Spiraling ramp ways, dizzying spatial effects, metal beams that emulate a flapping wingspan, and multimillion-dollar converted industrial buildings: these are just some of the many characteristics we find in the recent cultural phenomenon known as the “spectacularization” of museums. From Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, art museums have quickly become places not just containing great art, but works of art in themselves. Yet again, another museum architectural wonder is set to open next week- the Glenstone Museum, in Potomac, Maryland. With a hefty renovation price tag of $200 million, the new museum design features a network of glass-enclosed passageways surrounding an 18,000 square foot water court. Although aesthetically intriguing, does this flamboyant architecture detriment the art viewing experience?
From the mid-twentieth century onward, in part as a result of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, there has been a shift from the Neoclassical-type museum design to more open, airy, and dynamic building projects. This approach is global; from I.M Pei’s construction of the glass pyramids at the Musée du Louvre, to Thomas Heatherwick’s conversion of a grains silo into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, there has been an increased use of “blockbuster” museum building types. Not only do these facilities boost attendance, revenue, and local economies, they also act as a catalyst for greater interest in art.
In 2016, for instance, SFMOMA received a $305 million-dollar facelift from Snøhetta, a Norwegian design and branding firm. Two floors of the seven-story building are now free and accessible to the public. With daily free public tours, the space encourages anyone to visit and learn. The multitude of seating arrangements in these spaces also invites visitors to sit down, relax, and digest the art surrounding them. Similarly, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles – another renovated contemporary art museum – offers free tours that facilitate engaging conversation about both the art and architecture that are available to the public on a weekly basis.
According to the Glenstone Museum’s website, “architecture is as essential as artwork and landscape, providing a minimal design to complement the collection and visitor experience.” Because so many museums that undergo these extreme updates ensure that their changes will positively serve the local population, instead of only capitalizing on tourists, I find that overall dramatic architecture types are inherently good, and that visitors are just as eager to discover the art inside as they are to experience the architecture itself. Similarly, the couple who is responsible for funding Glenstone has recently shared that one of the reasons why they decided to expand was to bring in more local school groups, “where arts education is at risk.” While it may be true that some visitors are more interested in the architecture than the art that lies within, I argue that these waves of dramatic architecture construction and conversion actually promote serious inquiry, encourage critique, and invite conversation.