PRINT October 2008


OMA/AMO at the Hermitage

IN THESE TIMES of requisite urban branding, the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid must be putting in extra hours at the office. Countless cities and cultural institutions are rethinking how to make their mark on the global map—and architects and curators alike are meeting this desire with original (or not so original) marketing ideas. Herzog & de Meuron’s imminent Tate Modern extension in London, the Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi, you name it—all of these institutions are convinced that the only way forward is a radical redefinition of their spatial envelope in order to communicate a simple message: We are here and we are new!

Indeed, AMO—Rem Koolhaas’s mysterious research counterpart to his architectural firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands)—tells us that “in light of the radical expansion of globalized systems, social interests and attending market forces, cultural institutions are at a critical point of (re)definition.” To probe this moment of redefinition, OMA/AMO set up a knowledge-production workshop and breakfast think tank this past July during the London Festival of Architecture. For one day, King’s College’s Somerset House became an extension of the Rotterdam hothouse. A group of international cultural figures convened for a series of closed presentations and an open discussion session to address Koolhaas’s own current branding project: an ambitious reconceptualization of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The vast collections of the Hermitage—comprising more than three million works of art—are displayed in six buildings in Saint Petersburg (the museum has also opened international branches in Amsterdam, London, Las Vegas, and the Italian city of Ferrara). As a repository of intensely varied cultural histories, the museum holds the promise of becoming a kind of global laboratory for curatorial experiment and critical engagement. These “potentials,” in Koolhaas’s formulation, formed the focus of the public panel in the afternoon following the closed morning think tank. Questions such as, “What does it mean for the Encyclopedic (or Universal) Museum to be universal today?” and, “How can the layers of history contained within the Encyclopedic Museum become, active agents in contemporary developments?” were posed to a packed audience. The discussion proceeded in an unexpected way. As part of a general shift in his practice, Koolhaas assumed a role akin to that of a television talk-show host and moderator, albeit one with very well-behaved guests: Chris Dercon, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst; Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage; Alexander Borovsky, curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg; Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard; philosopher Boris Groys; Elena Kozlovskaya, director of the Pro Arte Institute in Saint Petersburg; and Dmitri Ozerkov, curator of the 20/21 Hermitage project.

Koolhaas began by introducing the results of an ongoing AMO investigation that dates back to the OMA-designed Las Vegas branch of the Guggenheim Hermitage (finished on-site in 2001). Utilizing a series of maps and graphs (a standby of the OMA/AMO repertoire), the architect’s presentation worked best when tackling actual exhibition strategies, what he calls the “undeniable facts” of existing conditions of display: the intensity of confrontation between artwork and audience, object and observer. It is this combination of pragmatism and deference to aesthetic experience that seems to be at the heart of the Saint Petersburg project—a serious ambition to take exception with the tidal wave of cultural marketing, to refrain from architectural additions or new construction, and to resist all-too-easy agendas of change. The formula for this approach was presented in the form of a futurist bullet-point pitch: “Beyond market | Beyond safety | Beyond Eurocentric | Beyond confines | Beyond art historical | Beyond the white/black cube.” Take all this with a grain of salt, however: While the Hermitage project aims to go beyond the terms of today’s blockbuster architecture, it may fall victim to inaction or to the very immaterial mode of branding it seeks to avoid.

In anticipation of the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage in 2014, Koolhaas announced that he will undertake three major investigations into the museum’s global agenda, its urban and architectural program, and its curatorial framework. Often understood as a classically conservative museum, the Hermitage is, as an AMO press release puts it, “largely independent from market forces though heavily political; a historical masterpiece holding historical masterpieces; encyclopedic in size and scope but striking in its details.” This portrait of the existing institution forms the basis for Koolhaas and AMO’s study. By conducting historical and architectural research and offering a comparative analysis, they have generated proposals for the museum that include an urban intervention challenging the museum’s relationship to the city, the conception and design of an exhibition of the museum’s permanent collection of Islamic art, the design of a temporary exhibition of the museum’s display cases, a series of international seminars, and a final publication. This curatorial “Masterplan” will speculate on exhibition strategies such as the expansion or contraction of display (hanging one object per room, or employing a dense nineteenth-century-style hanging in other areas), the use of underground passageways formerly blocked, and a general investigation into architecture as curatorial process.

The Hermitage certainly presents a historiographical challenge. The museum’s spatial rendition of chronology—in which visitors experience a continuous trajectory of walking without pause, there being hardly any dead ends in its mazelike halls—turns circulation itself into an overarching driving force, a museological strategy. However, as Koolhaas argued, we need to ask whether there might be another potential structure, one that would allow for cultural hybrids and “curatorial regimes” independent of history, such as nonchronological exhibitions or a designated space within the museum that would function as a kind of kunsthalle. Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky attempted to contextualize this proposed leap forward. Describing the nineteenth-century museum’s process of modernization, he advanced the idea of establishing formats of global accessibility that would not play into the museum as either “church” or “Disneyland” but establish a new path in between. This would necessitate a dialogue beyond antiquated designations of “Russian” or “European” culture, East or West. Yet it remains to be seen whether such an effort would bear fruit, the danger being an elision of localized identity that might, at worst, lead to a kind of cultural Esperanto.

Svetlana Boym wittily intervened, noting that “some of Rem Koolhaas’s images look already like installations of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov. So you almost don’t need the Kabakovs, but rather to simply see the [Hermitage] installations as found objects.” Chris Dercon reminded the audience that the practice of architects taking part in curatorial endeavors is in fact part of the history of the Hermitage—as Leo von Klenze, the museum’s original architect, did the same. Dercon used the opportunity to contextualize the relatively open forum of the Hermitage design, comparing it to the historically closed and totalitarian construction of the Haus der Kunst (and its original function as a political megaphone, a spatial enactment of nationalist propaganda). He further suggested that, since the Hermitage is one of the biggest museums in the world, with the fewest visitors, the institution should give up its organizational divisions and, rather than establishing limitations, foster instability and change. Invoking Jean-Luc Godard’s filmic stoppages and fractured narratives, Dercon deftly argued that this transformation could be achieved by disrupting temporalities and linear histories within the museal space. Boris Groys proposed to celebrate the ambiguous spatial status of the Hermitage by opening up its exhibition program to the international art scene, not to simplify global histories for those in the West, but to specifically engage the Middle East, China, and the former Soviet republics.

The panel made clear that the Hermitage stands as a political project rather than a strictly populist one. In this regard, AMO has already achieved marked success, simply by negating the pure elevation of quantity over content that we know so well from Bilbao and other blockbuster destinations of the cultural backpacker. In its place, Koolhaas has offered a considered reflection on the role of the museum, an effort to reinvent and decentralize the traditional narratives and formats of history.

This attempt to turn architecture into discourse does, of course, have its risks. The format of the panel itself seemed to incarnate both the promise and pitfalls of such an approach. The innovative integration of curators, institutional leaders, and critics into the process provides an opportunity to put meaningful alternatives to conventional museum architecture on the table. Indeed, Koolhaas performed remarkably well in his newfound role as moderator, displaying both canny realism and historical acumen. He proved a worthy foil even to Andrea Phillips’s question from the audience, which raised the issue of whether architects actually need to curate at all. Yet Koolhaas’s attempt to provoke fluid conversation with the audience did not, unfortunately, take hold—perhaps a function of the event’s spatial setup (a thirty-three-foot-long table facing the audience, a setting which reminded me of a press conference in which a soccer coach announces the team lineup for a critical match). The sound system also broke down, obfuscating the panelists’ conversations. All told, the Hermitage project very much remains unfinished business, an ongoing discussion with a follow-up conversation to take place in Saint Petersburg this month.

It was striking to watch a major architect strip naked the internal processes of his project. This way of working is the polar opposite of the media techniques of architects such as Gehry or Hadid and evinces a sincere commitment to critical exchange. The fact that this public hearing took place in London, where everyone involved was an outsider, meant that the team could maneuver in a much more agile way—discourse was unmoored from the careful orchestration of an actual press conference. But then again, it became all too clear that this lineup (whatever its open-source approach) was dealing with the wrong audience, when the panel ended and members of the audience started rushing toward Koolhaas in order to secure autographs.

Markus Miessen is a London- and Berlin-based writer and architect.