Player Piano: Kevin Pratt on Museum Design

By Pratt, Kevin | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Player Piano: Kevin Pratt on Museum Design


Pratt, Kevin, Artforum International


WHILE ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS AT THE Harvard Design School are hardly shouting "The king is dead, long live the king!" a recent readjustment of architectural priorities within the tightly knit world of museum trustees and directors has had one obvious consequence: Rem Koolhaas is out; Renzo Piano is in. Just a few short years ago Koolhaas and his right-brain/left-brain sister offices OMA and AMO, backed by the critical muscle of the New York Times, were picking up American commissions at a prodigious rate. Alongside commissions for the new Central Library in Seattle, a campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and multiple stores for Prada, Koolhaas proposed grandiose, expensive, and now-defunct schemes for expanding both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Working with Thomas Krens, he also made a quixotic attempt to catch the eye of Middle America by designing two Guggenheim satellites in Las Vegas, one of which closed in less than two years.

Gone, however, are the easy-money days of the millennium's turning, and with them (for the moment) the museum world's struggle to secure a place in the spectacular firmament of popular culture. To Koolhaas's detriment, the great beneficiary of this shift has been Piano. His firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is currently working on no fewer than six major museum projects in the United States. He has snatched both the Whitney and the LACMA commissions from OMA, his design for the expansion of the Morgan Library is under construction, and the Harvard University Art Museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Atlanta's Robert W. Woodruff Arts Centre (which includes the High Museum of Art) have all hired him to renovate and expand their campuses. While this may be evidence of little more than a herd mentality among museum patrons, the result will be Piano putting more art under a roof of his own design than anyone since I.M. Pei was the establishment's architect of the moment in the late '70s and early '80s.

Piano has long been a favorite of wealthy collectors wanting exquisite jewel boxes for their small and distinctive collections. Two of his previous museums, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, are held in high regard by both architects and curators. Although Piano began his career by exploding the traditional relationship between the museum's box and its contents with the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in recent years he has built a portfolio of buildings that use technology in the service of exhibition spaces, as opposed to using technology as a means to augment the external spectacle of the buildings themselves. Unlike Yoshio Taniguchi, who has embraced a neohistorical modernism for his renovation of the Museum of Modern Art, Piano, in recent commissions like the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, has employed subtle natural lighting and simple materials to dramatic effect without falling into an easily definable stylistic box. …

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