In the winter of 1997-98 the confused and often melancholy story of 20th-century architecture suddenly came to a surprise happy ending: a museum in Bilbao, Spain, emerged as the most famous new building on the planet and made its architect, Frank Gehry, the most celebrated visual artist anywhere, far better known than any of the living painters and sculptors exhibited in the museum.
That glowing, titanium-clad building did much more than turn a tired old port into a busy tourist centre. It raised the morale of architects everywhere by demonstrating the richness of building forms that technology now makes possible, and it showed how much our expectations of museums have changed in recent times.
As an event in history, Bilbao can be intimidating as well as stimulating. Its image, firmly installed in the mind of everyone who cares about such things, forms a kind of backdrop as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto debates the design of a proposed $200-million renewal project. At the moment, seven rough-draft proposals submitted by architects (Gehry not among them) are on exhibit in a ROM gallery, all of them reflecting in various ways the demands placed on museums in this era, demands intensified by Bilbao.
Public museums began in the Enlightenment, and the Louvre became the international standard after its Grande Galerie opened in 1793. From then until the second half of the 20th century, a museum's job was to acquire, study and display art and other precious or educational objects. A museum building could look elegant, but never elegant enough to overshadow the collection.
An odd and slightly embarrassing aspect of museum design emerged generations ago: buildings created for other purposes often make the best museums. Most of my own favourite museums are converted European palaces or great private houses, made into museums more or less by accident. Aside from the Louvre, the classic case is the Uffizi in Florence. Giorgio Vasari designed it in the 16th century as offices for Cosimo I de' Medici, but today it's the perfect home for a magnificent collection. One room leads logically to another, and no one ever gets lost or confused, as many of us do in more recently designed museums. The handsome Musée d'Orsay in Paris is a converted railway station. The simple and intimate Frick Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York was designed as a millionaire's home.
But simplicity and efficiency are no longer the most desired qualities. Communities want their museums to express civic pride and power, as cathedrals once did. A museum design must be powerful enough to impose itself on the public imagination; today, only the most foolish architect would decide, modestly, that architecture should take second place to the contents.
Museums must play a major role in tourism. The current tourist-attracting ad for Ottawa contains three images: Parliament, Moshe Safdie's National Gallery and Douglas Cardinal's Museum of Civilization. In some places a museum helps revive a whole district, as the Centre Georges Pompidou did for the Marais district of Paris in the 1970s. A museum, of course, must also be fun: Eating and drinking and shopping will be essential parts of its life. One competitor in the Royal Ontario Museum competition has embraced this truth so enthusiastically that he proposes to turn over the whole first floor to restaurants, cafés, bistros and shops.
William Thorsell, president of the ROM, believes an expanded, renewed and brilliantly designed museum will help invigorate Toronto, which in his view has fallen into the doldrums. The ROM's design should also attract large sums of money -- $120-million of the proposed budget must come from private contributions. Thorsell imagines the building creating "a landscape of desire."
We used to identify museums by their most famous objects, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but now we connect them with their star architects. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles contains magnificent treasures, but none of them stirs nearly as much attention as Richard Meier's hilltop buildings, with their echoes of ancient Athens ("Acropolis Now," as one critic wrote). I've heard a dozen people describe Gehry's museum in Bilbao, but I can't remember any of them mentioning one art object it contains; even the magazine articles on Bilbao cite only a few works of art, and then usually as a way of praising the building.
My theory is that this all derives from the snail-shaped Guggenheim Museum that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Fifth Avenue in New York in the 1950s. Wright didn't much like the abstract paintings in the Guggenheim collection and showed only the slightest interest in accommodating them. The space he created can be breathtaking if you stand back and survey it all at once, but as soon as you start looking at specific paintings the building's severe faults become evident. Wherever you go, people walk in front of you, or you step back and bump into them. It's impossible to feel alone with a painting, even for a moment. A renovation added some box-shaped rooms in which art can be seen clearly, but they feel like add-ons.
People told Wright his building wouldn't work as an art gallery; they were right and he was wrong. Even so, it attracts the crowds. They come to see the building, take the elevator to the top and walk down, and otherwise indulge in activities only distantly related to art. Wright's view was that architecture was "the mother art" and the Guggenheim's visitors should appreciate a magnificent example of it.
Ever since, architects have tended to see museums as a means of personal expression. The seven architects whose sketches are showing at the ROM (three will be chosen for the final round) are concerned mainly with the appearance and community function of their buildings. One design looks sculptural (like Gehry), a couple are conceived in a high-tech mode, and others set out to create urban spaces around the museum. Only one of the seven architects shows, at this point, even a superficial interest in the contents the museum was created to exhibit. In this regard, all seven of these architects represent precisely the governing idea of museum design in 2001.