PRINT September 1987


SINCE THE RENAISSANCE, THERE HAVE been museum architects who have cherished the symbolic and mythic aspect of art, with the particular myth in question being that of the good, the beautiful, the pure world set apart from the impure present. These architects have imagined the site of art as a nonplace (ou-topos), a happy place (eu-topos). Whether controlled by the prince, the church, the merchant, or the state, the museum has been designed metaphorically as a city of the sun, a Civitas Dei, the cathedrallike cocoon of a better world, a place of pilgrimage to which the faithful can rush in their millions to worship. This century it has been both the new church and the new bank; as such, it is both venerated and strongly guarded as a sacred monument, a holy machine for making the artifacts of a present moment into the eternal. From the old building of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (1842), a kind of spiritual fortress, to the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach, West Germany (1972–82)—near the cathedral, as if to assume its role—the outside of the museum shines with marble, glass, and light, promising a meaning for history. Inside, however, it is often neutral, anonymous, supposedly the better to allow art to work its curative magic. In fact, the museum’s irreal rooms frequently reduce art to the illusion of such sanitary purity that it feels as if it has little to do with life.

In this century there has also been museum architecture that is the opposite of the Civitas Dei—what we might call the Civitas Diaboli—in buildings like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1943–59), or the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1971–77). Here, the visitor is taken on a voyage, a descent, or is subjected to a babble of interacting languages. At the Guggenheim the feeling of descending into art is accompanied by a sense of art as passage, as something eternally coming into view and eternally being lost. The spiraling ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture mitigates against permanence—one feels the art sliding off the walls. (And the museum’s permanent collection is in fact housed elsewhere within the building.) Renzo Piano’s and Richard Rogers’ Centre Pornpidou makes the museum into an information factory or hangar, a place of interchangeable values, of spectacle; in this showplace of art, the art can lose precedence to the aura of technology everywhere evoked by the buildings exposed infrastructure. Buildings like this have been seen as offenses against the sanctity of the museum, and against the museum’s claim that art needs a throne. In a sense, however, they are more like a development of the irreal rooms that come with the idea of the museum as church. In the old version, the art is sanctified into irrelevance; in the new version, the art is overwhelmed by electronics, giant lobbies, and gift-shops created for those who come to the contemporary church. And the museum grows even more monumental. It is the frame that encloses the “void” of an art that has been stripped of its relationship to the existing world. Created around this vacuum we see ascetic, spectral mausoleums—the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1971–78), for example, or the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1977–84), buildings aiming to demonstrate that art can find its bunker in a railway-station-like lobby and an apartment building respectively.

The Ludwig Museum in Cologne (1980–86)—one of the army of museums and museum extensions built over the last ten years in cities from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, from Kyoto to Stuttgart, from Canberra to Montreal—is a classic representation of the power of the various modern versions of the merchant prince. In it, one is reminded of a coin or medal with a portrait of the king stamped on one side to illustrate his power. The process that transformed the Medici treasure into a museum back in the Renaissance has remained a model—indeed, with the incorporation in museums of the collections of Count Panza di Biumo, the de Menils, the Saatchis, and others, the image of the museum as a portrait of personal taste is clearly a basic part of the contemporary system.

It was to all these images of the museum—from the anonymous mausoleum to the personal medal, the stamp of the power of the patron—that Gaetano Pesce turned when he was invited by the Swiss industrialist Rolf Fehlbaum to consider a project for a small museum in Basel, to be built to celebrate Fehlbaum’s mother. In addressing them, however, he sought something new. The museum he imagined would not urge an isolated value for art. It would not so much glorify the collector as it would ennoble his pursuit and evoke the processes of private memory.

At the bottom of one of the drawings for the project, which he completed last year, Pesce wrote,


The museum that Pesce designed—which is not the museum eventually to be built; the commission went to Frank Gehry—is a face, its outlines formed by a group of buildings, individual and autonomous but set to form a “portrait.” It is a sort of Arcimboldesque caprice and invention born out of a figural assemblage of disparate elements, like the objects in a collection of curiosities, or the cultures and languages that intersect in Basel. The choice of a “biographical” architecture answers Pesce’s need to bring architecture back to a metaphor for us, for a story of individuals. Pesce’s museum-as-portrait is rnade up of a variety of structures; it lives through fragments, through its multiplication and explosion of the center, through its proliferation of meanings and functions. For Pesce, architecture is about the memory of human beings, of artists and of princes, and also of those who are far away from both.

In this museum Pesce builds an architecture derived from the figure of the collector. His museum is neither linear nor monumental, and it makes no pretense of social neutrality. Instead, it represents an identity, the identity of the collector, the man or woman whose pleasure it is to bring together rarities and odd finds and disparate items united only in their appeal to the individual who chooses them. (The collection that Fehlbaum was seeking to house, incidentally, is chiefly of drawings and objects related to architecture, engineering, and design—by Charles Eames, Jean Prouvé, and Pesce himself, for example—as well as of contemporary art.) This is one reason for Pesce’s insistence on the fragment, one reason why his museum is made up of diverse structures that come together to form an image yet keep their individuality. That image represents the collection as much as it does the collector.

The impulse here is the dream not of a museum that looks toward some imaginary, perfect, untainted laboratory of objects, but of one that turns, or that tries to turn, toward culture, toward history. And so we have an anthropomorphic architecture. A cylindrical tower, intended as an office for the museum director, becomes an eye; a long and narrow hall is both a passageway and a nose; structures penetrating wedgelike through the outer wall provide access for trucks and public at the same time that they connote ears. This face is functional, usable—it proposes an itinerary to the visitor. Its forms are not dispersed, but assemble in the mind, or from the air, into a complex but familiar image. Transforming what at first seem like scattered, disordered buildings into a facial constellation, Pesce’s architecture succinctly conveys another aspect of this museum—as a future memorial. As death will ultimately dissipate the physical body of Pesce’s patron, his memory, his tastes, his mind and sensibility will remain in his museum. It is no accident that Pesce has designed the floors of the museum below ground level: buried, they will avenge Fehlbaum’s death, preserving his life.

The face is too schematic and simplified actually to evoke Fehlbaum’s features, yet once one knows it represents his museum one cannot see it without thinking of him. The idea of architecture as a sarcophagus preserving the self has precedents in Pesce’s work. In 1974 he designed a “church of isolation,” a largely underground space in which one might “withdraw and rest with oneself.” Like Fehlbaum’s museum, the church, originally intended for New York but never realized, receives light from openings in the ground, and from the section of it that projects up into the air. For Pesce, “sarcophagus architecture” serves to remind us that all life activities have an innate fragility, an innate transience. Thus his work straddles the living body and the dead one, extending life into death and death into life. In the Fehlbaum project the vision of someone buried in the earth is reinforced by the positioning of the museum’s large upper vault, from which branch out the elevators, workshops, library, storage areas, and exhibition galleries. The vault is below the “forehead,” beneath the main entrances in the “eyes” and “nose.” It is as though this space were a mental interior as well as a physical one—a seat of the mind.

In 1985, Pesce designed a children’s center for the Parc de la Villette, Paris, in the shape of a running child. A video workshop, a small theater and library, corridors, and play areas are to be built up in the outline of limbs, trunk, and head. The figure will be clearest from the air, in a device with ancient antecedents–—the animal figures and geometric designs on the plans of Nazca, Peru, for example, which are extremely difficult to grasp visually from the ground. (Another precedent might be the enormous silhouettes of people and animals cut of old into the chalk hills of southern England, though these are often relatively easy to understand from neighboring hills and valleys.) Pesce’s search, then, is for the exact opposite of a monumental or monolithic architecture, which gets its effects from its obviousness in size and its grandeur in forms and materials. Where the monumental tries to impose itself, to impress itself, directly upon the viewer’s mind, Pesce’s structures must be fitted together within the viewer’s mind, in a deliberate mental effort to understand what is not immediately perceptible. In a sense, the architecture emerges from the mind of the viewer.

Instead of utopia, Pesce chooses “heterotopia,” “the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately . . . without law or geometry,” as Michel Foucault remarks in The Order of Things. Pesce himself has written,

Anything that is monolithic and refers to traditional geometry, homogeneous and coherent, has in our view lost all ties with our moment in history, which is in fact fragmentary, contradictory, made up of small truths, doc- trines, and hopes that . . . contrast with one another, according to the moment. The network or order that governs our age is no longer unique; there are many working in all directions.

Pesce’s heterotopia is a labyrinthine place, open to life’s changes, not fixed on order or security. Its architecture is fractured and polymorphic, and open to view from a multitude of different points. The buildings of heterotopia may deviate from International Style Modernism in their elements of the surreal, but that only makes them more appropriate to the present day.

Once rid of the linear, monolithic code that rules the International Style, Pesce is free to conceive of architecture not as a product created according to set esthetic laws, but as an event brought forth out of what’s there, out of unexpected collisions of elements. This is also true of his design objects: chairs, tables, and lamps, for example, are made of urethane, polyurethane, or rubber, soft, pliable materials that distort and twist, adapting themselves to their use. Pesce’s choice of this kind of material is another anthropomorphic reference, for in their combination of rigidity and softness they recall the human body. The designs for the children’s center in Paris and for the Basel museum also call for polyurethane, or for a kind of silicone used in certain kinds of contact lens; one imagines walls and floors made of these materials “breathing,” expanding or contracting slightly with the pressure of the visitor’s passage, as if the architecture and its inhabitants together formed a living body. And this in fact they do, for Pesce’s architecture is physical and organic; it recognizes past, present, and future, conscious and unconscious.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.