Good evening. I am delighted to be here, even if this room is not quite the architectural surroundings we are accustomed to at the Morgan Library. Actually they are not so bad, all things considered, since this building, the old B. Altman store, is a landmark in itself, and was thoroughly and mostly sympathetically renovated by the architect Charles Gwathmey, who managed to squeeze out of the New York State educational bureaucracy the funds to allow at least a moderate amount of real architecture. The government has done much worse, and if you are discouraged about the state of things in New York it is worth remembering that in a slightly earlier time, it would have been taken as a matter of course that the closing of Altmanes would mean the demolition of a building like this, not its conversion into a building that would have a permanent public use.
In any case I am very pleased to be a part of the Morgan In Exile, or whatever it is that we can call this period of wandering in the desert before the Library returns to the new and improved promised land on 36th Street. Actually, those of you who are familiar with the story of the Library’s quest to expand may think that the period better suited to comparison to wandering in the desert is not right now when the building is closed for reconstruction, but the period before this one, when the Library embarked on a search for an architect that turned out to be long and unusually complicated, and unusual particularly in that it was anything but a straight line, and might in fact be described more in terms of a circle, since it ended up essentially where it began, which is with Renzo Piano, who is one of the great architects of our time. The Library first approached Renzo Piano a couple of years before actually hiring him; for various reasons it did not seem to work out for both parties at the beginning, and then the Library embarked on a long and rather adventuresome search, in the end coming back to Piano, who then agreed to take on the job. I will talk a little bit about the Library and Piano’s plans in a few minutes, but my real goal tonight is to talk in a more general way about the art museum today, and to place the Morgan Library in the context of other museums we are seeing now, and museums of the last generation.
The Morgan is not, of course, precisely like other museums; its very name makes that clear. Yet for all that this institution calls itself a library, it is also a museum, and its identity has consisted, in large part, in the graceful and harmonious way in which these two roles, library and museum, have always joined together. In the last few years, however, the pressures acting upon the Library to be more of a museum have grown, and that is what I want to talk about right now – the extraordinary expansion of the museum audience all over this country, and expansion that has played out in small towns and cities as well as in New York, and has created new institutions as well as causing established ones like the Morgan Library to change and evolve in response to it.
Now, it’s easy to reject this vast expansion of the art museum audience that we have been experiencing as a dumbing down, as many critics have done, and there is plenty of evidence to support that – exhibitions of questionable scholarship, exhibitions organized to encourage maximum sales of related objects in the gift shop, the very presence of the gift shop and the cafÅ½, looming larger and larger in so many institutions these days. But the reality of this growing audience is much more complex. It’s both good and bad. Today, we have a lot more reasonably well-educated, reasonably sophisticated people around, which certainly accounts for part of the increased interest in museums and the visual arts; we are a more visually sophisticated culture than we once were, and many pursuits that were once the province only of the elite are now generally accessible across society. It would be the height of hypocrisy to sit here and say what a bad idea it is to give culture a broad audience, since exposure is the very thing that a museum is for. Its very existence is closely tied to the impulse toward the democratization of culture. If J. Pierpont Morgan had wanted to keep all of his treasures to himself and to his family, he would not have created the Morgan Library, and his son would not have expanded it and turned it into a more public institution. You do not create an institution such as this one to say culture belongs only to the elite – although, it is true, there have been directors in the past who have come close to doing so, who have wanted to make the point that no one gets into the museum who hasn’t already proven he knows what is going on inside. But today that is an untenable position. Culture, like higher education itself, has been democratized, and while there are certain very real compromises, even losses, in this process – I do not in any way deny that these compromises can sometimes be significant – but I think we have to believe that it is a net gain for society.
I have another theory as to what has been fueling the growth of the art museum, and it is this: not only are there a great many more relatively sophisticated people around, it is also the case that now we live in an age in which so many people spend most of their days behind computer screens, dealing with virtual this and cyber-that, and when you do that, and even get much of your entertainment and communication from computers and televisions and so forth, you begin to cry out for the experience of authenticity. I believe that one reason there is so much interest in museums today comes down to that very fact – the power of authenticity. It is the fact that what you come to the art museum to see, be it an illuminated manuscript or a Rembrandt drawing or a Monet, is real.
When the current wave of technology made its way into our lives there was a lot of fear that it would have the opposite effect, that it would destroy the power of the real, or at the very least blur the distinction between the virtual and the real. If you could see it all on a computer, and experience art that way, the reasoning went, then who needed to go to a museum? That was part of the reason that a very ambitious plan underwritten by the late Walter Annenberg to create an educational center that would have been a kind of virtual museum, based on relatively early computer technologies, never got off the ground at the Metropolitan Museum in the nineteen-seventies – because critics felt that if you could see computerized images of works of art all the time, it would destroy the appreciation of the real. It is astonishing, if you look back at the Annenberg proposal – which was created by Charles and Ray Eames, by the way – to see how prescient it was, how much it was focused on expanding the audience for art by making it accessible, and how thing technological things that it promised are now what everybody accesses all the time, on the internet, everywhere.
And now we know that the fear that computerized images of works of art would destroy an appreciation of the real was completely wrong. What happened, of course, is exactly the opposite – that the real, by being more rare, became all the more precious. In the same way that seeing a Matisse in a book doesn’t make you feel less eager to see the real thing but more eager, our experiences with computers and technology in the last generation have made us crave authenticity more. We know that authenticity, in our age, is not any longer something we can take for granted – we know that most of the visual images we see as we go about our lives today are not "real," in the sense that a Breugel drawing at the Morgan Library is real, and we value the authentic because we know it is rare. The power of the real has grown, it has not diminished, in our new technological environment, by the very fact of its being scarce.
Another thing that has grown and not diminished – and this is also contrary to many predictions – is the value we place on good public space. Most of us spend a great deal of our time alone, either in office cubicles or in our cars or connected to computers at home, where we function as if we were alone even if there are plenty of other people in the house, and of course everyone has heard of the predictions of the demise of public space, of the end of town squares and stores and streets and malls and, indeed, of the obsolescence of the city itself. Who needs to be in a public place when you can do everything at home – work, shop, communicate, be entertained? Telecommuting would replace offices, online e-commerce would replace stores, and so forth.
Well, now we know that this prediction, too, was wildly exaggerated – not because the technology is not a very real and potent force for change in the way we live, but because the prediction ignored a fundamental aspect of human character, which is that we do not want to be alone. We need a kind of stimulation that only true public places can give us. New York City, which was supposed to be put out of business by the new technologies, is more prosperous than ever – or at least was before the recent economic downtown and the events of September 11th, but let us leave those aside for the sake of this discussion. New York has flourished recently in large part because new technology entrepreneurs themselves want to be in the city, rubbing shoulders as well as communicating in cyberspace. People want to walk on streets as well as talk online. They want to be in real places. But they demand that the real places be special, and offer them something beyond what they can get through their computers. We see this, too, in retail – another thing that was supposed to be put out of business by technology, but which flourishes in new and adjusted guise, as retail environments reinvent themselves to create new kinds of public experiences.
To return to the question of the art museum, if you put these two phenomena together – the increased power of authenticity, and the desire to be in truly special public places – and add to this the fact of more educated people running around, suddenly the explosion in museums isn’t so much of a mystery. In truth, museums have become the most important public buildings of our time. They seem to embody our culture’s ideals, in much the same way that cathedrals once did – indeed, we might go so far as to say that museums, now, are the secular cathedrals of our time. They are repositories of the past, as cathedrals are; they represent a set of shared values, as the cathedrals did when they were new; they function as community centers as well as places of enlightenment; they are places in which the wealthy often find it useful to memorialize themselves, and they are places in which the very idea of immortality seems always to hover above us, as we hopefully experience some degree of transcendence from daily life.
I mean not to suggest that art is our religion now. Hardly. But we do seem to turn to the building of art museums now with a degree of passion that our society doesn’t seem to have for too many other shared pursuits. We infuse our football stadiums and baseball parks with passion, and our art museums; that may be about it, so far as public architecture is concerned. Maybe our performing-arts centers, too, but there is a question about these, because so many of them are devoted to the preservation of older forms of music and not the creation of newer ones; that may be the reason that so few of them in the last generation have been truly important works of architecture, the way art museums have been. Frank Gehry’s new Disney Hall in Los Angeles is the first truly significant orchestral hall in this country in a generation or more, probably since Kleinhans in Buffalo by Eliel Saarinen, and of course some people are criticizing it for looking too much like his museum at Bilbao, although I am happy to tell you that the great thing about this building is not the exterior but the hall itself, which is nothing like Bilbao at all, and is absolutely and totally devoted to the experience of music and – this is the point, or where this idea connects to what I am saying about art museums – the hall seems to me to be designed specifically to make people who have generally been exposed to music through electronic means understand the great and glorious experience of hearing live music in a public place, and to make of that experience something extraordinary. Once again, the idea is authenticity.
It is no exaggeration to say that in the same way that the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages represented the most avant-garde architecture of their time – the brilliant synthesis of architecture and engineering that was the Gothic – so, too, do many of our art museums today represent the cutting edge of architectural thought, far more than most concert halls, Disney notwithstanding, and certainly a lot more than football stadiums. Because a museum’s program is at least somewhat flexible – you can certainly be more expressionist in a museum design than in an office building, say – and perhaps because of the comradeship between the creative act of making art and the creative act of architecture, we have given a kind of implicit permission to our museums to be vastly more expressive than any other kind of building, including, ironically, churches. I don’t want to carry this analogy to churches too far, but it is true that many communities, particularly small to medium-sized cities, now look to their art museums as their dominant architectural symbol, as their conveyer of indentity on the skyline, much as a church might once have been. In any case, whatever the motivation, it is certainly fair to say that the art museum is the one sphere of building in which we seem most comfortable at the cutting edge of design.
With all of that as background, I would like in the next few minutes to say a little bit about museum architecture today, and to look at some of this new generation of public spaces that the museum has become, to make these general points real with a few examples.
The best way to think about the modern museum buildings of our time is to begin, I think, with a pair of buildings that represent two models, two distinct philosophical attitudes, if you will. They are both in New York. One is the Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright’s brilliant but difficult building of 1959, an extraordinary work, indeed one of the very greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century – although not, as most of you know, always the easiest place in which to view pictures. The other extreme was symbolized by a building the Museum of Modern Art, the crisp, International Style building that was erected in 1939, two years before the original National Gallery in Washington, the classical temple that was the culminating event in an earlier generation of museum design – but for the moment let us forget this curiosity of chronology, and think of the Museum of Modern Art as later, for it surely did set the tone, serve as the model, for much postwar museum architecture, both in the United States and abroad.
In total contrast to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art was what we might call the neutral building – simple, stark white spaces, in which everything defers to the art, or at least presumes to. The alternatives, then, were clear: it was either all architecture, like the Guggenheim, and the art left to fit in where it could, or it was all art, and architecture was intentionally suppressed. It wasn’t literally that simple, of course, and architects would always deny that they were either fighting art outright or giving up on any assertiveness of their own, but as you know architects are often the least reliable sources of information about their intentions, and for the purposes of our discussion right now, the Guggenheim and the Modern certainly represent the polar opposite in attitudes of modern architects.
We began to move away from the extremes these two buildings represented in the 1970’s, led, I think, by Louis Kahn and the two truly great buildings he designed toward the end of his career: the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, which opened in 1972, and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, which opened in 1977. These extraordinary structures are at once powerful, serene presences and respectful containers; to Kahn there was no necessary contradiction between his desire to create a moving and profound work of architecture and the need to accommodate to the functional demands of viewing and storing works of art. Of course like all great works of architecture they must be experienced, not merely seen in images; the spiritual sense of Kahn’s buildings, the way in which light joins with structure and space to create truly sensual presence, cannot be captured in photographs, and I particularly regret here that I did not get a photo of the galleries, which show brilliantly how the Kimbell is a work of poetry – and yet how it does, in more than casual ways, defer to the needs of art. I am not sure that any of the Kahn buildings come anywhere near the stance of aggressive neutrality represented by the original Museum of Modern Art building, but neither does their architectural presence – which is always visible, which never disappears – seem inclined to struggle with the art for the viewer’s attention. True, a sense of the building never disappears. But it is a rich and potent backdrop for the art and not a distraction from it, and that is an essential difference.
Let me show you another important museum from the 1970’s – Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Pompidou Center in Paris, which surely did more than any building since Wright’s Guggenheim to create a sense of museum as public event, of museum as entertainment, almost. This building made a rather disingenuous claim to total flexibility and neutrality; in fact, it enforces its architectural presence more powerfully than almost any other museum, and its flexibility never worked very well, which is why it has just been radically overhauled. But it changed the landscape, significantly, by pushing the museum even more toward the position of being a kind of public square. The interior, which you see in this view, was flexible to the point of dysfunction – panels you could put anywhere in this vast open space. It bears a distant resemblance to a building I did not mention, but probably should have, because it played a critical role in the post Museum of Modern Art evolution, which is Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery of 1951, which pre-dated the two museums I showed you by two decades. Kahn designed a relatively stark brick building, with concrete tetrahedronal forms making up the ceiling, and movable panels to show the art. It was a more assertive building than the Museum of Modern Art – heavier, rougher, certainly – yet in its aspirations to flexibility, it showed the direction that the Pompidou Center would exploit in a whole different way.
Let me get back to a bit closer to the present again, and fast-forward to the nineteen eighties. Nearly as important as Pompidou, surely, was James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, West Germany, completed in 1985, a zestful recapitulation of postwar modernist romanticism dazzlingly integrated into a classical framework. Stirling brilliantly inverts history here, making a building that does to classical architecture what Tom Stoppard does to Shakespeare. It turns it upside down and inside out and twists it every which way, all the way, magically, paying homage to it. And yet the galleries are, with the exception of details, ordered, classicizing spaces, decent and respectful for the viewing of pictures, if hardly neutral.
I do not want to be encyclopedic, but only to give you an overview with an eye toward the more significant, if nodt always more successful, buildings of the last generation. One of the few that I think I can say deserves both of these adjectives – significant and successful – is the Menil Collection in Houston by Renzo Piano, the building that comes closest to evoking the spirit of Kahn, though here made lighter, more tensile, more conventionally modernist, and beautifully and subtly articulated; and Robert Venturi’s buildings in Seattle and in London, the latter known as the Sainsbury Wing, an expansion of the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square.
Different buildings; about the only thing they have in common is the certainty with which they transcend the rigid and opposite categories set up by the last generation in the MoMA vs. Guggenheim paradigm. These more recent buildings are not just works of architecture, narcissistic as architecture and grudging in their accommodation to painting and sculpture, yet they are not neutral containers, either. They are all architecturally assertive, yet they are for the most part responsive to the needs of art. Piano’s Menil may seem at first glance more neutral than Venturi’s two buildings, but there is plenty of that architect in that building – as well as his unusual and brilliant client, the patron Dominique de Menil, who originally wanted to hire Kahn, who died before she was ready to build. And I know there are many who do not share my view that Venturi, however responsive he has been in the exterior of his buildings to the surrounding architectural context in both Seattle and London, is not so deferential inside to the art, especially in the Sainsbury Wing. There is no question that he is making a kind of pop play on Italian art and architecture in his Sainsbury galleries, but I do not consider it intrusive.
Some others of recent vintage and, for me, less clear success: Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which I find uneven in the quality of its display spaces, but which possesses some spaces of immense architectural power. And it is important to note that the spaces that are the strongest architecturally in this building generally turn out to be the ones that work best with the art that is within them. The weaker rooms are also weaker for art, interestingly, although by saying this I hardly mean to suggest that there is an automatic cause and effect relationship between architectural assertiveness and the ability to enhance works of art.
In Chicago, in the Museum of Contemporary Art by the Berlin architect Josef Kleiheus, we see a similar correlation, though – the strongest spaces are the big ones on the main floor of Kleiheus’s building, intended mainly for large-scale contemporary art; the permanent galleries strike me as warmed-over, weakly recycled Kimbell museum. And there is Mario Botta’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which I also find problematic in many ways, but here as effectively as anywhere in the country can we see the museum as agora expressed well – the museum as a gathering place, as a popular magnet. The galleries are uneven in quality, and sometimes, particularly at the top, try a bit too hard, but there are few more successful buildings in this country if one measures a museum’s success in terms of its ability to inject a shot of adrenalin into the cultural bloodstream of a community.
By that token, of course, nothing is as successful as I.M. Pei’s pyramid that serves as the new entrance, and effectively as the new symbol, of the Louvre. Yes, it has Americanized this museum, and it uncritically celebrates the evolution of the museum into a mass tourist attraction – but the fact of the matter is that this was happening anyway, and I am not sure that it is better to push crowds into dank, dark corridors than big, bright and open spaces on the argument that you are protecting the traditional image of the museum.
There was no conflict with a different kind of past at the Getty in Los Angeles, however; here, as you know, the institution was created from scratch, first in the form of a small fake Roman villa in Malibu in the nineteen-seventies and then, after J. Paul Getty’s death made more than a billion dollars available, in the new, sprawling, Richard Meier-designed complex in Brentwood. We could talk about this all afternoon, of course, and it is the most ambitious attempt in our time to create an entire cultural institution out of whole cloth. It is most successful architecturally in the parts the public doesn’t see – the study center, for example, and library – and perhaps in one part that the public sees all the time, which is the central rotunda of the museum wing. The actual museum itself, where Meier’s cool, modern galleries were redecorated by Thierry Despont, who was brought in to give them some frills, is less successful, in part because it is dull while pretending to be engaging. The whole thing is a kind of statement of corporate modernism, far more conservative in reality than it thinks it is. The plaza is dreary, the rotunda and the courtyard better – but even these sections succeed in large part because they have allowed the Getty to become one of those places, like Disneyland, in which Los Angeles residents can park their cars and play city. The museum as pretend version of urban experience – that is the Getty’s greatest success so far.
The Getty was fundamentally a conservative building, and that it symbolized the evolution of a certain kind of modern design from radicalism totally into the mainstream – remember, the Getty represents an aesthetic that in the Museum of Modern Art was seen as wildly radical, but by our time it had come to feel less like a radical statement than like the National Gallery of Art with its classical columns – what we might call representing high standards of conservative excellence. For a truly radical statement we had to turn to another building also finished in 1997, but started much later, which is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which is probably the finest single museum building of our time, and the one that has transformed the playing field of contemporary architecture more dramatically than any building since Wright’s Guggenheim – a remarkable building that is at once architecturally assertive and respectful of art, at once a powerful form and brilliantly integrated into a cityscape. My favorite view, which I do not have here, is of the building as seen from the city rather than from the river, where Gehry’s forms are framed by the streetscape, and feel magically right. The only interior I have here is of the huge gallery containing Richard Serra’s immense piece in the center, a space that was built as much out of the director’s insistence on having a huge, convention-hall sized room as anything else. The building also contains numerous smaller galleries that are more conventional, and better for moderately sized works of art. Indeed, one of the striking things here is the extent to which Gehry’s assertive architecture, which grabs the eye and pulls you in and then, once you are inside, continues to thrill, nonetheless does not determine all of the forms of the galleries themselves. Hidden within this mass of swirling, swooping titanium are several rectangular, or nearly rectangular, rooms.
Sometimes that balance has not been achieved so well. Richard Meier preceded the Getty with the High Museum in Atlanta, an exquisite object based on a quarter-arc shape in plan, but not one that is particularly welcoming to works other than itself. When the building was commissioned Atlanta didn’t have much of a collection, and thought an important building came first; I am not going to comment on the rightness or wrongness of this viewpoint except to say that the building they got looked better when it was empty. It might be called a comment on the Guggenheim, but it is fussy and distracting when the pictures are hung and it is filled up; beside it, Wright seems almost accommodating.
Then again, there is Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, which all but defies curators to hang objects or pictures in it. It can be done, and the current curator of architecture and design has done a decent job of going with the flow of this building and making it look good, but one wonders whether this effort, even when it is successful, is worth it. Even if the wrestling match between architect and curator can be turned into an exciting event and also judged a draw in which neither side defeats the other, is this really the goal? Meier at least made an effort to accommodate to art; Eisenman taunted the whole idea of it, as if it were some tiresome bourgeois notion.
So, too, with Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, which is one of the few museums I am showing you that I have not visited, but which I suspect has the same imbalance – great architectural drama at the cost of deference to the art within, but capable in the right hands of being installed well. Renzo Piano did much better in his Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, which you see here has a certain resemblance to the Menil in Houston, and so did Peter Zumthor in the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, an extraordinary glass box in the center of this old city. I find this one of the most intriguing juxtapositions of new and old anywhere, and if the interior seems harsh at first glance, I think it has a refinement and a somber, soft power that raises it far above that.
Refinement is not the word I would use to describe the Tate Modern, the new branch of the Tate in London that Herzog & de Meuron recently completed in the old Bankside power station by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, another vast building turned into a museum, this seemed like a wonderful idea until it actually happened. The reality has turned out to be surprisingly joyless, the building’s immensity less at the service of art than a means of catering to the enormous crowds of people who now fill museums. It is something of a paradox – the audience for art builds, and yet the museum that accommodates fully and totally to that audience by being housed in an enormous structure of this kind in fact diminishes the experience of viewing art, and turns out to be antithetical to the very notion of cultivated experience that all of this democratization of culture is theoretically encouraging. Big space, big crowds, and no spark of magic, in other words.
It’s a delicate balance since, as I said, we have to concede that I.M. Pei was making the same kind of accommodation at the Louvre, although with his pyramid he was creating, in effect, a new kind of engine to hook onto the historical train, which is not the same thing as putting an entire museum into a big, industrial building. We can say that Pei was merely adding public space and a new architectural symbol to the Louvre, and that is exactly what Santiago Calatrava was doing in Milwaukee, where this past fall, this extraordinary new object was finished, a pavilion that serves as a new entry, a great hall, and a triumphant symbol, now, of the entire city. Post Bilbao, this is what everyone wants, of course – an architectural symbol that will wow the crowds and keep them coming. You know, I used to worry that people did not appreciate architecture enough, but now I fear that they appreciate it too much, and I worry that they expect more of it than it can deliver. That is another discussion for another time; for now, let me say only that this structure, which flaps and moves – it is kind of like Picasso’s great sculpture in Chicago, blown up to the scale of a building, and maybe crossed with Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at JFK Airport – anyway, this thing is dazzling, even if it has nothing to do with the display of art. But it doesn’t get in the way of that, either. It is a vestibule for the city and a symbol for the museum, and I am not sure that it matters whether or not it connects directly to art. It does, however, underscore – and this is critical – how far we have come in the business of art museum design that the most spectacular new design can be for a wing that makes no pretense about even containing art. It’s all about wowing the crowds.
Calatrava wows the crowds brilliantly, and this is both a beautiful and a compelling object. I am still enough of an old-fashioned modernist, with just a little bit of that Calvinism left in me, so that I liked the sterner, more restrained refinement of Tod Williams’ and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum in New York, on West Fifty-third Street just down the block from where Yukio Taneguchi’s expanded Museum of Modern Art is under construction. The Folk Art Museum is domestic in scale, or almost; it accommodates to an urban site, and it contains a series of complex, terraced spaces within that, for all their intricacy, do not struggle with your understanding and appreciation of the art.
This same balance exists with what I consider the finest two museums other than the Folk Art Museum to have opened in this country in the last couple of years, Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, and the same architect’s Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth. The Pulitzer, a small, private museum, is is a concrete object, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, but made tighter, much more spare and austere. Inside, Ando does magnificent things with space and light that are ideally suited to the demands of this great, small collection, which consists primarily of postwar abstract expressionism.
Ando proved he can do the same thing at larger scale in Fort Worth – an exceptionally difficult design problem, since this new museum is across the street from the Kimbell, which is more or less like being asked to design a church across from Chartres Cathedral. And yet he did it, with a building that is relatively plain on the outside, and extraordinarily alive and complex, yet never confusing or difficult, on the inside. [quick summary, depending on slide images – reflecting pool, three pavilions, large public lobby, different range of spaces – yet all tight, disciplined, etc.]
Ando’s is not what we might call "feel good" architecture, and it is not easy or superficially entertaining. Yet it is deeply sensual and, as I have been saying, it is powerfully emotional. Ando transcends the whole issue of architecture being warm or cold; the very question, when you look at his work, seems trite. Throughout time architects have struggled with ways to express the spiritual through concrete form, and of all architects alive today, I think Ando has come more consistently close to achieving this sense of spirituality in the spaces he makes, and in the walls he wraps around them.
His work seems at once to be quite Western in its crisp, minimalist modernism, and utterly Japanese in its purity, its serenity, its deeply resonant simplicity. But there is something else about Ando’s work that strikes me as particularly Japanese, and that is the way it seems to connect to the notion that one can, within a very limited amount of space and with very limited gestures, evoke a whole, broader world. Ando’s rooms, his spaces, are models for more far-reaching things. They are metaphors, the way a Japanese alcove full of precisely composed objects is a set of symbols that stand for other things, or the way a Zen garden evokes not something crudely literal, but a whole set of feelings and beliefs that are inherent in a particular set of abstract forms in light. Sometimes I think that some of Ando’s work bears more resemblance to some of the classic Zen gardens than it does to other architecture – it is precise, and controlled, and it seems to contain within it enormous compressed power.
Although there is nothing Zen about it, I think much the same thing can be said of Renzo Piano’s project for the Morgan Library, with which I’ll end. He, too, has tried to bring architecture to a profound level without breaking away from the determination of the last generation to make the museum a firm and absolute part of the public realm, and in his case, as all of you who know the Morgan are aware, the task was particularly difficult because the Library was not a building but almost a campus, a group of buildings jostling together on a single New York block – one of them, Charles McKim’s original Morgan Library, one of the great buildings of America. But the way the place laid out, the original Morgan Library couldn’t be approached properly, and it seemed like an afterthought, not the centerpiece of this remarkable institution. Piano’s task was to reorganize the complex, giving it coherence, and at the same time expanding it, adding more public space, adding an auditorium, and a new and better public entrance.
I think he has succeeded brilliantly. His plan invokes modern materials and massing, yet with a scale and a serenity that will allow it to fit well and recede somewhat, but not too much, into the new front on Madison Avenue. The older classical wing by Benjamin W. Morris, which has been the entrance for years and is the source of a lot of the confusion of layout, will no longer be an entrance, and that is all to the good. Much of the facility, including the new storage vaults, will be underground, restoring a lot of other space for public use. The result, I think, will be an ennobling and joyful civic centerpiece, a structure that at its best tries to join the most serious lessons of architecture with the most serious lessons of art.
I said a few minutes ago that our communities today consist largely of private realms, and we have a desperate need for some sense of common ground, some physical place that can symbolize our being together, that represents our sense of community and our aspirations. Once, the city as a totality did that – the street, the town square, the public life that being in a city engaged you in, every single day. Now, that is less and less the case, as the street is replaced by the mall, the movies by television, the face-to-face conversation by the phone and the fax, the meeting by conference call hookup, and so forth and so on.
The museum alone cannot reverse this tide, nor should it. But the growth of museums in our time, and our determination to make of them major civic buildings, stands as proof that in this age of privatization, we have not yet lost all interest in the public realm, and in the real rather than the virtual. For the museum offers a couple of things that other kinds of experience in our age rarely provide. The most important is that it is a temple to authenticity, we might call it, a place in which the idea of the real, as expressed through seeing real works of art, can be powerfully brought home. All of this is one reason I don’t worry as much as some people do about the museum taking on other civic functions – the museum as a place for shopping, or the museum as a place for eating, both of which have become bigger than they once were, and which I know deeply disturbs some traditionalists. When these things drive the entire institution, it is indeed reason to grieve. But as supplements to the museum’s role as a center of public life, they are enriching, not diminishing. When the museum can be an architectural monument as well as a respectful container for art, it becomes all the more reason to celebrate. The museum can continue to be a treasure house and a place of scholarly research, but surely it is also, more and more, the public square of our age, the place of our coming together.