Technological Innovations Continue To Shape American Museum Design

(Part 2 of 2)


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Architects have long found creative sanctuary in museum clients, and in response they have tended to unleash their imaginations to create great signature designs, many of which blend technology with pure form in unusually innovative ways. In fact, we have come to expect nothing less from a new museum design than a bold aesthetic statement, engineering that tests the unproven, and multimedia integrations that can grab and hold the attention of even the most jaded contemporary audiences in the digital age. We have come to expect passion and controversy, traditions bruised by challenging visions.

In short, we have come to expect art. And the most recent crop of museum designs does not disappoint.

To some extent, experimentation is in the nature of the beast; a museum, after all, should appeal to our senses and our imagination as well as to our intellect. It should surprise and delight as it informs. Those are reactions that defy both cookie cutter sameness and classical allegiances. As a result, modernization and expansion projects have tended to reduce the role of even the most storied “art temples” and “culture mausoleums” - designs that defined museum architecture in America for more than a century - to quaint centerpieces in a complex of spaces dominated by imaginative contemporary structures.

From I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre to the Museum of Natural History’s rebuilt Hayden Planetarium and Rose Center and the Brooklyn Museum’s new crystal entrance, our most revered institutional structures are being encapsulated in contemporary forms capable of accommodating contemporary technologies. Among the best current examples of such modernization efforts are Steven Holl’s design for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, now nearing completion in Kansas City, MO, and Renzo Piano’s design for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Unlike Yoshio Taniguchi’s design for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which redefined the entire original, Holl and Piano have produced designs that keep revered originals intact but assign them a new environmental context.

Of course, Taniguchi had a much better excuse for his innovations - though certainly not a freer hand, given the politics surrounding the project. “MoMA has in the past used the design of its built form as an opportunity to regenerate itself and to express what is current in the arena of modernism,” he wrote in presenting his design. “As an integral part of the Museum’s history, this record of regeneration should not be destroyed but should be preserved and celebrated in the juxtaposition of past and present, the new or experimental contrasted to the known or established.”

The design of totally new museum structures, in contrast, is generally far more liberating. When the past imposes no restraints, designs can afford to be more innovative and experimental. Whether one of the Guggenheims by Wright or Gehry or the Rogers/Piano Pompidou Centre in Paris, some of the most compelling museum designs of the last 50 years have altered the urban landscape forever by interrupting comfortable, expected forms with things of wonder and possibility.

By far, the most innovative - and many would argue, successful - of the new structures to have opened in the past year is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which stretches out over the Arkansas River near downtown Little Rock like some dazzling unfinished bridge from the past to the future. Although the campus includes a restored railroad station, the project’s emphasis is on the stunning design by Polshek Partnership Architects, a firm whose stated goal is to create works that are “technically and socially relevant to their place and time.”

What all these designs share - whether they represent new life or resuscitation - is a common goal: in Taniguchi’s words, “to create an ideal environment for the interaction of people and art.”

In each new design, evolving technologies played a major role in realizing that mission. In the case of the Nelson-Atkins, for example, Holl was almost obsessive in his appetite for light. Each of the five discrete elements he designed for the museum campus is a crystal palace wrought in shapes that defy right angles. Holl alludes to the transparency and translucency of these buildings by referring to them as “five built lenses” that serve to “form new spaces and angles of vision.

“From the movement through the landscape and threaded between the light openings, exhilarating new experiences of the existing Museum will be formed,” Holl wrote of his design. “Circulation and exhibition merge, as one can look from one level to another, from inside to outside. ... Glass lenses bring different qualities of light to the galleries while the sculpture garden’s pathways wind through them.”

To realize this kind of transparency in Kansas City, where mean temperatures range from 16 degrees Fahrenheit (-8.5 C) in January to 89 degrees (32 C) in July, Holl needed a new kind of glass, a new kind of construction, and a new kind of structural design. Working with the German manufacturer Lamberts, he created glass planks that could span 18 feet without support, thus reducing the need for shadow-casting columns, yet so low in iron content that they are more transparent to white light than to colors, thus providing an environment conducive to viewing art.

Holl also innovated in the way his glass walls deal with heat. A 3.5-foot space between the panes of glass creates a sort of massive transparent duct that removes solar heat to an upper-level plenum from which it can be redistributed in the winter or dissipated in the summer.

Another innovative glass structure, and equally compelling aesthetically, is the Toledo Museum of Art’s new Glass Pavilion, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and the SANAA firm of Tokyo and also currently under construction. This is a case of glass for the sake of glass, since the purpose of this crystal temple is to house one of the world’s finest international collections - more than 5,000 glass objects spanning ancient to contemporary eras.

Just 15 feet tall and 76,000 square feet in area, the Glass Pavilion’s design combines advanced structural engineering and new materials to create a space that is both aesthetically elegant and environmentally friendly. In a nod to its purpose, the single-story structure plus basement will house a glassmaking facility, and the glass used in its construction is intended to make a statement about the flexibility of the medium. Curved glass walls, constructed of 8- by 13.5-foot panels, will divide the interior space, and both exterior and interior glass walls will consist of two panes laminated for durability.

Because there are no right-angle corners on the exterior, the glass has to be custom-made by the Pilkington Glass Co., which is fabricating the finished panels in China. To prevent overheating, a curtain system will limit the amount of sunlight entering the building. In addition, building cavities and small corridors between the glass rooms have been designed to trap heat much like a thermopane window.

Energy issues were also at the forefront in the design of the Clinton Center, where the former president insisted that the design must feature sustainable buildings, emphasizing state-of-the-art strategies for site development, water savings, energy efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. At the same time, the displays, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York, represent the pinnacle of sophisticated AV and systems integration, creating a new standard for institutional multimedia presentations.

In sum, the marriage of technology and design in museum architecture is healthy and prospering. And if EwingCole’s design for the expansion and revitalization of New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center is any indication, it is certain to continue evolving in the future, as imaginative integration further blurs the line between form and function.

Photo courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center

The interior of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center offers both public museum display spaces and quieter, more remote areas for scholarship.