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Architecture vs. Art: When Form Ignores Function

Is architectural ingenuity enough?
I’m all for designing cultural facilities with as much creativity as the art presented inside them. (I’m a great fan, for example, of the Guggenheim Bilbao.) But the cultural clients of big-name architects must take care that the structure doesn’t subvert the substance and that the design concept, while strong, is not oppressive. In the end, it’s all about the art and the audience, not the architect’s ego.
These thoughts are occasioned by the clash of critical titans in the pages of the NY Times over Jean Nouvel‘s new Musée Quai Branly for non-Western art in Paris. Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff approvingly opined that Nouvel’s “wildly eccentric…kaleidoscopic montage of urban impressions” was “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.”
Five days later (couldn’t we get these two guys together on the same page?), art critic Michael Kimmelman savaged the place as “briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded.” He allowed himself to vent more intemperately in narrating the slide show on the Times’ website:

The permanent galleries strike me as being unbelievably ill-conceived and actually rather insulting to the cultures that they’re ostensibly meant to honor….[Objects] loom out of the darkness. The only thing missing is people throwing spears at you.

Nouvel has the biggest bag of tricks of any architect now designing cultural facilities, and his out-of-the-box ideas always sound audaciously inventive. But although I haven’t lately been to Paris, I did see Nouvel’s new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and I have to agree with Ron Carlson, a letter writer to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, who fumed: “It is not necessary or appropriate for the interior of a performance theatre to be stark, plain and neutral so as not to be distracting. The show goes on in the dark! The theater should be beautiful, inviting, warm and comfortable.”
Instead of feeling the anticipatory glow of a joyous night at the theater, you prowl the dark lobbies and corridors (with slit-like or oddly tinted windows interfering with your view) feeling like you’ve been conscripted as an extra in a film noir (emphasis on noir). Adding to this impression are the ghostly, barely perceptible images of past Guthrie performances, imprinted on the surrounding walls. (An appraisal of the three performing spaces themselves will have to await the drama critics. The first regular performances begin July 15.)
Apropos Nouvel, I remember an interview I had with Tom Krens in his office more than three years ago, when he proudly showed me a model of the now abandoned Guggenheim Rio project, also designed by that architect. Like the Guthrie, the Rio design featured a prominent silo-shaped structure. But Krens wasn’t satisfied, because its skin was completely opaque: “I have to tell Jean that I need more transparency here,” he told me.
In the touchy dance between architect and client, sometimes the client must lead.

an ArtsJournal blog