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Moderna Museet by Tham & Videgård Arkitekter, Malmö, Sweden

Sweden’s national museum of modern art’s new outpost is a vibrant addition to the city, both physically and culturally. Photography by Åke E:son Lindman

Orange. High visibility, Belisha beacon orange. Malmö now has a new outpost of the Moderna Museet, Sweden’s national museum of modern art. And it’s orange. Designed by the Stockholm-based partnership of Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård, it opened on Boxing Day last year. But though the dazzling orange box has quickly become emblematic of the new museum, it’s only the most conspicuous part of a complex programme that involved remodelling and extending an old electricity plant to house a suite of new spaces for modern and contemporary art.

The existing building - actually a rather handsome structure in the National Romantic manner - dates from 1900. Once it ceased operation as an electricity plant, it became an informal haunt of local artists and curators. Now the site is legitimised as the Moderna Museet expands its field of operations from Stockholm.

It’s often the case that provincial outposts of national institutions can be more freewheeling and experimental, both curatorially and architecturally.

Compared with Rafael Moneo’s solid, sober alcazar on Skeppsholmen Island (AR November 1998), which has been the Moderna Museet’s nerve centre since the late 1990s, Tham & Videgård’s cannibalisation of an electricity plant on the other side of the country has an edgier, more eclectic sensibility. In the same way that James Stirling riffed on a Victorian dockside warehouse for the Tate Liverpool, relishing its industrial character while adding sharp contemporary flourishes, Tham & Videgård manifests a similarly deft, contrapuntal approach.

The orange cube houses a new gallery on its upper level with a café, bookshop and reception space below. It’s the hucksterish front-of-house, bookmarking the museum’s presence in the city, drawing people in. ‘The colour also connects to the industrial character of the building, that kind of paint you associate with tools and vehicles, or use to protect steel from rusting,’ says Tham. ‘We looked for a colour that would relate to the orange-red brick architecture but at the same time be more abstract.’

Once inside, you can linger in the convivial bookshop and café and ignore the art completely (as some locals do). Here, the interior is also orange - floors, walls, ceiling, furniture - but in the freezing dusk of a Swedish winter, it’s a wonderfully warm and welcoming refuge, conjuring up the primeval allure of the campfire.

The cube is a blind box, except for a strip of glazing around its base. It’s wrapped in orange panels and veiled in an external rainscreen layer of aluminium sheeting punched with holes about the size of a drinks coaster. This perforated skin gives the monochromatic facade depth and animation, and light percolates through the glazed strip with a pointillist delicacy.

The aluminium cladding was specially developed for the project, and tested and refined to achieve a satisfying degree of transparency and exact shade of orange. The citrus theme continues in the locker areas and WCs, which are drenched in a zinging yellow.

By contrast, the galleries are a pristine, laboratorial white, implanted within the brick carapace like a building within a building. The 11m-high volume of the former turbine hall is the spatial set piece at the heart of the museum. Two new staircases rationalise circulation to two levels of smaller galleries stacked against the long edge of the turbine hall. The stairs divide the hall into a lofty main gallery, bookended by a children’s workshop and loading bay.

From the industrial to the intimate, the range of spaces is intended to provide flexibility for curators and variety for visitors.

The prevailing impression is of a physical and institutional dynamism calculated to connect modern art with the wider life of the city. ‘Our aim,’ says Videgård, ‘was to create a museum that was informal and open, rather than classic and representative.’

Architect Tham & Videgård Arkitekter, Stockholm, Sweden
Project team Bolle Tham, Martin Videgård, Mia Nygren, Carmen Izquierdo Làzaro, Helene Amundsen, Susanna Bremberg, Andreas Helgesson, Eric Egström, Mårten Nettelbladt, Marcus Andrén, Dennis Suppers, Alina Scheutzow, Suzanne Prest, Julia Gudiel Urbano
Contractor NCC Construction

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