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Critic's notebook: Museums building on a renewed civic life

The Pompidou's intriguing new outpost illustrates the current phase of museum design in which architects are hands-on participants of urbanism.

September 19, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Reporting from Metz, France — — The new outpost of the Pompidou museum, which opened in the spring in Metz, a city of 125,000 in eastern France, is not what you would call a conventionally handsome building. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and France's Jean de Gastines, the museum has a translucent, Teflon-coated roof that appears to have melted over the top of its long, tube-shaped galleries. Inside it is full of cavernous spaces, some dramatically scaled and others merely bloated.

Museum architecture: An article in the Sept. 19 Arts and Books section about museum architecture said that a proposed inflatable addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., was not subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission. It is subject to such review. —

Still, it hardly makes sense to judge the new Pompidou solely in terms of its architectural form, or by comparing it to the original 1977 Pompidou Center in Paris by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. The museum is also an intriguing experiment in urbanism — to be exact, in the relationship between high-design architecture and high-speed mobility. It sits directly adjacent to the central train station in Metz, a stop on the high-speed TGV rail line between Paris and Luxembourg. That means you can step on a train at the Gare de l'Est station in the heart of Paris and step off in Metz, 200 miles to the east, exactly 83 minutes later. About three minutes later, after a short walk through the large sloping plaza that connects the station and the museum, you'll find yourself at the new Pompidou's front door.

The $91-million building is emblematic of a rich new phase in museum design, which continues to be a surprising bright spot for architects otherwise struggling through a dismal couple of years. Although the sputtering economy has forced a handful of museums to cancel or scale back expansion plans, many others, seemingly against all odds, are building or raising money for renovations, new wings or satellite facilities.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open its second building by Renzo Piano, the $54-million Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, on Oct. 2, even as the museum's director, Michael Govan, pursues plans for the eastern half of the LACMA campus with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. In downtown Los Angeles, New York firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is racing to finish designs for the 120,000-square-foot Broad Collection building while also at work on two other museum projects: an inflatable event space for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and a new home for the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in downtown Berkeley. After an ambitious international competition, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this summer chose Norwegian firm Snohetta to design a $250-million extension that will add 100,000 square feet of gallery space.

From an aesthetic point of view, these new museum designs cover a wide range, from the wildly inventive to the coolly restrained. (Compare the unusually faceted design by Foreign Office Architects for Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, to Norman Foster's crisp extension of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, set to open Nov. 20.) But the most intriguing among them are able, like the Pompidou in Metz, to move past tired arguments about how respectful a building is — or isn't — to the artwork on view. Instead they provoke a conversation broad enough to include museum identity, neighborhood character, transit networks and urban form. Instead of art versus architecture, or the white box versus the eye-catching icon, these designs make clear that the more interesting relationship is between the museum and the city — or cities, as is the case with the Pompidou, the Guggenheim, the Louvre and other museums with expanding architectural portfolios around the globe.

After Frank Gehry's branch of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, opened to rapturous reviews in fall 1997, ushering in a new era of high-profile museum buildings, there was a lot of talk about the so-called Bilbao Effect: the potential for bold new architecture to bring declining cities and even whole regions back to life. Gehry's museum was a chief catalyst in a civic transformation that also flowed from major investments in new infrastructure, including an airport and subway line. One survey of foreign tourists in Bilbao found that a remarkable 80% came primarily to see the Guggenheim.

But Bilbao was in 1997 a remote place. (It remains so even in an age of EasyJet and high-speed rail.) That was part of the appeal of the museum, this sense that you were making a pilgrimage to a corner of Spain to see the building that had made architecture central, in a cultural sense, for the first time in decades.

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