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Book Review : Modern Monuments Enshrine the Past


The Museums of the Last Generation by Josep Montaner and Jordi Oliveras (St. Martin's Press/Academy Editions: $29.95, paperback; 144 pp.)

Not long ago, in these pages, I reviewed a book by a theologian who argues in all seriousness that the shopping mall is the contemporary functional equivalent of the Gothic cathedral. After reading "The Museums of the Last Generation," I am convinced that the museum, not the mall, is the sacred architecture of our age.

The museum is "the mediator of a formless reality, of a multitude of objects, of knowledge," explains Ignasi de Sola-Morales in a brief introduction, and thus "must have a hermeneutically efficient architectural form capable of revealing to the public its sacred contents." Once we begin to perceive the museum as a place where we gather to venerate images and relics of what we hold to be sacred, then we learn something quite startling about the pantheon of the modern world.

Consider, for example, the museums of technology--and specifically, aerospace technology--which are the work of leading architects around the world. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, is "the most visited museum in the world." Frank Gehry's Air and Space Museum in Los Angeles is a reliquary on a smaller scale, and the skyward-thrusting military jet affixed to its exterior is an unambiguous reminder of the uses of heaven in the 20th Century. And the National Science, Technology and Industry Museum in Paris, designed by Adrien Fainsilber with Sylvain Mersier, is a glittering technological fantasy of anti-human, almost nightmarish scale. Significantly, we are told that "the new museum is housed in a building that was originally designed to be an ultramodern slaughterhouse."

Even when it is the Muses, rather than missiles, that are to be worshiped, the contemporary museum is most often rendered in a thoroughly high-tech architectural vocabulary. One of the earliest and most insistent examples, of course, is the Pompidou Centre at Plateau Beaubourg in Paris, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers: "Its formal expression . . . is close to that of an oil refinery," the authors, Josep Montaner and Jordi Oliveras, dryly note. Indeed, the structural skeleton and the mechanical guts of the Pompidou Centre--metal beams, air-conditioning ducts, escalators and so on--are literally turned inside out, as is the conventional aesthetic of museum architecture. "It is a media megaobject used to undermine the traditionally serious idea of culture and to propose an iconoclastic and innovative alternative," the authors write. "In this way, technology is used playfully--as fun or propaganda--and more for aesthetic than scientific effect."

The authors regard contemporary museum architecture as "a synthesis of various significant aspects of Post-Modernism: cultural politics, mass tourism and the mythification of travel, the search for figurative values in architectural forms. . . . " Thus, the most celebrated architects of "the last generation" (which the authors define as the last decade) have produced museums that appear to resemble aircraft hangars (the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, designed by Foster Associates); airport lobbies (the interior of the Staatsgalerie Extension in Stuttgart, designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford); and, yes, even shopping malls (the Fine Arts Museum in Atlanta, designed by Richard Meier, the architect who is now designing the new quarters of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles).

Downplaying the Spiritual

Architecture's obsession with technology is not the least troubling to Montaner and Oliveras, a pair of aesthetic and architectural theorists from the Barcelona Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura. (Their book, by the way, is wholly and straightforwardly bilingual, with all printed matter after the title page rendered in both Spanish and English.) In fact, the authors downplay the spiritual component in the design of museums and embrace the complex technological solutions that have appealed to contemporary architects:

"The museum, obeying a genuine process of desanctification. . . , is less a place for the direct contemplation of works of art, and more a cultural focus providing space for work, learning and study," they insist. Still, Montaner and Oliveras concede that the process of "desanctification" is not complete, and they acknowledge--although without apparent enthusiasm--"the perseverance of the traditional idea of a spatial structure based on rooms and corridors permitting an ordered presentation of the works and retaining the sanctified image of the work of art."

MOCA in Los Angeles

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