As a raft of new cultural institutions open their doors across the globe, Brian Noone finds similarities in their architecture
In the stolid and sedate world of secular architecture, the museums, theatres and opera houses are the divas. Post office cornices and glassed-in bank towers may convince us that they mean business, but the come-hither angles and curves of the Sydney Opera House are nothing so much as the fluttering eyelashes and tantalising limbs of a burlesque dancer. Even the palatial elegance of the Louvre puts one in the mind of an ageing grande dame, posing contentedly with her tremendous sparkling diamond brooch.
And these prima donnas aren’t all glitz and glamour. Like the Hollywood starlets of yore, their personalities have substance. In New York-based architect Daniel Libeskind’s words, “Cultural institutions are in fact the places from which concrete images of communities and societies are formed … the very expression of a common aspiration.”
So it is little surprise that architects fairly swoon at the opportunity to design a cultural centre. There is nothing new in this – the Acropolis in Athens was the result of a design competition – but this year there is an unusual proliferation of arts buildings thrusting open their doors, often well outside the expected culture vulture capitals. And for all the diversity of their creators, one thing is clear: these buildings are strutting their stuff.
No architecture studio is unveiling more large-scale cultural projects this year than Zaha Hadid’s. With four ribbon- cuttings pencilled in, star billing goes to the Guangzhou Opera House, which has offered sneak peeks since last May but will only reach completion later this year. Also in East Asia, Hadid’s conic-walled Next Gene Architecture Museum in Taipei and the eco-friendly Dongdaemun Design Museum and Park in Seoul are both scheduled for autumn openings, while the Museum of Transport in Glasgow, which sits adjacent to the city harbour on the River Clyde, plans a summer unveiling.
If Hadid is the architect with the most openings, Spain is the country leading the way, with two of the most ambitious cultural centres so far this century. Both opening in multiple stages, the Niemeyer Centre in Avilés and the City of Culture, which overlooks Santiago de Compostela, seek to bring creative talent of international repute to the Spanish hinterlands. The former is a multibuilding structure and the last hurrah for 103-year-old Pritzker Prize-winning architect Oscar Niemeyer, while the €400m latter comprises a theatre, museum, library, archive and arts centre.
In Germany, Libeskind will be completing construction on the Dresden Military Museum this autumn, his third German culture build, which like his feted Holocaust Museum in Berlin aspires to create a visceral feeling that matches the museum’s contents. “The inspiration was to engage the public in the deepest issue of how military history and the fate of the city are intertwined,” says Libeskind. “It is a lantern, a signal, a beacon that evokes the city itself.”
Different sorts of institutions call for different sorts of designs, and Canadian architect Jack Diamond found his task in the soon-to-open Montreal Concert Hall to be “creat[ing] facilities commensurate with the works of, say, Mozart and Stravinksy”. Diamond, who is also designing an extension of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, saw the building’s primary connection to the city through the prism of its performances: “Giving such expression to the best works of man surely instils pride in a community. It validates the arts.”
Tasmanian gambler-cum-art collector David Walsh also aims to validate artistic expression – particularly in its most controversial forms – with his $175m Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. Walsh has amassed a treasure trove of provocative and offensive art because, as he has said, “Belief systems should be explored in exactly the same way that everything else is explored.” And, indeed, from Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-smeared Virgin Mary to the car crash staged on opening night this January, there is enough to warrant Walsh’s claim that he has created a “subversive Disneyland”.
In Mexico, the capital city’s latest museum has something surreal – if not subversive – in its six-storey contorted glass form. Designed by the son-in-law of billionaire Carlos Slim and named for his late wife, the Soumaya Museum is home to Slim’s more-than-60,000-piece art collection, including the largest private holding of Rodin sculptures outside France.
Some museums, like some stars, work just as hard on their shapes as on what’s inside them: such seems the case with the Novecento and Groninger museums. The Novecento, housed in the shell of a palace in Milan, has completely demolished the interiors, leaving a sleek core which showcases 20th-century art. The Dutch museum, meanwhile, boasts a structure designed by Philippe Starck, Alessandro Mendini and Coop Himmelb(l)au and has recently completed an interior revamp done by designers Jaime Hayón, Studio Job and Maarten Baas, each responsible for a different room.
When updating the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which debuts in April in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was important to preserve the history of the building. Executive Director Vikki Heywood explains, “It respects ‘the ghosts in the walls’ and allows those who have performed in and visited the building many times to walk round the new theatre and have it feel familiar.”
Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, where museum construction has reached a frenzied pace, Mathaf, a museum of modern Arab art, has opened its doors in Doha before the Louvre, Guggenheim, and co begin their unveilings next year. Set in a former school, Mathaf has retained the structure’s “clear and easy flow”, in the words of architect Jean-François Bodin, who also designed the recently opened Gagosian Gallery in Paris. “Most of all”, Bodin says of his design, it “gives a new spatiality for large-format contemporary artworks”, of which there are several thousand that alternate on the wall space.
And if none of these new builds particularly catches your fancy? Wait a year or two, says Libeskind: the divas will only get smarter. “The ideas already exist on the iPhone, iPad and other digital devices,” Libeskind says. It’s only a matter of time before museums “will become the true agoras – participatory and open places of the 21st century”.
Centurion, Q1, 2011