PRINT September 2004

US News

Renzo Piano and museum architecture

WHILE ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS AT THE Harvard Design School are hardly shouting “The king is dead, long live the king!”, a recent readjustment of architectural priorities within the tightly knit world of museum trustees and directors has had one obvious consequence: Rem Koolhaas is out; Renzo Piano is in. Just a few short years ago Koolhaas and his right-brain/left-brain sister offices OMA and AMO, backed by the critical muscle of the New York Times, were picking up American commissions at a prodigious rate. Alongside commissions for the new Central Library in Seattle, a campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and multiple stores for Prada, Koolhaas proposed grandiose, expensive, and now-defunct schemes for expanding both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Working with Thomas Krens, he also made a quixotic attempt to catch the eye of Middle America by designing two Guggenheim satellites in Las Vegas, one of which closed in less than two years.

Gone, however, are the easy-money days of the millennium’s turning, and with them (for the moment) the museum world’s struggle to secure a place in the spectacular firmament of popular culture. To Koolhaas’s detriment, the great beneficiary of this shift has been Piano. His firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is currently working on no fewer than six major museum projects in the United States. He has snatched both the Whitney and the LACMA commissions from OMA, his design for the expansion of the Morgan Library is under construction, and the Harvard University Art Museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Atlanta’s Robert W. Woodruff Arts Centre (which includes the High Museum of Art) have all hired him to renovate and expand their campuses. While this may be evidence of little more than a herd mentality among museum patrons, the result will be Piano putting more art under a roof of his own design than anyone since I.M. Pei was the establishment’s architect of the moment in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Piano has long been a favorite of wealthy collectors wanting exquisite jewel boxes for their small and distinctive collections. Two of his previous museums, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, are held in high regard by both architects and curators. Although Piano began his career by exploding the traditional relationship between the museum’s box and its contents with the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in recent years he has built a portfolio of buildings that use technology in the service of exhibition spaces, as opposed to using technology as a means to augment the external spectacle of the buildings themselves. Unlike Yoshio Taniguchi, who has embraced a neohistorical modernism for his renovation of the Museum of Modern Art, Piano, in recent commissions like the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, has employed subtle natural lighting and simple materials to dramatic effect without falling into an easily definable stylistic box. His attention to the traditional issues of museum design—lighting, circulation, appropriately scaled galleries—may mark him as a conservative at a time when the baroque fantasies of Gehry and Libeskind dominate architectural headlines, but these interests dovetail nicely with those of museum directors hoping for a rappel à l’ordre after the excesses of the ’90s. With the failures of the Guggenheim Las Vegas and Steven Holl’s Bellevue Art Museum in Washington State (both victims of architectural and institutional overreach) hanging heavy over the heads of trustees, Piano has become a kind of safe bet while still providing a bit of contemporary flair. Although his work promises little hope of replicating the now-famous Bilbao Effect, it is also unlikely to leave a client the bankrupt owner of an unusable white elephant.

Nevertheless, logic dictates that the Piano middle ground can’t be a universal solution. All the institutions now flocking to him have established collections, and none are dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. For unlucky museum directors without a distinctive collection or for those promoting new art, the spectacular may remain the only means of expanding their audience in the face of competition from casinos, theme parks, and tarted-up historical kitsch. The inevitability of such a “grow or die” mentality may be both clichéd and unfortunate, but recent work by the architectural avant-garde proves that the dream of high-impact architecture still lingers. Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s new Kunsthaus Graz, Austria, which resembles a neon-strangled stomach, and Zaha Hadid’s design for a mobilized (literally) Guggenheim in Taiwan suggest that museum design will continue to develop along lines laid down by the contingent demands of a neoliberal economy. Urban planners and local politicians hoping to revitalize failing industrial cities with a flood of tourist dollars realize that the subtle charms of Piano’s understated spaces offer little advantage in the noisy global market for luxury experience. But Koolhaas, who has devoted more energy than any other living architect to dissecting the minutiae of our consumerist ideology and its material consequences, remains well positioned to produce the next blockbuster building. He may be down, but barring worldwide social revolution, he won’t stay there for long.

Kevin Pratt is a London-based architect and critic.