Dynamic Design of Museums; Corcoran Expansion Fits Style

Article excerpt


Museum architecture used to be a quiet, neutral background for the display of art. But ever since Frank Lloyd Wright shaped New York's Guggenheim Museum into a giant corkscrew, architects have been treating exhibition spaces as attention-grabbing artworks in their own right.

The current master of this approach is Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, who has been shaking up the staid museum world for the past two decades. Like Mr. Wright, Mr. Gehry earned international fame for his own inventively curvaceous Guggenheim. In Bilbao, Spain, the titanium-clad offspring of the New York museum opened in 1997 and quickly turned the declining industrial city into a major tourist destination.

That success has prompted other institutions to commission their own Gehry creations in hopes of repeating the "Bilbao effect" and boosting their public profile and visitor attendance. One of them is the Corcoran Museum of Art. Five years ago, the Corcoran selected Mr. Gehry to expand its exhibition and educational spaces with a major addition along New York Avenue, due to break ground in 2006.

Enclosed by rippling metal walls and roof, the edgy expansion has left some wondering why Washington's oldest museum would choose to build a contemporary design so at odds with its stately beaux-arts galleries.

To put its selection in perspective, the Corcoran is exhibiting models of the Gehry addition alongside seven other museum projects by the architect.

"Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums," on view through March 21, traces the evolution of the architect's crazy curves, from the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany (opened in 1989), to the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., now under construction.

But visitors unfamiliar with Mr. Gehry's architecture won't emerge enlightened about much beyond the architect's obsession with sculptural shapes.

Like many one-man shows on architecture, the Corcoran exhibit suffers from being co-organized by the architect whose work is on view. The other sponsor is one of Mr. Gehry's clients, the University of Minnesota's Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, which opened in 1993 and is also featured in the show.

Photographs and architectural models - many of them impressive in their details - are presented as pristine artworks rather than as tools to explain the complicated process behind Mr. Gehry's design.

No labels pinpoint the specific locations or the design intent of the photos or models. No floor plans or cross sections are included to explain the practical purpose of each building. No explanation of the spatial development from model to model is given to elucidate Mr. Gehry's iterative design process for a single building.

During my visit, this lack of information led one visitor to puzzle over model photos of the Corcoran addition, noting, "I can't tell if this is the inside or the outside of the building, or another design altogether."

As a result of its superficiality this exhibit unintentionally reinforces the stereotype of Mr. Gehry as a capricious collage-maker.

That's unfortunate because the architect deliberately fine-tunes his colliding shapes to relate to a particular place. The flowering curves of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which is only cursorily represented in this show, follow the slopes of the nearby hillsides.

On the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, the Weisman Art Museum is positioned to connect a pedestrian bridge and a transit stop. …