7 new trends in museum design

Museums are rethinking the physical plant to carry out a new mission — to serve larger, more-diverse publics, while staying afloat financially
August 11, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, when Arthur Rosenblatt was appointed vice director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, museums were simple to understand. "They were quiet places, lonely places," serving mostly the upper levels of society, says Rosenblatt, who spent 20 years at the Met.

All that's changed, he says. "Today, museums are busier and more exciting and attractive," says Rosenblatt, now a principal with RKK&G Museum and Cultural Facilities Consultants, in Manhattan. He pooh-poohs elitists who complain that museums are so crowded with the hoi polloi, they can't see the Fra Angelicos. "Museums are making art available to more and more people," he cheers.

"We've democratized art," chimes in Wyn Bielaska, chief designer and project architect for Arthur Erickson's Museum of Glass, which opened in Tacoma, Wash., last July.

The numbers bear this out. Some 865 million people visit the nation's 16,000 or so museums each year, an average 2.3 million visitors a day, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums. That's more than attend all professional baseball, basketball, and football games combined in a year.

The booming economy of the late 1990s made donations plentiful for the construction of what the AAM calls "an epidemic of new buildings" and eye-catching additions.

These new projects reflect the changing mission of museums, whose boards and administrators are seeking to attract, engage, merchandise, and educate bigger and more widely diverse publics. Program requirements and the resulting museum designs — and budgets — have grown in size and complexity. Building Teams that fail to keep up with these trends do so at their peril.

1 Museum as artwork and attractor

"Since Bilbao, the museum is the first piece in the collection of the museum," says Elizabeth Diller, half of the New York husband-and-wife design team of Diller + Scofidio, which is in design development on Boston's new Institute of Contemporary Art.

"As an attraction, museums sometimes are criticized for overwhelming the art and for being architecture that is too competitive," she says. "You want the building to be an attraction and to be an important investment in the museum as a distinctive piece. But it doesn't need to compete with the art."

Nonetheless, some museums are going after internationally acclaimed architects as a way of merchandising and building support for projects and obtaining donor funds, says Rosenblatt. "They are looking for fashionable names."

Rem Koolhaus's selection for the design of the Los Angeles County Museum is but one example. "Of course, not every museum can afford a Koolhaus or a Danny Libeskind [designer of the Denver Museum of Art extension], and not all of them choose to go that route," he says. Rosenblatt's own firm, for example, doesn't have a signature architect, yet is fully booked designing and consulting on museum projects.

While celebrity architects such as Santiago Calatrava lend instant credibility to a project, the ultimate goal for administrators is to achieve a compelling design.

Surely that was the case in Tacoma. "The museum wanted a work of art, and they got it," says Bielaska of the Museum of Glass, whose iconic element is a 90-ft.-tall stainless steel cone, tilted 17 degrees to one side. "I think that's why they selected Arthur Erickson."

 
A 90-ft. stainless steel cone pitched at an angle is the iconic element of Arthur Erickson’s Museum of Glass, which opened in Tacoma, Wash., last July.


"No question the cone is a drawing card and a work of art," says MoG's director, Josi Callan. The design element evokes the historic sawmill wood burners once native to the region. It houses a working hot-glass studio, where artists blow and cast glass. Callan credits the cone, which holds 200 spectators, with helping the museum attract 150,000 visitors since its July opening. "It has a real spirit and energy about it," she says.




Administrators at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Texas) (the Modern), say they weren't focused on hiring a star architect for their museum, which was scheduled to open this month. "We were interested in an outstanding design," says Dr. Marla Price, the Modern's director. Although they wound up choosing Japan's Tadao Ando, he competed against five others for the commission.

"Once a major building opens, visitors want to see the building, probably more than [they want to see] the art," says Rollie Childers, a principal with Kendall/Heaton Associates, Houston, the Modern's architect of record.

The museum's new location directly opposite Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum and near Philip Johnson's Amon Carter Museum made the design all the more important.

"We knew it was going to be compared to the Kimbell," says Peter Edward Arendt, director of design and construction for MPA Foundation, owner of the Modern. "It's clear and elegant in its absolute simplicity. The structure is the art."

He adds, however, that "the museum is a backdrop to the collection. It's not competing. The two complement each other."

2 Greater emphasis on the two R's

As museums draw more visitors, many are stressing the design of retail space to maximize revenue. Restaurants, too, are becoming more important in the museum's expanded program, often providing spectacular views of the museum's surroundings and venues for entertaining and after-hours events.

This capitalist thrust probably can be traced back to the Met in the early 1970s. "They were selling a handful of postcards and greeting cards on tired old cases in the Great Hall," Rosenblatt recalls. Today, the museum's bookshop and retail operations have grown to the point that New Yorkers call it "Bloomingdale's at the Met."

The retail and restaurant components of the MoG and the Modern illustrate the differing ideologies toward such trade, reflecting the experience of their respective administrators.

When Josi Callan became director of the MoG, one of the changes she made during the design process was to switch the location of the restaurant, which needed 2,600 sq. ft., with the smaller retail space. Why? "Revenue," says Callan. "Most new facilities are going for larger stores. Part of the role of the store is to represent the museum's mission. Also, museum cafes are not known to make a lot of money. Ours is doing well, but in San Jose, it was a bit problematical," says Callan, who came to the MoG from the San Jose Museum of Art.

San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art recently enlarged its store, she says, and the Copia, a new museum of wine, food, and the arts in Napa, Calif., also has a 2,600-sq.-ft. store.

The Modern bucks this trend, favoring its restaurant over the merchandising outlet. "We don't really have an emphasis on retail," says Price, whose museum does not charge admission. "I don't think many museums make money off their retail. The big ones do. But some smaller museums are eliminating their stores."

The 250-seat restaurant overlooks a reflecting pool and museum galleries. An outdoor terrace provides added seating. "The café is very elegant and has sit-down service," says Arendt.

For Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, the ground floor will be accessible to the public. "We want the public to be able to enter the museum and use the bookstore and the restaurant without having to pay the price of admission," says Ricardo Scofidio.

3 Great hall as event venue

After-hours events can be lucrative business for museums. "Most museums now need to have a great hall," says Rosenblatt. "Most cities consider museums important venues for ceremonial events. They're also important places in which to host museum fundraisers.

"Resembling something out of a Fred Astaire movie, the travertine marble floor and towering glass atrium of the Milwaukee Museum of Art's main lobby is a classic example. Dressed in white with a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan from this ship-like structure's stern, the hall is used frequently for evening events, says facilities director Chuck Loomis.

While the MoG's towering cone is the focal point of the museum, its 5,600-sq.-ft. main lobby is its gateway and an ideal venue for after-hours "programming" (by law, the museum cannot "rent" the space, says Callan).

In Fort Worth, the Modern's "quite splendid" lobby area serves as a kind of "introductory piazza," says Price. But use the space for fundraising events? No way, says the director. "With its glass walls and beautiful granite floors, the last thing we want is a cart full of Caesar salad being rolled through there."

4 Flexible gallery space

Blame it on Tut. Ever since the mummified monarch landed in New York in the 1970s, temporary exhibitions have become de rigueur in U.S. museums, posing new challenges to designers and museum staff.

Because of the flexibility needed in such spaces, says consultant Rosenblatt, architects must carefully consider how to control temperature, humidity, and lighting. Until recently, the trend for temporary exhibits was toward the black box. Of great importance for any museum is deciding whether to use natural light, and if it is used, to what extent.

Here again, the MoG and the Modern provide a case in differing approaches to flex space.

At the Museum of Glass, "there is no permanent collection in the museum right now, so we needed the flexible space," says designer Bielaska. Temporary walls were built for the various changing exhibits. Floor boxes for electrical and communication devices were laid out on a grid pattern to be integrated with the whole building and to the museum's installations.

"You have to design the space in such a way that if it is split up you still have the proper HVAC system to accommodate it," he says. In the MoG, the HVAC is a continuous linear system, which enables a room to be properly serviced even when divided.

Though the gallery spaces are flexible, they can be challenging spaces in which to install exhibits, says Callan. The reflection off the ceilings also makes lighting a challenge, she says.

 
In response to the popularity of temporary exhibitions, flexible gallery spaces are being designed into new museums, such as RKK&G’s Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico Art.


In contrast, flex space was not a prerequisite for the Modern. "Flexibility was not desirable up to a certain point," says Price, who says she and other museum officials traveled the world touring museums. "The most successful museums we found had the least flexible space, but were the most beautiful. If you emphasize flexible space, what you get is a convention center."




The museum module design contains a column structure, which will enable walls to be opened. "But we don't have the flexibility to remove the major walls because they support the roof structure," says Arendt.

"We felt if the gallery is beautifully designed and proportioned, the art would be happier for it," Price says.

What the Modern lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in the varying design of its gallery spaces, much of it having to do with how the galleries are lit. This gives the museum numerous options in its displays.

Flexibility is essential to the design of the ICA's gallery spaces. Column-free galleries with glass planking and polished concrete floors feature movable walls. A special feature of the exhibition space will be the Long Gallery, which will span the width of the north end of the space and connect the east and west galleries.

5 More outdoor art and landscaping

Art, from sculpture to performance art, is going outdoors. Sculpture gardens and landscaping are key elements of many new museum programs. At Boston's ICA, the pedestrian parade on the HarborWalk will create a kind of performance art. The walk, which borders the museum, also will intersect it, appearing to fold up from the ground into a grandstand of public seating.

For the MoG, the public is engaged by the contemporary art on the landscaped rooftop plaza, a main entry and public gathering space for the museum. It features rotating works of art that can be viewed free of charge.

"The roof became the building's fifth façade," says Bielaska. "The entire roof acts like a big sky catcher. The clouds that blow in from the ocean are beautiful."

A series of ramps and stairs gives visitors a variety of ways of making their way down into the building. Although Erickson's treatment of stairs is something of a trademark, museum director Callan says the ramps have sometimes proven challenging for seniors and other visitors with physical limitations.

In Fort Worth, four of the Modern's 11 acres are available for landscaping and future works of art; the previous location had no such room. In addition, a sculpture garden is located off the museum's second floor.

"One of the basic elements of Mr. Ando's work is the integration of nature with the architecture," says Price. "Throughout the gallery areas, you're seeing the reflecting pond, trees, and grass. Having the outdoor artwork is important to his concept."

6 Hardwiring for technology

The technological revolution has not been lost on museums. Technology is impacting the type of exhibits that are held in exhibit spaces, as well as advancing the museum's educational mission. At the MoG, state-of-the-art electronics and audiovisual equipment are plentiful. Activities taking place in the museum are video simulcast throughout the building. A sophisticated a/v program recognizes donors visiting the museum. And a videotape artists' archive is being developed.

For Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, management worked with the designer to create a vertically stepped-out space suspended from the underside of the cantilevered fourth floor, to serve as a digital media center. "This is the place where I'd like to hang out," says Diller, given her background in technology and video production. The media center will be equipped with computer stations for accessing digital artworks, digital education, interpretive materials, and, of course, the Internet.

7 Parking still a top priority

For museum owners, parking is a huge headache. "The biggest complaints I received in San Jose and here are about the lack of parking," says the MoG's Callan. The city of Tacoma built a 150-space parking garage beneath the museum — totally inadequate for the attendance being drawn at the museum. "Terrible," Callan says.

Not every new museum needs a lot of parking, but homage must be paid to automobilus terriblis. "Adequate parking is critical for a city like Fort Worth," says the Modern's Arendt. "Texans don't go anywhere unless they're in their car."

Originally, an underground parking garage was planned for the museum, but its 24-ft. column spacing resulted in the construction of 133 surface parking spaces. "We have enough parking to meet the city ordinance," says Kendall/Heaton's Childers, "but it's probably not enough for when you have a big show." In such cases, Arendt says the Modern and the Kimbell have agreed to share their adjacent lots.

Trends speak to many building types

In a broader context, these trends are applicable to many commercial and institutional building types. The role of the envelope design, evaluation of parking needs, and whether a building should contain retail or some type of restaurant space are issues which many Building Teams have to consider. Those that keep the wants and needs of their customers in mind and focus on the function of the building as well as the design will be the most successful.