Term Paper: History and Architecture of Public Museums

Pages: 5 (1611 words)  ·  Style: Chicago  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Topic: Architecture  ·  Buy This Paper

¶ … Architecture: Public Museums

The 1939 building of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was not only representative of architecture during its time, it was also an important turning point in museum architecture. When the Museum commissioned its own building for the first time during 1939, it was viewed as important not to provide only a building that served the function of housing various works of modern art. In addition, the aim was to concretize an understanding of the modern artistic paradigm in the building itself. As such, this goal focuses on a combination of the museum's accomplishes of the past and its goals for the future.

According to the Curator's Address (MoMA, 2004) cites Le Corbusier's 1923 modernist manifesto, Towards a New Architecture as a document that introduced avant-garde architecture to the wider public. This can also be said of the Museum both during 1939 and in the 20th century, during which the building is once again renovated with the original ideals in mind. This is also reflected in Ricciotti's article (1985), which addresses the architecture of the building during its inception in 1939.

According to Ricciotti (1985, p. 51), MoMA was a revolutionary cultural institution during the time, and, as seen from the Curator's Speech above, continues to be so today. Its ideals were therefore both challenging and essential when designing a building for MoMA's headquarters. As mentioned above, MoMA's approach to both the arts and architecture was revolutionary: its displays included not only works of painting and sculpture, but also included newer media such as photography, film, and industrial design. This also related to advanced architecture.

In its displays, MoMA made no secret of its ideals. According to the author (1985, p. 52), its showcase of the International Style foreshadowed the characteristics and revolutionary design of the building seven years later. As such, the design was in line both with the Museum's ideals and goals and with its status as exhibitor and supporter of the most modern of art forms. Examples of adherences to the Style are numerous. The street facade for example contained a large area of translucent glass and strip windows. The ideal of volume rather than mass in architecture was displayed by both the glass and the remarkably thin walls. Ornamental design also adhered to the style in the form of windows and portholes, vertical lettering and plants for the interior. The essential rather than aesthetic aspect was also addressed by means of a narrow lobby that led directly the to the main galleries at the floor level (Ricciotti, p. 54).

An unusual feature was the gallery spaces, which were open and flexible. These innovations, even more than the Museum's adherence to the existing International Style, enhanced its reputation as the mark of a new era in Museum architecture. Another innovation was the plywood partitions that later became the standard at many art exhibition buildings. Finally, the neutral and indeterminate environment for the exhibitions was another pioneering feature of the building. (Ricciotti, p. 55).

A further interesting feature in terms of representing the environment from which it emerges, is the building's functional gallery spaces that are reminiscent of the typical office or manufacturing lot at the time (Ricciotti, p. 57). While somewhat austere, this feature was offset by a combination with the residential character of the Museum. According to the author, this indicated the combination of art and home life, and the fact that the founders and benefactors of the building did just that: they enjoyed the luxury of art in the comfort of their homes. According to the author, this domestic air could also be the result of the fact that the building occupied a former townhouse, which was indeed a residential building. While it may therefore have been less than a conscious act of architecture, it is nonetheless a fortunate feature that contributes to the unique combinations within the building. This indicated the modernist domestication of the public institution at the time. While this domestication may have been a manifestation of fortunate accident rather than conscious design, the conscious rejection of convention was not.

According to Ricciotti, the architects rejected the conventional Beaux-arts elements that were frequently used for Museum building design at the time. Elements such as symmetry, formal axes and cross-axes, along with spacious corridors and public spaces were rejected in favor of the elements mentioned above. The large courtyards of traditional museums were also replaced with a Sculpture Garden that resembled a domestic backyard enclosure. The larger than usual number of stories encouraged vertical rather than the traditional horizontal circulation through the Museum (Ricciotti, p. 59).

Interestingly, the vertical circulation was also a departure from the International Style's tradition. Nevertheless, the facade of the building indicates horizontal circulation, and not the actual vertical circulation that is only revealed once the Museum patron is inside. The vertical circulation is not only meant as an aesthetic departure from the traditional, but also a practical response to the crowded urban conditions of its time. Indeed, some of the building's original design proposals even suggested skyscrapers schemes in order to blend with the landscape around it (Ricciotti, p. 59). This combines the practical with the aesthetic to parallel with the combination of the austere with the domestic.

By accepting a carefully chosen modernist paradigm in its International Style design even while replacing the traditional with pioneering innovation, the architects have created for MoMA a building that adheres to the highest of its ideals even for the 21st century. The building combines artistic, aesthetic, and architectural features to lead its patrons from the past to the present and into the future. In this, the design was supremely successful.

Like the designers of the MoMA building, Louis I Kahn also used existing elements to modify the modern model of museum building into a unique and pioneering art form. For his buildings, the architect's modifications related to the focus of the buildings on their centers rather than their edges. According to Kathleen James (1995, p. 47), Kahn's approach is not only unique in terms of its focus, but also in his use of the courtyard. This feature is distinguished by its rectilinear boundaries and the architectural elaboration in contrast to its blank exterior.

As such, Kahn's courtyards contrast with the traditional museum courtyard by not being simply communal places for gathering large herds of patrons. Instead, they have a dignifying effect, according to James (p. 49), not only for the communal, but also and especially for the individual. For Kahn, the courtyard in a museum serves a more important purpose than merely a casual public meeting place. Indeed, while meeting does take place, it is with the focus on the experiences of the individual that he or she shares with fellow museum patrons. In this, the atmosphere of the courtyard plays a pivotal role. James describes this atmosphere as "almost mystical." For Kahn, the courtyard is therefore that most central and important section of the museum building.

With the rigor that he displayed in designing his courtyards, as the central aspect around which all other elements of building are created, he has influenced a number of architects to adhere to his ideal rather than the Modern Movement and its functionalism. Kahn was however somewhat unique in that he made his greatest designs available to the patron only in the interior, whereas the ideal of most modern architects is to advertise their skill at the exterior (James, p. 48).

Instead, Kahn caters to a smaller audience; the one using the building, rather than the casual passer-by who only sees the architecture from the outside. According to the author, this tendency towards the subtle outside and the dramatic interior public meeting space adheres to the Indian and medieval European ideal rather than modernist American design. As such,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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