Forget the art object; musuems must connect with wider civic life
The recent death of Oscar Niemeyer at the astonishing span of 104 has prompted many tributes from the architectural cognoscenti. Ours is furnished by William JR Curtis (p10) who writes that ‘He embodied the very notion of the artist architect who conjured up forms with the rapid lines of his pen … (yet) behind the bravado lay a penetrating mind which elaborated an entire architectural language for dealing with a wide range of social tasks.’
Some years ago on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, I visited Niemeyer’s Museum of Contemporary art, the one that looks like a 1950s flying saucer clamped to a cliff. This involved catching a packed and dilapidated ferry to the unprepossessing suburb of Niterói, as Niemeyer’s building was the initial salvo in some grand plan to reactivate one of Rio’s more disregarded locales.
Teetering on its cliff and visible for miles, it was a gaudy, disinhibited bauble of sinuous white concrete, spectacularly reproduced on dozens of magazine covers, and the only reason for anyone to catch that ferry.
Yet as a working art museum it was a disaster, its curved walls totally unsuitable for displaying art, which was apologetically arrayed on movable partitions like some low rent student show. But no one came for or cared about the art; instead they came for the architecture and the mind blowing views of Rio’s cosmic topography from the bridge of Niemeyer’s flying saucer not withstanding its photogenic pulling power, Niterói is now probably regarded as one of the late and less successful works in the Niemeyer canon, but it aptly encapsulates the theme of this issue, the shifting and complex symbiosis between art and architecture, contents and container, artist and architect.
The rise of the trophy museum is one of the more enduring legacies of contemporary interaction between culture and architecture, when anything from tarot cards to torture now seems fair game for curators in the quest to corner the cultural short-break market or kick-start urban regeneration.
In the modern era, museums have assumed many incarnations, from city-museum, to museum-city, museum-implant and latterly, as Antonello Marotta observes in his extensive typological survey (p75), the museum-prosthetic and museum-landscape. ‘These museums are the polar opposite of the neutral ones of the Modern Movement,’ says Marotta. ‘In these new contexts the place is full of pathos, of a time that produced an occurrence that is, in itself, spectacular and theatrical.’
Paradoxically, the most formally modest project in this issue, the Grindbakken bunkers (p44), in which an industrial structure becomes a repository of art and memory, is also the most experientially resonant.
Yet a wider challenge still remains, in that too often modern museums and galleries are conceived as preening, isolated art objects. To cultivate a sense of authentic and enduring meaning, such buildings must connect with the wider civic life and milieu from which they emerge and which sustains them.