Compare that to the job Zaha Hadid was handed by the leaders of MAXXI, a contemporary art museum in Rome. The Italian capital hardly needs a piece of new architecture to put it on the cultural map, of course, and yet museum and city officials identified a location in Flaminio, a quiet, low-rise neighborhood wrapped on three sides by a curving section of the Tiber River, as a spot where an inventive building could provide a significant urban boost. The $220-million MAXXI, which took a full decade to go from first sketches to ribbon-cutting, is not perfect. Some of the detailing is quite rough. After buying tickets in a soaring, thrilling atrium, visitors are funneled through a series of stairways and narrow, corridor-like galleries. The quieter artworks on view are not so much overshadowed by the muscular architecture as bullied by it.
But outside, where the museum meets the neighborhood, Hadid has produced one of her most layered and persuasive urban compositions to date. Rather than putting a formal front facade along the sidewalk at its main entrance, the museum turns its entry 90 degrees from the street — and then bends away again, to the west, to fill the remainder of its large site even as an upper-level gallery thrusts forward in a daring cantilever. This complex dance of advance and retreat not only creates a large public plaza in front of the main entry but also manages to lower the museum's profile in the city — where any effort to compete with the landmarks of classical Rome would have surely have ended in disaster — without blunting the ambition of Hadid's architecture.
A similarly sly approach to issues of size and conspicuous monumentality can be seen in Diller, Scofidio + Renfro's plans for an unusual addition to the Hirshhorn that is scheduled to open in 2012. The museum occupies a circular 1974 building by Gordon Bunshaft on the National Mall in Washington, which has become an increasingly crowded patch of land. The powerful National Capital Planning Commission spends a lot of its time asking supporters of proposed memorials and museums to consider sites off the Mall, to preserve some elbow room around the existing landmarks.
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro's proposal, commissioned by new Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek, calls for an event space that could be blown up to fill the center of Bunshaft's drum-shaped building and used for exhibitions, lectures and other gatherings. Given the contested urban space the museum occupies, the bubble design is an appealingly anti-monumental gesture that recalls earlier experiments in temporary architecture by Archigram and other architects. At an initial projected cost of $5 million, it is also a send-up of self-important, oversized museum additions — and perhaps of inflated egos in the museum and architecture worlds and in official Washington. And because it will be a temporary structure, it is not subject to review by — you guessed it — the National Capital Planning Commission.
Trickier to assess are the recent cases of museums not just commissioning new buildings but in the process abandoning old homes with real architectural significance. That's the story now unfolding at the Whitney Museum in New York, which is raising money for a new six-story, 195,000-square-foot building by Renzo Piano near the High Line elevated park, on the far West side of Manhattan, leaving the fate of its 1966 building on the Upper East Side up in the air. The Whitney has discussed leasing that building, designed by Marcel Breuer, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but no plan has been finalized.
The UC Berkeley Art Museum has settled on a similar plan to trade its seismically vulnerable 1971 Mario Ciampi building for a facility in downtown Berkeley by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. The move will undoubtedly be good news for Berkeley's urban core and will put the museum within a block of a BART subway stop. But in the long term it will also likely mean the demolition of Ciampi's building, which like Breuer's possesses real architectural character despite being a tricky place to show art. In each case, it's hard not to view the exchange with ambivalence.
When this new batch of museum buildings is finished, five or 10 years from now, it will surely include both architectural triumphs and disappointments. What remains to be seen is how far the buildings will advance a discussion about the relationship between museums and civic life — particularly in Los Angeles, a city still finding its mature shape.
At LACMA, even as Piano's Resnick Pavilion, the product of a master plan commissioned by Eli Broad and former director Andrea Rich, suggests a turn away from Wilshire Boulevard to create a series of protected open-air walkways, Govan's discussions with Zumthor anticipate the arrival of a subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue by the end of this decade.