Magazine article Artforum International

Eastern Promises: Markus Miessen on OMA/AMO at the Hermitage

Magazine article Artforum International

Eastern Promises: Markus Miessen on OMA/AMO at the Hermitage

Article excerpt

IN THESE TIMES of requisite urban branding, the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid must be putting in extra hours at the office. Countless cities and cultural institutions are rethinking how to make their make on the global map--and architects and curators alike are meeting this desire with original (or not so original) marketing ideas. Herzog & de Meuron's imminent Tate Modern extension in London, the Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi, you name it--all of these institutions are convinced that the only way forward is a radical redefinition of their spatial envelope in order to communicate a simple message: We are here and we are new!

Indeed, AMO--Rem Koolhaas's mysterious research counterpart to his architectural firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands)--tells us that "in light of the radical expansion of globalized systems, social interests and attending market forces, cultural institutions are at a critical point of (re)definition." To probe this moment of redefinition, OMA/AMO set up a knowledge-production workshop and breakfast think tank this past July during the London Festival of Architecture. For one day, King's College's Somerset House became an extension of the Rotterdam hothouse. A group of international cultural figures convened for a series of closed presentations and an open discussion session to address Koolhaas's own current branding project: an ambitious reconceptualization of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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The vast collections of the Hermitage--comprising more than three million works of art--are displayed in six buildings in Saint Petersburg (the museum has also opened international branches in Amsterdam, London, Las Vegas, and the Italian city of Ferrara). As a repository of intensely varied cultural histories, the museum holds the promise of becoming a kind of global laboratory for curatorial experiment and critical engagement. These "potentials," in Koolhaas's formulation, formed the focus of the public panel in the afternoon following the closed morning think tank. Questions such as, "What does it mean for the Encyclopedic (or Universal) Museum to be universal today?" and, "How can the layers of history contained within the Encyclopedic Museum become active agents in contemporary developments?" were posed to a packed audience. The discussion proceeded in an unexpected way. As part of a general shift in his practice, Koolhaas assumed a role akin to that of a television talk-show host and moderator, albeit one with very well-behaved guests: Chris Dercon, director of Munich's Hausder Kunst; Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage; Alexander Borovsky, curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg; Svetlana Boym, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard; philosopher Boris Groys; Elena Kozlovskaya, director of the Pro Arte Institute in Saint Petersburg; and Dmitri Ozerkov, curator of the 20/21 Hermitage project.

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Koolhaas began by introducing the results of an ongoing AMO investigation that dates back to the OMA-designed Las Vegas branch of the Guggenheim Hermitage (finished on-site in 2001). Utilizing a series of maps and graphs (a standby of the OMA/AMO repertoire), the architect's presentation worked best when tackling actual exhibition strategies, what he calls the "undeniable facts" of existing conditions of display: the intensity of confrontation between artwork and audience, object and observer. It is this combination of pragmatism and deference to aesthetic experience that seems to be at the heart of the Saint Petersburg project--a serious ambition to take exception with the tidal wave of cultural marketing, to refrain from architectural additions or new construction, and to resist all-too-easy agendas of change. The formula for this approach was presented in the form of a futurist bullet point pitch: "Beyond market| Beyond safety | Beyond Eurocentric | Beyond confines | Beyond confines | Beyond art historical | Beyond the white/black cube. …

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