A collaborative post from Marja Salaspuro*, Amsterdam and Sergio Davila, Amsterdam.
Can classical conservative museum structure keep its historically layered architecture, rooms, collections and objects – and still attract the interest of the modern visitors, mainstream tourists and experience seeking travelers? A philosophical reconsideration around purpose of the museums at our era and the architect’s role as a curator are linked to architect Rem Koolhaas’ plan for the next expansion of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Politics and economics are essential forces influencing in Museum architecture, also to the extent of shaping what kind of ‘art’ will be displayed. Every redevelopment project adds a layer on top of the history whether it will be rebranding process of a city through Guggenheim franchising (such as in Bilbao) or creating structures enabling mass tourism experiences such as in Louvre or in MoMA.
Architecture as curatorial strategy
The field of architecture is not only defining human shelters anymore, architecture is about understanding culture, history, and even understanding future scenarios. The dematerialization of architecture is a fact, besides the virtual tools to experience a space, architecture, as in design is a field that is exploring more its faculty to define strategies, processes, models; and it is defining topology with human relationships instead of steel and concrete. Mr. Koolhaas expressed his interest in explore the architect’s role in designing a curatorial strategy. As it is seen among commissions and competitions, leading international architecture offices have established their own research think thanks’ analyzing historical links behind museum structures. For example Rem Koolhaas presented his own AMO think thank in a lecture as a part of Holland Festival programme for the fully booked Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. Honestly, the lecture was very inspiring and gave us a better perspective about the museums of our time.
Motorcycles and copy-pasting classics
From the economic point of view art can be defined as a luxury commodity, ‘an experience’ tied to the ‘judgments’ of the institutional and commercial art establishment. Following that logic, museum is the place where mass audiences ‘experience’ the greatest ‘luxury commodities’, those that patrons or experts of the nations have been collecting to be remembered by next generations.
The museum architecture defines physical structure for the ‘art experience’ whether it will be white walls made for paintings, black rooms for video projectors or for example a huge entrance hall such as in Tate Modern which allows to perceive art as a spatial experience.
In some leading museums, the experience with the luxury product is separated from the exhibition. Stylish bookshops, unique restaurants and impressive buildings are sometimes enough for satisfying the hunger for an aesthetic experience. Guggenheim for example has built its success by franchising an architectural monuments offering leisure activities linked to the middle class vacation (like in Bilbao or in Las Vegas).
The architectural strategy for combining new and old was, for example in Guggenheim Las Vegas something different than in more classical art institutions. Architect Rem Koolhaas covered 125-by-70-foot ceiling of the Guggenheim Las Vegas with a likeness of Michelangelo’s Sixtine Chapel’s while the exhibition itself showed 130 motorcycles from the late 19th century to the present (originally displayed at the Guggenheim in New York in 1998). The theme of copy-pasting is linked to be apart of the architectural theme recycling, just like similar recycling processes are ongoing in the fields of music, film and design.
Intellectual approach to Hermitage St. Petersburg
In St Petersburg, the historical plaza of revolution in front of the Hermitage Museum already serves as an ice-skating ring, as the our current era encourages leisure activities. Just to be clear, this blog post is not about the battle of taste and/or quality, but rather introduce the role of an architect as curator of the exhibition spaces, and therefore influential creator of the art experience.
For example the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has 1200 rooms. This spatial fact will influence the visiting experience. The next expansion will add to the complex 800 rooms more. Rem Koolhaas has done a plan for this expansion based on to idea to combine all historical layers without falling to a total Hermi-kitsch.
With the historical layers, architectural plan is representing three drastic societal changes in Russia from tsarism to communism and most recently towards commercialism. Just like the Russian society, one of the worlds’ biggest art collections and its show room, the Hermitage, has been put together by adding new layers on top of each other expressing the values of the ruling power.
The first structure followed aesthetics of Versailles Palace and praised the enlightened monarchs and the taste of majestic Catherine the Great. After revolution the Winter Palace and the surrounding buildings were declared as the state museum. During the Second World War some rooms have even been serving temporarily as hospital for wounded soldiers.
The next contemporary layer which Rem Koolhaas AMO think thanks has been working on includes inspirational, one might say curatorial and philosophical approach: ”The task at hand is to find those changes that will allow the Hermitage in a discreet way, without being too manifest, to function better.” AMO 2008
We like the idea. The architect himself concentrates on customer experience and structures help in assembling huge crowds, keeping the connection to the history of Russia. For the audience the experience can be customized, some rooms can be left for motorcycles. After wondering through endless halls with priceless art from Paleolithic to contemporary, there might also be possibility for ice-skating in front of the Winter Palace. I guess this is our time.
*Marja Salaspuro is MA in Arts Management student from Sibelius Academy Helsinki and she is devoted to follow inspiring approaches evolving in contemporary debates around museum and art as institutions.