With a bevy of his museums opening up in the last few years, Renzo Piano has staked his claim as the art world’s architect of choice
Has the McMansion generation invaded the art museum world? Recently, a rash of bigger and better art museums designed by big-name architects has revamped our very definition of museum and changed the way we experience art—Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum have become just the tip of the iceberg in an art museum building boom. And, while the architecture of many of these gargantuan storehouses of art is innovative, it’s the art inside that has been the real winner in this 21st century museum renaissance. Spectacle architecture means more crowds, which translates into a winning situation for museums and their collections.
Museums as we know them now (read: big, public centers of art exhibi- tion and study) have existed for hundreds of years—the Louvre, which first opened its doors to the masses during the French Revolution in 1793, is often viewed as the world’s first public museum. Shortly after its opening, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a wave of similar public institutions open up through- out Europe. The phenomenon reached the United States during the lavish days of “robber barons” like Morgan, Frick, Mellon and Carnegie, each of whom built museums from their private wealth for the benefit of the public.
Flash forward to the dawn of the 21st century.As the contemporary art scene has exploded in recent years, so has the demand for new venues to house the Boteros, Hockneys and Warhols that have made their way into the collections of numerous cultural institutions and collections throughout the country. New museums and additions to old venues are springing up like wild- fire and cutting-edge architects are jumping at this surge in demand.
Yet, while a lot of present-day commercial and residential building design can be ostentatious, power-pleasing, jocular, or just plain mundane, museums are anything but.They must serve a defined and specific purpose and present for the architect a unique set of design challenges and opportunities. A look at the Pompidou, the Guggenheims, and the Kimbell Art Museum will show that many newer museums appear anything but banal.
Today, any mention of famous new art museums inevitably brings up Renzo Piano, the architect who, it could very well be argued, started this whole craze in 1977 with Paris’ Pompidou Center. Growing up in 1930s Genoa, Italy, Piano learned the art of construction, scale, research, functions, forms, usage of buildings and aesthetic skills from his experiences early on working in his family’s construction business. But his talent and vision for design led him down a slightly different path—that of the architect.
After studying at the Universities of Florence and Milan and graduating from Milan Polytechnic in 1964, Piano apprenticed with Louis Kahn in Philadelphia and Z.S. Makowsky in London. In 1971 he formed a partner- ship with Richard Rogers and together they designed the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1977.The design rocked the museum world.
He has since gone on to design the Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Pavilion in Houston; the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland; the renovation and extension of Harvard University Art Museum; Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland; an expansion of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; extensions to the Morgan Library and Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to name just a few.
“Renzo Piano has been at the cutting edge of museum design, first with Centre Pompidou in Paris, which triggered an extraordinary interest in going to see modern art in an exciting setting,” says Alexander Garvin, a professor at Yale’s School of Architecture and a former commissioner on the New York City Planning Commission. “He has continued to raise the bar in museum design with the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, the High Museum expan- sion in Atlanta, and with the addition to the Morgan Library in NewYork City.”
Opening its doors just last year, the Morgan Library and Museum addi- tion was Piano’s first completed New York commission. He was charged with integrating three existing landmark buildings with three new glass-and-steel pavilions, the result of which doubled the exhibition space for Morgan’s renowned collections. It also added a new reading room, a new performance hall and enhanced visitor amenities. Piano added 75,000 square feet (below grade) to the campus and restored all three historic buildings.The entire campus was enlarged to a stunning 151,000 square feet at a cost of $106 million.
Formerly, Morgan visitors entered on 36th street in a historic building. Today, the new Madison Avenue entrance is wide and welcoming. It directs the visitor to the Gilbert Court, a large, four-story, glass-enclosed court that con- nects all library and museum activities and serves as a gathering space in the manner of an Italian piazza. It is the focal point of the museum and landscaped with trees; light streams in and an aura of lightness floats through the space. It is as inviting as it is functional. A glass-enclosed elevator silently drifts to the second floor, providing a dazzling vista overlooking the ground floor.
The three original historical buildings that comprise the Morgan include the 1906 Morgan library, designed by the famous architect Charles McKim; the 1928 annex building, designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris; and the mid- 19th-century Morgan family house. Today, three pavilions of faceted steel panels coated in a rose-hued off-white and crystalline-looking glass unite the historic houses in stellar fashion. Piano has stated he wanted to keep it intimate and retain its unique charm; J. Pierpont Morgan himself no doubt would have approved.
The lower level has a sumptuous new 299-seat performance hall for lectures, musical arts programs and other live performances. Two new dining areas have been created: a café in the central court and The Morgan Dining Room in the former Morgan family dining room. The latter serves authentic period cuisine, similar to that feasted on by the Morgans themselves. The room—which retains its original marble fireplace, marble friezes and intricate moldings—can comfortably serve 42.
“Piano’s addition to the Morgan can be summed up in one word: seamless,” says Maureen Bray, Curator of Exhibits at L&M Gallery, New York. “Piano’s redesign seamlessly integrates the original, early-20th-century architecture with 21st-century architecture. However, this new architectural sensibility does not forgo the basic tenets of classicism; rather, it re-interprets them in a different—yet complimentary—fashion.”
Out west, Piano has been selected by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to design an Eli Broad-funded campus expansion whose first phase is slated to open next year.The ambitious project involves expanding, upgrading and unifying the museum’s six-building, 20-acre campus. Piano will also design a three-story building for the site, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA.The 80,000 square foot building will be situated between the main museum campus and LACMA West (the old May Company building).
Presently, the museum exists as a sort of hodge-podge assortment of various buildings and styles.Thus, high on Piano’s LACMA priority list is a visual integration of the entire museum campus. The street between the main campus and LACMA West will be eliminated to make way for a splendid entrance pavilion and the Wilshire Boulevard façades of the existing buildings will be redesigned.
Broad’s museum will be mainly gallery space, to which he will loan up to 200 of his more than 1000 works of Postwar art.The works will be displayed on a rotating basis along with selections from the museum’s own permanent collection. As of now, Angelenos can only await completion of what is sure to be a festive opening day.
Image: Inside the Morgan Library & Museum’s glass-enclosed central court, looking west towards the Madison Avenue entrance. Photography by Todd Eberle. © 2006 Todd Eberle.