02. Nalina Moses on the Figure of the Starchitect

When art collector Eli Broad announced earlier this year that he’d leased a plot of land in downtown Los Angeles to build a private museum, high drama ensued. The press discovered that he’d held a secret competition among six high profile architecture firms (OMA, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Christian de Portzamparc, SANAA, Foreign Office Architects, and Herzog & de Meuron) before awarding the commission to Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Broad was aiming high. He was placing himself in direct competition with several outstanding city museum structures: Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Renzo Piano’s two additions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and Peter Zumthor’s upcoming building for LACMA. And Broad was going head to head with two acclaimed contemporary buildings just blocks away from the site: Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and Rafael Moneo’s Los Angeles Cathedral. Broad didn’t require approval from a museum board or co-investors, so why didn’t he simply select an architect and get on with it, as Solomon R. Guggenheim did when he tapped Frank Lloyd Wright to build his museum?

Since the Guggenheim New York opened its doors in 1959, art has changed. Architecture has changed too. Now, the process of designing and building an art museum (finding a site, holding a competition, selecting an architect, and moving through the long, costly steps of design and construction) has become a formative narrative that confers artistic and civic legitimacy on both the museum and the architect. The emergence in the 1990’s of a distinct class of highly visible, accomplished, international architects — starchitects — has further inflected the process. It’s virtually unthinkable now that the board of any major art museum in the world would commission anyone but a starchitect to design a new building or addition. Even when museums hold design competitions, they’re typically limited to a pre-selected group of starchitects. Museum-building has become an act that is, for both starchitect and institution, mutually enabling and ennobling.

For architecture firms, an art museum is a superlative commission. The art museum is considered an ideal program as it calls for large, open gallery spaces that can be conceived with an unusual degree of volumetric and structural freedom. Although any museum requires support spaces for administration, storage, and infrastructure, its figure and character are not predetermined by technical requirements as a similarly-scaled school, train station or shopping mall would be. So it presents the architect with powerful design opportunities.

New art museums also generate an enormous amount of publicity, in both design-world dialogue and the general press. This burnishes the profile of even the most accomplished architecture firms and can lift lesser-known firms to unimagined heights. This happened in 2003 to SANAA, a Japanese partnership largely unknown in the United States that was selected to design the New Museum in New York City, and whose newly-minted starchitect status was confirmed seven years later when they received the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious international honor for architects. Perhaps a similar fate lies ahead for Snohetta, the Oslo-based architecture office that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) selected this summer to lead their expansion.

Design competitions, in particular, stir up tremendous good will, for both architect and museum. This has become especially true since the 1997 competition to design the expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), when Yoshio Tanaguchi, a Japanese architect who had built several museums in his own country but remained unknown elsewhere, beat out nine better-known luminaries. The competition gave Tanaguchi an opportunity to establish his skill in an outright, transparent way. And it served the museum board well, too, suggesting that in choosing Tanaguchi over brighter stars it possessed a high level of integrity and discernment. The architectural competition lent the board’s enterprise, which had pragmatic and fiscal motivations, an air of aesthetic rigor.

This notion of the art museum as an elevated architectural and cultural achievement is the result of deep shifts in popular ideas about museums and architecture. The first art museums, eighteenth-century structures with individual galleries strung along geometric axes, had a generic, institutional quality. In its plan this kind of museum might resemble a hospital or stable, with rows of identical chambers, and on its exterior it might resemble a prison, an opera house, or a church, with identical architectural and ornamental expression. Art museums remained undifferentiated from other building types, and also spatially and sculpturally mute, providing a neutral setting for painting and sculpture.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries architects strove to distinguish themselves from draftsmen, construction tradesmen, and engineers, establishing academic and administrative programs to legitimize their profession. In the twentieth century, another, less direct, challenge to the identity of architects came from the fine arts. The international prominence of artists like Picasso, who were upending long-standing aesthetic conventions through their handiwork, shaped a heroic, iconoclastic notion of creativity. Architects may have wanted to work with the relative formal freedom that sculptors and painters enjoyed, and to be recognized for their artistic prowess as well as their technical skills. At the same time artists may have wanted to produce works with increased permanence and utility, and which were much bigger in scale. These competing, overlapping ambitions met squarely in the field of the art museum, where the association of fine art with high architecture elevated both endeavors.

While contemporary European architects like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were making striking formal innovations in their work through the 1920’s and 1930’s, they framed their achievements in political ideals. In contrast, their American contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked in an array of imagistic styles and had a strong personality and appetite for the spotlight, nearly single-handedly gave rise to the notion of the architect as artist. Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, whose hero who was loosely modeled after Wright, depicts the modern architect as a solitary, uncompromising aesthete. The architect was now conceived of as a creator rather than a professional, working with inspiration rather than technique, and striving for genius rather than mastery. With the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1959, this new notion of the architect was perfectly crystallized. This was the first major American museum-building conceived as a work of art, a singular object with its own assertive physical character and not simply a neutral shell for displaying art. It’s a common complaint that the sculptural presence of the interior — its spiraling ramp and sloping display walls — can overwhelm artworks. Yet its extravagant formal language is accepted as the inviolable expression of its larger-than-life creator. This historic, elemental shift in the conception of architecture, from an applied art towards a fine art, is one that the profession is still, painfully, struggling to accommodate.

At the same time architecture became made over in the image of art, art itself was changing. With the advent of abstract expressionism at mid-century, the mythology of the artist’s primary, heroic gesture became enlarged, as did the size of the artworks. And with conceptual art in the 1960s, fine art became less about discrete, jewel-like objects and more about fields of action and temporal processes. As the artworks became larger, more diffuse and porous, spaces that housed them needed to be as well. In addition to canvases and figural sculptures, a new gallery might be called upon to house large-scale sculptural interventions, dance performances, sound installations, and banks of video monitors. The large, loose galleries of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum building in New York from 1966 are somewhat responsive to this change, as are the more recent, immense galleries at the MoMA addition and the New Museum. As art museum architecture achieved a new status, the greater physical size of the museum now responded to its new stature as an art object itself.

If the inauguration of the Guggenheim in New York is a formative moment in art museum starchitecture, then the 1997 Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao is its apotheosis. Like Guggenheim New York, the structure possesses an iconic, sculptural presence, both as a figure in the city and as an idiosyncratic, interior backdrop for art. In scale, however, it’s a giant leap from the Guggenheim New York, whose volumes are held in check by the city street grid and codes regulating heights and setbacks. Guggenheim Bilbao is an isolated, freestanding colossus twice as tall and several times as massive as its American counterpart. To design the Bilbao, Gehry inflated his sculptural language of swooping, coagulated shards so that they resemble landscape formations rather than personal gestures. The opening of this universally acclaimed building put the city of Bilbao on the international cultural map. More than a showcase for art or even a work of art itself, the building is potent as an urban, place-making element. If the Guggenheim New York is a monument within the city, then the Guggenheim Bilbao is a structure that invents the city around it.

The notion that the art museum is more than a cultural and architectural entity, but also a generative urban force, has become especially prevalent. Planners in American cities, particularly secondary ones, routinely turn to the art museum to reshape communities. In the past decade alone, Santiago Calatrava’s new wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron’s addition to The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati have all borne this expectation. The new international art museums possess, in addition, a distinctly civilizing aspect. They’re not expected to enlighten the masses — the museum’s past mission — but to legitimize a place as it opens itself to global culture and capital. Established art museums are expanding into emerging markets and calling upon starchitects more and more to fashion buildings, perhaps unrealistically, with the same super-architectural, place-making force as the Guggenheim Bilbao. The new Pompidou museum in Metz, France, designed by Shigeru Ban, is intended to recast that city in the same way. Plans are underway for new branches of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel and in Lens, France by SANAA, and for new branches of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry and in Vilnius by Zaha Hadid. Starchitect-designed art museums have become the most visible pioneers of global culture, moving out in front and mapping the way.