Art Museums, Real and Imagined

“The renovation of the Vancouver Courthouse into the Vancouver Art Gallery has been a disaster since the day it opened.”

This is Scott Watson, head of UBC’s art history department and founder of the university’s Critical Curatorial Studies program. “The proportions of the rooms are wrong, the rotunda and elevators are always in the way. It’s woefully inadequate-can’t even handle an event for 500 people.” Watson continues: “Vancouver either is or is not an important city. And if we are, then we deserve a real gallery.” The past decade has seen plenty of criticism against the grand-gesture buildings of Gehry and the like. The battle plays out at the largest possible scale, with enormous structures (and funds) as the art world’s chess pieces. This is the arena Vancouver is poised to join. -Michael Harris


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997)


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 

The starchitecture debate officially began in 1997 when Frank Gehry delivered unto Spain’s Bilbao a gallery more iconic and tourist-attracting than any in the 20th century. “But remember,” warns Watson, “the model that began with Bilbao is not applicable to Vancouver. They were a fading town that needed something to draw tourists. Vancouver is not fading and needs no help attracting tourists. Yes, we should have good architecture. But the Vancouver Art Gallery’s continuing use of this word ‘iconic’ is something I find disturbing. I think they should drop that word and focus on what goes on inside the building.” 



The Metropolitan Museum of Art (reno to be completed in 2014)


Since it opened in 1872, America’s largest art museum has ballooned to 20 times its original size. (It’s now two million square feet.) Just last year, the Met announced plans for a bold new redesign—of the four-block-long plaza along its Fifth Avenue façade, with the focus on fountains, landscaping, seating, and lighting. “We hope,” says chair Daniel Brodsky, “to provide an equally magnificent setting to welcome visitors as they approach our landmark building.” Director Thomas Campbell said, “We see the need for a space that will make a significant contribution to our neighbourhood.”



Pompidou Centre (1977)


Paris’s mammoth modern art museum (the largest in Europe) was designed by a triad of architectural firms: from Italy, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, and from Britain, Richard Rogers. While the building itself is grand and intimidating in its postmodernism, its most revolutionary quality is actually a kind of humility: there is no inspired main entrance in the traditional sense, merely a permeable ground floor. The building is turned inside out, with corridors, ducts, and staircases all exposed on the exterior and painted bright colours, instead of interrupting the gallery spaces within. Most importantly, the gallery goes straight up, allowing for massive courtyard space in front—turning Pompidou into a centre for informal meetings for all Parisians.



Spiral Entrance to Victoria Albert Museum (Unbuilt)



In the early 2000s, Daniel Libeskind designed an £80-million entrance that would contrast abruptly with the staidness of London’s V&A Museum. The Guardian described the proposal as both “a cut diamond” and “a pile of falling cardboard boxes.” To the city’s great surprise (and relief) the trustees of the Heritage Lottery Fund turned down the design after much uproar over the design flying in the face of the original architecture. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which went ahead with its own Libes­kind “Crystal” entrance in 2007, has fared poorly by it. Notes Watson: “I would say, intellectually and philosophically, it’s a flop. Because it’s just a façade. Many people who are starchitects are designing something that doesn’t have neutral or elegant enough space inside to mount a strong art program.”



Seattle Art Museum Expansion (2007)


The Seattle Art Museum shuttered its main branch for a year while building 300,000 square feet of space in the first four floors of an adjacent 16-storey tower (conceived by Portland’s Brad Cloepfil and built in a public-private collaboration with Washington Mutual Bank). The renovation is a fluid one—as years pass, the SAM may grow upwards, ultimately occupying 12 stories of the tower. Cloepfil called it “a vessel for the forces of change.” The Financial Times cheered SAM’s distaste for “iconic” architecture: “There is also a kind of modesty and realism here, a sensible view of future expansion…this is building for art not building as art.” But is expanding into an office tower, some worried, indicative of less audacious programming?

Read more about the Vancouver Art Gallery’s $300 million saga