Marvels, Formulas, Anomalies

Museums and Architecture – Bilbao, Berlin and Paris

It is now twenty years since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Beyond the fact that with its architecturally milestone building and world-standard exhibitions it draws a million visitors annually, the Guggenheim has also played a key role in the emergence of Bilbao as a ‘Mecca of urbanisation’ and is a textbook example of urban development based on culture. Yet can a single museum redeem a city? In the past two decades the majority of cities trying to apply the Bilbao formula haven’t achieved that – so much so that according to one early critic it would be better to employ the word ‘anomaly’ rather than ‘effect’. That is to say, successful adaptation means more than a good architect and a trendy museum. For that it’s worth studying not only the lessons of Bilbao, but also two other examples: Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the modern expansion of the Louvre. In recent centuries museums have greatly evolved: from repository of curiosities via a collection point of national values and specialised institutes for preservation and analysis, to today’s multifunctional centres applying cultural communication moulded to consumption habits. In recent decades, however, the pace of change has accelerated in response to the expansion of the welfare state, global tourism and digitization. It is not only the structure, strategies and staff of institutes which have to comply with that. The change itself engenders a modification of the concrete physical frameworks. Museums across the world have reacted to the growth and diversified mass of visitors with new architectural approaches, using the phenomenon of ‘star architecture’ developed in recent decades and the ‘brand name’ of its leading figures. Architectural space has become diversified and within it the role of the arts, while hierarchical relations have been put into question. This has led to results which give much food for thought, such as the new entrance block of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, the ‘Bath Tub’, the profanity of which, to say the least, strikes at the world-standard status of the collection, or the new museum building in Ordos, China – the building, due to its badly chosen location and timing has no collection and thus stands empty. Writing about museum architecture, Andrew McClellan notes that it depended on your point of view whether the opening of Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in 1997 was the best or worst thing to have happened in the arts during recent decades. Gehry and Bilbao shocked and dynamised the thinking about museums. The past two decades, however, have demonstrated that the Bilbao formula is quite complex. Apart from many carefully worked out factors, the fascinating story of Bilbao can also be attributed to a fair amount of luck. In short: for the success of an architect, a museum can be enough, but for that of a museum a good architect is certainly not enough.