Boston, it still leaves the museum with 42 percent of the balance to raise for the project. Foster’s design, which aims to insert a “crystal spine” of galleries and walkways into existing museum courtyards, is not so much aimed at giving the museum a new signature statement as at clarifying and expanding its confusing, haphazardly organized interior.

The Detroit Institute of Arts has raised $230 million to increase its endowment and to pay for a long-delayed renovation designed by Michael Graves in 1988. But the museum has been stymied by state-budget cuts and squabbles over governance with the city of Detroit, which owns the museum’s building, though not its collection. Director Graham Beal recently announced yet another delay after the museum found it had to spend $57 million to remove asbestos from parts of the building. The discovery has increased the goal of the museum’s capital campaign to $410 million from $330 million, and pushed back the completion of the project to 2007. Officials at the Cleveland Museum of Art had originally hoped to break ground this fall for a $225 million renovation and expansion designed by Rafael Vi_oly. But as of January they had announced neither how much they had raised nor a date for the groundbreaking.

One thing most museum directors agree on: all that new space will be necessary. In particular, they feel confident that there will be an ample supply of new art to fill the sizable spaces for contemporary art included in many of the new expansions.

“There’s going to be no end to this,” Cuno says. “That’s one of the great glories of museum work. There’s always going to be more art made in the future. It’s a growth industry. More people are going to live longer, and therefore more people will make art over longer periods than in the past, and there are going to be more people around to appreciate it.”

Steven Litt is the art and architecture critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

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