“Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.”- Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

Posted by on Apr 25, 2017

Yes, my art buddies, architecture is art. In fact, only when a building achieves the elusive quality of art can it be described as architecture. If I really want to piss you off, I can argue it is the most difficult of art forms because it necessarily involves the responsibility of human habitation and, as it has been said, “Architects have to leave their work out in the rain!”

Therefore, I find the programmatic intersection of Art and Architecture, i.e. the Art Museum, to be a fascinating challenge and an opportunity to explore the relationship of museum visitor, curator, artist, and architect.

Guggenheim, New York is currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary appropriately with a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition of drawings and models. Much has been written about the extraordinary original drawings and the buildings, which changed the course of American architectural history. They will not be the subject of this essay.

The Guggenheim, like it or not, remains a remarkable and unique way to experience a one of a kind art museum. Study the circulation diagram. Few remember Wright’s intention to take people to the top level, allowing a slow, thoughtful decent along the famous spiraling ramp. As of this writing, it was only a few hours ago I spent the morning reveling in the drawings and exhilarating space of Guggenheim. However, the curatorship was weak and uninspired. For example, upon entering the rotunda, people were immediately directed {(up” the ramp opposite to the architect’s intention … and the exhibit was on the architect… with a significant piece devoted to the building itself!

Hence the dilemma: curator’s unable or unwilling to cope with a unique exhibition space, OR architects making the art secondary to a dominant form. I believe Wright sincerely aspired to connect the act of viewing art with the form of the space to the point that the physical form was a direct result of the exhibition experience. Not only was the circulation augmenting and simplifying movement, it was balanced with a central daylit point of reference, allowing visitors to see where they had been and where they were going. The display walls were tilted outward and daylit from above not unlike the painter’s easel.

Sometimes cities will commission an art museum prioritizing tourism over serious art education. Consider Milwaukee, Denver, and the poster child of civic transformation: Bilbao. All three of these recent blockbuster museums have been extremely successful. Clearly the goal focused on dynamic urban form, assuring the city an elevated position in the cultural pecking order. In exchange, logical, conventional, flexible, economical, and curator-friendly public exhibition space is relinquished. Even I, who will confess to value architecture over any other art form, finds these new museums to be a curatoria l nightmare and programmatically deficient! However, given the goal, these museums deliver.

On the other extreme, one can exalt Dia:Beacon’s old box factory and the Judd Foundation’s converted railroad and munitions buildings. Simple, elegant, and originally designed for other purposes, these buildings enclose spaces any curator or artist would happily embrace. Paintings and sculptures soar in their unassuming daylit rooms. Although they do not care to represent state of the art architectural possibility, I would say the small towns of Beacon, New York and Marfa, Texas occupy a unique place on an elite list of art oriented cities.

Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?

In Fort Worth, Texas (who would have thought, given the last 8 years?) one will find THE museum. There is a large, tree shaded, grass covered park. Crossing the park- soft steps, birds singing- one approaches a gravel court, passing under a tree canopy, and finds a composition of 16 large concrete vaults.

This is the Kimball Art Museum, designed in 1972 by Louis Kahn. In my own opinion, and I am not alone on this, the Kimball is considered the touchstone of art museums by which all others, new and old, are measured. The architecture is simple, repetitive, functional, and most importantly, beautiful. People will go see the Kimball regardless of the collection. No one can attend an exhibition and ignore the building. Generally everyone of any age, income, or education level will leave knowing they have had an unforgettable experience. The curators are happy, fund raisers never break a sweat, Fort Worth and Texas covet the bragging rights, and believe me, there is not an architect alive who would not honor this building. Fortunately there are other excellent examples of architecture daring to be great, yet not at the expense of art exhibition. Many of the best museums are from the hand of Renzo Piano … The Menil Collection and Twombly Gallery, Houston, Texas (Texas again!); the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas; and the Chicago Art Institute expansion. Typically a new museum is commissioned by a municipality, foundation, institution, or private patron. Apparently, there exists a misconception one has to make one of only two choices: between iconic, knock your socks off architecture, or a program which recedes so the art projects. Frankly I am all for diversity! America is defined by diversity and we can never have too many museums, and we are in no danger of too much architecture. So bring it on!

Perhaps the rarity of another Kimball makes the accomplishment much more valuable. However, the aspiration remains the worthiest of goals, one which I am intellectually aligned.

Eddie M. Jones, AlA

New York to Charlotte