IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE for architects to describe their work as “tailored” to the sites on which they are built, but in the case of Christ & Gantenbein’s new addition to the Kunstmuseum Basel, this is literally true: The geometry of the structure has been ingeniously derived from the different angles of the ancient city’s streets. At the north-east corner of the site, Saint Alban-Graben turns toward the Wettstein bridge. The museum’s entrance runs parallel to this gesture, creating a small plaza defined by the front facade. This concave space reads like an open book, with its left page facing the original museum, which was designed by Paul Bonatz and Rudolf Christ and completed in 1936.
As a result of this carefully contextual gesture, the new building does not feel tacked-on, like a traditional wing or extension. Indeed, the architects chose to connect the new museum to the old only through a lofty underground passage, which functions as an additional exhibition space, allowing the two buildings, which have the same height and possess a similar monumental presence, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with each other and the city at large.
The building’s site also influences the organization of the interior: The floorplans of the spaces inside are organized from the outside in. All of the rectilinear galleries are placed along the angular exterior walls, which lay tangent to the property line. The somewhat eccentric geometry of the site itself is a result of the organic growth of Basel, a fact the architects chose to embrace and accentuate with the lobby’s grand staircase, a triple-height space that echoes the site’s unique contours, anchoring the building in the medieval city and at the same time creating a dramatic contemporary interior. This link to the surrounding urban environment is continued throughout the museum’s exhibition spaces, where carefully placed windows frame views of the city.
If the museum’s massing and organization is consistently thoughtful and successful, the architects’ material choices are only sometimes convincing. The understated gray brick facade establishes a subtle urban presence, yet also contains a sophisticated signage system that allows curators to display the title of the current show over the upper part of the building. This blur of pixelated text adds a faint glow to the faceted monolith, seeming to bringing another dimension to its uniform grayness—yet the effect is playfully inconsistent, as the sun sometimes outshines the hidden LED light diodes. On the interior, the extensive use of gray Carrara marble and rough plaster in the circulation spaces can be seen as a provocative statement. Instead of receding into neutrality, the materials are bold and draw the eye to themselves, forcing visitors to consciously focus on the architectural elements.
It is difficult to understand why the gray plaster reappears at each passage between exhibition spaces. It distracts from the experience of the art, and accidentally touching it isn’t pleasant either. To use galvanized steel for the gates of the main entrance might make sense, but the excessive placement of a material generally praised for its weather resistance feels ostentatious inside the museum. The shiny, metal-clad walls behind the ticket counter, in the bookstore, and the bathrooms are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silver factory. But unlike Billy Name’s intervention in Warhol’s first loft, the spacious museum is in no need for a boost of amphetamine stimulus, or the effects of visual enlargement. While the galvanized steel feels too cold and industrial, the yellowish oak floors throughout the exhibition spaces are too warm and domestic. Over time the floors might lose some of their coziness, but for now the wood and their grid created by grout joints is in conflict with the art placed directly above it, and the walls around them. The scale of some of the architectural elements too seems distractingly disjointed. Several of these elements are disproportionate in relationship to the human body. In particular, the wide marble balustrade of the staircase, which rises up to shoulder level, dwarfs visitors as they traverse the stairs.
Then again, these limitations are easily forgotten in the presence of some of the best art of the twentieth century. The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel is in no way overpowered by the architecture that houses it, and many of the pieces look even better in this new setting. By rejecting the art world’s penchant for “versatile” or “flexible” spaces, the new building is bold in its permanence—undiluted by moving walls and structural indecision. This spirited building is a particularly welcome shakeup in Basel, where more established players have dominated the city’s development.
While climbing the new stairs to the lobby of the older half of the museum, I rediscovered Bruce Nauman’s seminal neon piece: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967. The last time I saw the work was in 2009 in Venice where Nauman installed an edition in a window of the US pavilion, a location quite similar to the one in which it was first displayed in his San Francisco studio the year it was created. If that setting was almost effortlessly natural, in Basel the piece seems slightly foreign, almost as if it is rubbing against the rough gray plaster behind it. In the glow of the neon, the wall appears newly cloudlike and soft, a fresh transformation suggesting that Christ & Gantenbein have successfully created a museum that reveals new truths for its collection, and for the city to which it belongs.