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Friday, January 7, 2011

Expanding Museums

Many of us have faced the daunting task of expanding our places of abode to accommodate a growing family, or simply the prospect of our "stuff" crowding us out of house and home. "Building on," as it's called, to some simply means a new bathroom tacked on to a hundred-year-old house built when the "bath room" was a tub and some hot water in the kitchen. So long as it's modest, neat, and reasonably private we don't much care what the "south wing" looks like, from the outside at least. Some of us, the more architecturally astute perhaps, might go to some effort to blend the old with the new, up to the point anyway, when it starts becoming greatly more expensive to do so. Perhaps we've never considered it, but this situation also bedevils our great palaces of art and culture as their growing collections of art "stuff" begin to choke off the breathing space within. Sometimes, it literally comes down to a bathroom problem, given the legal demands today for handicap accessibility of public places.

However, unlike the tacked on bathroom, art museums have a certain duty to consider their existing, albeit often quite outdated and grandiose, architecture as they expand...or at least one would think (and hope) this might be the case. Sadly, like the proverbial elephant (that appears to have been put together by a rather discordant committee), the vast majority of these expansion efforts, according to architectural historian Victoria Newhouse (no pun intended), also bear similar traits. And the culprit often is the discordant committee more intent on square footage and dollars than architectural sense.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain, 1997,
Frank Gehry, architect.
The new wing, lower left, is virtually invisible.

In her book, Toward a New Museum, Miss Newhouse cites only four of the dozens of almost constantly expanding art museum worldwide that have successfully grown with any kind of architectural compatibility with their existing structures. Among the successes, The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the The  Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany. On the other hand, she turns thumbs down to what she calls "wings that don't fly" such as recent expansions to many New York museums--The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Louvre in Paris.  She especially takes issue with the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, terming it an entrance through the basement and a gauntlet of gift shops.

The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Although
designed as a passive backdrop for the Wright
masterpiece, the massive new addition instead
 towers over it and contrasts sharply with the
 curvilinear lines of of the original structure.
Newhouse is no more kind to the rectilinear "box" that compromises the addition to Frank Lloyde Wright's Guggenheim, New York, and its spiraling swirl. She even goes so far as to say there is a point at which museums should stop expanding, citing the Metropolitan's seven new wings, just since 1970.

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