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HEART Art Museum by Steven Holl Architects, Herning, Denmark

Steven Holl Architects’ museum of contempoary art raises the profile of Danish art institutions and the provincial city Herning. Photography by Cristian Richters

Among the Danes, the provincial city of Herning in Jutland does not have the best of reputations. It’s rumoured that you are sent there as a punishment. Herning is a place, supposedly, where nothing really happens. That is, until now. Steven Holl’s newly completed Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, HEART, is a celebration of an architectural intention that has clearly received fantastic support during its design and construction, from the client and from director Holger Reenberg in particular. As a result it shines; both in the town and also as an example of a high-profile art institution. It’s about time, as Denmark has produced so many mediocre and downright dreadful art museums over the past few years.

Since its inauguration in 1977, Herning Art Museum was housed in the Anglifabrikken building, a factory originally built for shirt manufacturing by businessman Aage Damgaard, who was also a keen art collector. At his factory, Damgaard established an approach to fostering cooperation between the business community and artists. For instance, the Italian ‘Arte Povera’ conceptualist Piero Manzoni was an artist in residence, and Herning Art Museum now has the largest public collection of Manzoni’s work after Damgaard donated his art collection.

It was agreed that this unique art collection needed a new home. Land was donated to the museum on a site opposite the Anglifabrikken and a limited competition was held. HEART was won in competition in 2005 by Steven Holl, who took direct inspiration from the museum’s founding history. It is interesting to note that the competition jury was split between professional jury members, the client and art specialists. But Reenberg recognised the qualities of Holl’s scheme and fought hard for it to win by a majority vote. Though subject to some modifications, the final building bears a close resemblance to Holl’s original competition design.

The theme of textiles runs throughout the building, giving rise to a sense of rich tactility and materiality. The principal material is concrete.

White concrete external walls were cast on-site with textile-lined formwork, so the facades have crumpled, textile-like surfaces, similar in character to a wrinkled white shirt.

But the main design move and most successful element is the building’s roof. This consists of concrete shells inspired by, and reminiscent of, shirt sleeves cut lengthwise. The curved and drooping forms also clearly allude to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel (AR March 1956). The overlapping convex geometries of the five roof shells are separated by horizontal bands of glazing that allow daylight to wash over the ceilings. All this imbues the gallery and supporting spaces with an exquisite play of materiality and light high above eye level and the works of art.

Basic organisation is quite simple. The building is essentially single storey with a small mezzanine in the educational and meeting areas, which provides the only opportunity to get really close to the ceiling. Otherwise, apart from a service basement, all other spaces are defined by the ground plane and Holl’s vaulted roofs.

Two large rectangular boxes are set apparently at random in the centre of the plan. These are environmentally controlled galleries, one for the permanent collection and the other for temporary exhibitions.

Both are accessed through large sliding glass doors, which isolate the carefully regulated environments from the more flexible peripheral spaces. This has the advantage of reducing installation and running costs, but does not allow for works of art to be exhibited outside the main gallery boxes. This is a shame, because these spaces are just as formally rich as the peripheral zones and invite colonisation.

Visitors enter through the peripheral spaces, which contain the reception lobby, a modest auditorium, staff offices and a public library and learning centre. Tucked away furthest from the entrance are the museum’s café and kitchen. Of all the internal spaces the café is the least successful. It seems compromised and has a feeling of being a left-over space. The view out, for instance, is restricted by a full-height concrete wall supporting part of the sweeping roof. However, it does mark the moment when you comprehend the museum as an element in the landscape - ‘a fusion of building and landscape’, as Holl explains. Along the length of the café is a simply articulated external courtyard with beautifully laid paving, two reflecting pools, grassy mounds and a fabric canopy. Holl talks about how ‘low Nordic light will reflect in the pools and direct vibrant light into the building’.

Clearly much effort has gone into articulating the external spaces at HEART. The convex form of the roof construction is picked up in the artificial mounds that continue the motif of the draping shirt sleeve. But the transition from inside to outside is the project’s least convincing aspect. There seems hardly any reason to take a walk around the building since there is no artwork placed outside. No paths are provided and the naturally windy conditions encourage you to stay under cover - or at least close to the building. Similarly, the interaction of the external courtyard paving in light stone and the dark charcoal concrete floor of the interior creates a sharply defined boundary between inside and out. For the museum to become a ‘picnic museum’, as Reenberg puts it, a place for visitors to enjoy their own food on the garden, requires more carefully considered landscaping beyond the immediate vicinity of the museum.

But without doubt, HEART is a building that deserves pilgrimage status.

Apart from the famous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, whose ongoing expansion since 1958 has been masterminded by architects Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert, it is streets ahead of other art institutions in Denmark (and possibly Scandinavia). Holl has orchestrated a play of materiality, light and tactility that complements the permanent collection. Welcoming, yet of a scale to show very large pieces of art, the building feels like a well-crafted factory. It also demonstrates the relationship of architecture and space to physical matter. As artist Jannis Kounellis, the inaugural exhibitor in the temporary exhibition rooms, puts it: ‘Clay is matter, iron is matter, paper is matter. Everything is matter. The concept of matter needs to be extended; matter to be moulded, matter which acquires meaning, matter that is poignant.’

Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York
Project team Steven Holl, Noah Yaffe, Chris McVoy, Lesley Chang, Jong Seo Lee, Julia Radcliffe, Filipe Taboada, Christina Yessios, Cosimo Caggiula, Martin Cox, Alessandro Orsini
Associate architect Kjaer & Richter
Structural engineer Niras
Mechanical engineers Niras, Transsolar
Landscape architect Schønherr Landskab

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