PRINT March 1968

Disaster in Pasadena

Museums . . . let one pay a visit there each year as one visits one’s dead . . .

LET’S DO HAVE A MUSEUM. We’ll need an architect, of course, but before we choose him we should know something about what it is that we want. If we don’t know, we can take a hint from the impressive plans for the new Pasadena Art Museum, for it seems clear that the people of Pasadena are going to get just what they are looking for.

First of all, if it is a real Museum feeling that we want, let’s start with a Great Central Entry Hall where somewhere there can be prominently fixed the intriguing list of donors’ names in permanent bronze letters. Then let’s have WINGS, at least four of them, since they can be organized into a neat and familiar Palladian palace scheme. The word “museum” is practically a synonym for “noble and impressive” so why not take a hint from Palladio? After all, Palladio knew what he was doing when he plunked the main residence block of his villas smack-dab on the crossing of two axes and then drew two or four long corridors from the corners, to embrace the kitchen, stable, chicken coop and other “services.” These he placed in pavilion-like finials which harmonized with the whole ensemble which made an impressive and noble panorama on its hill-top site.

A Museum should be an Edifice. That’s another reason why it should have wings. All the most important Edifices in our civilization that have had meaning in our lives have had their wings—court houses, hospitals, legislative buildings and some of the more important houses of detention. This happily reminds us of guards. That’s another thing about wings which adds to that tingle up and down your spine in a true Museum. The more spread out the various galleries are and the more distantly they journey off from the Great Central Hall, the more reasonable it seems to have a decent number of guards. One should try to have enough, indeed, to make at least one proud platoon. They add so much dignity to the museum atmosphere, standing there or sitting there (depending upon their age) among the masterpieces. And they look so smart in their snappy grey or khaki uniforms. (There’s something about a soldier . . . Some museums have begun to replace these fine gentlemen with television cameras insidiously poking out of the lighting coves. I certainly hope this inhuman idea doesn’t spread, don’t you?) One way to thwart that machine is the extended plan. You see, building codes and fire marshals will usually insist that emergency exits occur at least every one hundred feet, often more closely than that, so the more hundreds of feet you have the more exits you have. The little man in the back office monitoring all those screens would have a jolly time chasing after Mr. Thief, seen removing a little something from Gallery 22-A, and slipping sinisterly out of Emergency Exit 16 to the south, after having popped open Emergency Exits 12 and 15 to the north and setting off their klaxons toward which everyone runs just like in a Keystone Comedy.

Conjuring up this bit of tragi-comedy may sound as if we are disparaging the merits of spreading wings. Not at all, for the advantages far outweigh such minor anxieties. For instance, it is so easy to display pictures along the walls of long, corridor like spaces. With all that wall space, it eliminates the need for the harried curator and installations designer to set up free standing panels and partitions helter-skelter in order to try to group the items of a particular exhibition in some reasonably interesting way—and to light them, so that they can be seen. As a matter of fact, plenty of permanent wall space and fixed lighting may even eliminate the need for an installations man, perhaps even the curator as well. What a saving! A curator alone may draw about as much salary as two guards. And just think of how the traffic problem is simplified. Say you are holding three or four simultaneous exhibits, each containing a different number of pictures. Well, starting from the Entrance Hall you begin by hanging picture number one of exhibit number one on the nearest wall leading off to the dead end of the wings. Then you hang picture number two, then number three and so on, until you run out of pictures. Then you put up a small sign which says “Exhibit #2 begins here” (so as not to confuse the visitor), and begin with picture No. 1 of Exhibit #2. If you sort of curve the walls of the dead end so that the visitor does not notice that he is doubling back, you can bring him right back around to the Central Entrance Hall again without effort, where he then continues to enjoy a successive series of pictures in Wing #2, moving on out to the end and back to the Central Hall again, then on to Wing #3 and back to the Central Hall again. Then, of course, Wing #4, scurrying easily and rapidly along one wall in a natural manner like certain small animals, instead of hippety-hop here and there like certain other small animals of a species related to the former small animals. Back in the Great Central Hall, one could offer the visitor the treat of stepping outdoors and taking a little refreshing jog up and down the shores of a charmingly axial reflecting pool. The pool should be made long enough so that after only a single lap the visitor can feel it in his leg muscles.

The aforesaid instructions for installing exhibitions may lead the reader to ask if such an approach might not discourage changing exhibitions. That’s the whole point! A true Museum requires and should have as many permanent installations as possible. Everything that a Museum owns should be on the walls at all times for all to see. This saves storage. Museums expect everyone to be a scholar, or at least to make the effort. Those futuristic theoreticians who claim that a museum should be like an iceberg with most of the collection down in some basement with only selected items brought up from time to time for John Q. Public to savor while be-spectacled old Professor Schmidt and his students have a merry old time down there in the stacks, simply do not know the problems they are getting into. First, there are the vast storage rooms which are a bore for any creative architect to bother about; then there are the convenient study spaces which scholars are demanding more and more of in these days of academic agitation. Also, one way to raise money for the installation of proper moisture and dust control machinery is to set the art works out to deteriorate in full view of all concerned. Put art to work for business. Out of sight is out of mind.

As for the so-called “temporary” exhibitions, a good Museum should keep them to a minimum. A Museum is a rather sacred place, where men uncover their heads upon entering. (One can’t help respecting the confused lady tourist just out of Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle who looks for a bit of lace to throw over her head and shoulders upon entering the Louvre.) It should not be cheapened by too much irresponsible changing around. The visitor has a right to expect the same fine old works to be found in their same fine old places whenever he makes his regular visit. Besides, it does mess up the wall finishes to be changing the positions of the nails from week to week.

A good Museum management knows exactly what it has to show in the Edifice it is intending to build and knows it well in advance, say for thirty or fifty years in advance, thus simplifying the task of the architect. As any historian knows, the best way to know the future is to examine the past, preferably the fairly distant past. How high should the ceilings be? Let’s say as high as the average medium large canvas done between about 1755 and 1955. (Current radical experimentation must be disregarded as unreliable. It may not last.) Doors can be much lower, since a canvas can be tilted as it is carried through or, if necessary, carefully removed from the stretcher and re stretched inside. Large sculptures can be left outside, or if done in perishable materials, as so many radical artists are coming out with these days, it can simply be refused. Let the artists decide whether or not they want their works in Museums. Where no security is provided for works left outdoors, artists should be warned, so that the Museum does not find itself liable for damage to items that are on loan.

Talking about security. One should not go too far in this regard. There are some people you can always trust. If you happen to be interested in combining a lecture and concert hall or an art school with your Museum (although such things do confuse the term a bit) you need not worry too much about the type of person who uses these facilities. Anyone who appreciates good music or goes to lectures on art doesn’t steal paintings, and if your art classes are worth their salt, the pre-teeners and young adults will be taught to have a deep respect for their Museum and wouldn’t think of sneaking up the magnificent spiral stairs or any of the other accesses from the lower studio levels to invade the Main Gallery Floor unless given permission. So be free, combine these functions into one uninterrupted building. Iron gates and closed doors can too easily spoil the spatial flow and ruin the whole architectural effect. Let’s not forget that in a pinch we have those nice guards.

But we haven’t said nearly enough about the architectural effects. There should be plenty of these. Anyone knows that architectural effects are the most important part of a Museum. This doesn’t mean that a Museum Edifice shouldn’t be done in a modern style. Some of the very finest streamlined results can be achieved starting from the most traditional premises.

For instance, ordinary rectangular spaces can be given gently curving walls or rounded corners or both, suggesting an up-to-date television screen motif in plan and creating a spatial device which can be emphasized and re-emphasized and reemphasized endlessly in each and every last corner of the Edifice. Here and there you may find that the curve motif results in some walls coming out six or more feet thick. This makes excellent insulation. If anyone criticizes this as wasted space, remind him of the famous sixteen-story Monadnock Building in Chicago of 1889, which has ground floor walls which are no thinner, or of the magnificent Pantheon in Rome whose walls reach a thickness more than three times as great.

Architecture should reflect the times in which it appears and the people who use it or pay for it. The building should show all the dollars that have been poured into it by all those thoughtful well to do Friends of the Museum. So pay special attention to the surface finishes. Avoid bare concrete or bare brick or bare anything. Varicolored tile cladding is nice for the exterior walls. Metal roofs are pretty too. In order to make them show, false skylights or false domes can be built up here and there and covered with sheets and sheets of copper or painted galvanized steel or lead. They did this on the Church of St. Mark’s in Venice and it is very effective.

Inside, special care should be taken in choosing the materials for ceilings and floors. Hardwood is most dignified. Some of the Museums have had a little trouble with pockmarks caused by recent ladies’ modes in footwear, but this too shall pass. The important consideration is permanence, heel marks or no. If the Museum Direction is careful about the exhibitions it allows, there will be little trouble about scuffing floors with heavy pieces of sculpture or, what is worse, nailing or screwing things to the floor or ceiling such as is required by some sculpture or the too active minds of some installations men who have to be different and insist on arranging things every-which-way within the gallery spaces. This is why, wherever possible, good hard surfaces like terrazzo should be substituted for hardwood. It not only prevents abuse by irresponsible “arty” employees but it looks like money. Carpeting can be elegant but it should be limited in its use. It is made to walk on but tends to wear and can be replaced too easily. Thus it suggests impermanence.

All ceilings should be totally surfaced with soft acoustic materials into which nothing can be nailed or screwed. We all know that a feeling of hushed serenity is the most important psycho logical effect to seek in a Museum. Besides, this is another means of discouraging messy installations which rely on suspending draperies, panels, lights and other objects from above.

As for the walls, the same philosophy should be applied. The solution today is easy, since there are all kinds of modern plastic surfaced plywoods that can be chosen. You may have to use a little ingenuity in order to get around those curves in your walls with one-half inch plywood but it can be done, and no one would think you hadn’t used plaster. However, the plastic surfaces are marvelous, easily washed of food and coffee stains (just wipe with a damp rag) and they come in the widest range of colors and imitation wood patterns. And you can’t nail into them without leaving a permanent ugly mark. What a boon. Some of the more modernistic art galleries have started the fad of repainting their walls to suit every show, a dreadful waste of effort which becomes at any rate irrelevant when the architect chooses at the outset just the right colors and textures that will not only harmonize with his conception of the Building but will last forever.

Any questions?

Abraham Rogatnick teaches architecture at the University of British Columbia.