by Kristina Nugent
Fom the most classical structures to the most avant guarde, architecture is arguably the most recognizable symbol of human civilization. When architecture meets art, this union poses an even more challenging, but potentially even more powerful cause for celebrating humanity. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, “The connection between container and contents has been an uneasy, ambivalent, consistently controversial, and passionately debated subject … The ambience provided by the setting can diminish the art or raise the viewer’s responses to an exalted level. The relationship is the secret of a great museum.”
In the upcoming three posts, I will investigate the “alternate narratives” embodied within three very different examples of additions to historic museum buildings. By calling these “alternate narratives” I am attempting to engage both the historic building, the addition, and the contents of the museum collection in a dialogue. Then, my goal is to critically evaluate the combination on the basis of whether the sum of the two buildings has produced a meaning, carried through the contents of the collection, that is even greater than that of the original parts.
Linking historic buildings to contemporary additions may suggest a fundamental disconnect between the time and age of historic and contemporary design. However, adopting what could loosely be defined as a post-structuralist argument, the unity of old and new can produce something new indeed: a manifesto that can be read as both a statement on the agility of architecture to embrace a new impulse, and also one that effectively grounds itself within the complexities of interpretation and reception within a sociological and environmental context.
Addition to the Villa Metzler: Richard Meier’s Kuntshandwerk
Frankfurt and the Museumsufer Initiative
The history of the development and planning for a new cultural area within the City of Frankfurt was spearheaded in the mid-1970s by the local Frankfurt architect Till Behrens (grandson of the famous German architect Peter Behrens), who advocated for the creation of the Museumsufer, or “riverside museum promenade” on the south bank of the Main River between the Eiserner Steg and Holbeinsteg bridges. Behrens, who received wide popular support for his cultural initiative, was successful in convincing Frankfurt city officials of the wisdom of his proposal and in securing the necessary initial funding. Behrens’s proposal drew from an understanding of the existing landscape of the proposed Museumsufer site.
This section of the river Main included a number of 18th Century patrician villas, accompanied by a designed, park-like landscape. Most of the landscape along the river had been spared from World War Two bombings, unlike other parts of the city of Frankfurt, and had come to be regarded by many residents as a cherished historic resource to be preserved.[i] The vision of the Museumsufer initiative embraced the dual purpose of “Helping to preserve a part of the city that was facing demolition, in that old buildings have been converted to new uses,” and on the other, that the initiative would become the “figurehead of a new public consciousness.”[ii] In the 1980s and 1990s, the initiative was partially realized with the creation of thirteen new museums adjacent to the River Main. Of the thirteen buildings constructed during this time, some of the museums were entirely new purpose-built structures, but most interesting, were the various devices used by the architects to link new museums programs and accompanying structures to the historic villas.
The Villa Metzler
Of all of the historic villas located on the River Main, the Neo-classical-style Villa Metzler was considered to be the oldest and most venerable. By the 1970s, the Villa had already been converted into a museum for decorative arts.[iii] It was accepted that the Villa Metzler, which had been originally designed as a private residence was, “…naturally not at all suited to the needs of [showcasing a decorative arts] collection.”[iv] Also, the gradual expansion of the museum’s collection, which was gaining a reputation as “one of the most important specialist collections in Germany,” was too large to continue to be housed inside of the historic building.
The City of Frankfurt sponsored an international architectural competition for the design of an expansion of the Kuntshandwerk since they recognized that an expansion was necessary in order to provide for the public display of the ever-growing collection of decorative art objects ranging from stemware to furniture. The design competition guidelines stated, “The still intact park landscape should be preserved; and it was around the Villa Metzler that the whole concept was to revolve.”[v]
This moment in architectural history, as it is retrospectively understood, coincided with the transition away from the International Style typified by Mies and CIAM. The masters of modern design were being challenged by the spread of a new architectural paradigm that originated with Aldo Rossi’s publishing of the pivotal theoretical text, The Architecture of the City in 1982. Not surprisingly, the top entries were those which embraced the new architectural philosophies, specifically the designs submitted by the so-called “Post-Modernists,” a term coined by Charles Jenks, which included work that originated in the work of the “New York Five,” which eventually became divided between the “Grays,” defined by the work of Robert Venturi, and the “Whites,” who included Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier. Meier, specifically, was influenced by the historical work and philosophy of Le Corbusier, but at the same time he departed from the modern master’s designs in the sense that Meier was engaged in other discourses and “moves an old vocabulary, redefined by a new vision, into new explorations of spatial geometry.”[vi] The judges recognized and could appreciate Venturi’s design that embraced “Complexity and Contradiction,” ultimately, the winner was announced in 1979: Richard Meier.
There are several reasons why Meier’s work resonated with the programmatic and aesthetic agenda of the Board of Directors of the Kuntshandwerk. His design seemed to weave both the historic context of the Villa Metzler and more forward-looking aspirations underlying the Museumsufer initiative. The success of Meier’s design for the Kuntshandwerk addition was later analyzed Kenneth Frampton, who observed that, “Altogether, Meier was to engage in a more brilliant and subtle contextual game than his competitors, immediately exploiting the existing urban fabric and the history of the site for all its worth, while still implanting a rigorously abstract architecture on the four corners of the available territory.”[vii] Specifically, Meier’s design did not just acknowledge the historic presence of the Villa Metzler but left the building, and with it its historical meaning, intact by retaining it as a freestanding entity that was not physically integrated into the new design.
Meier proportionally integrated the dimensions of the historic building, a 17.6-meter cube, as the proportions he used to scale his design for the new museum building.[viii] This was partially an effort to moderate the difference in height and bulk between the residential-scale villa and necessarily larger new museum building. While the proportions of the addition undeniably reinforced the importance of the Villa, the design of the addition came to encapsulate the stylistic preferences and devices of Meier since using a square grid, as the origin of an architectural design happened to be Meier’s modus operandi. However, the sensitivity demonstrated by Meier’s decision to scale the addition and articulate its movement vectors counterclockwise through the sequence of individual rooms was laudable. Views of the Metzler Villa and its surrounding landscape are seen from every room of new gallery. One author noted that, “A variety of features links the interior with the exterior, integrating the ensemble of buildings quite organically into the park, which, with its system of paths, gate designs, and fountain is like a continuation of the museum in the urban space. Inside, a series of ramps conducts the visitor informally around.”[ix] The entry function employed by Meier was important preserving the jewel-like integrity of the villa within the larger composition. The main entry to the museum is through the addition, and the visitor is led through the gallery spaces, up to the second floor and across a bridge that leads into the Villa, which holds the Rococo and Neoclassical art collection. By creating this procession, Meier does more than symbolically integrate the two buildings; he physically connects them to establish an even greater experience. The visitor is quite deliberately led to observe the villa along the journey through the new museum, and only after that does he enter into the historic building, which by that point, functions as the culmination of the passage through the collection.
Evaluation of Meier’s Design
Criticism of Meier’s new building has centered on its “gleaming white galleries,” and some visitors claimed that, “The museum’s collection of traditional German furniture and household objects (walnut wardrobes, stoneware jugs, and the like) is diminished by the perfectionist, clinical setting, and looks dingy.”[x] Whiteness of spaces was thought by Meier to enhance the delicacy of the decorative arts objects, and was inspired by Chinese porcelain, which is a device that he has employs in his greater repertoire of museum buildings with much éclat. What possibly explains Meier’s confidence in his interior gallery spaces is that, “Unlike most other architects, Meier has long harbored aspirations to being a painter, sculptor, and collagist, occasionally exhibiting his works. Like many of his co-professionals, Meier apparently does not want works of art to give his buildings undue competition.”[xi]
When he was designing the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the trustees insisted that the pre-selected interior designer design the interiors for the Getty’s furniture and tapestry collection. After designing this museum in Frankfurt, Meier presumed himself to be knowledgeable on the display of decorative arts objects. However, the Getty trustees did not share Meier’s perception of this own talent and requested that he limit his input to the design of the envelopes. Yet, even in that case as Ada Louise Huxtable noted, “Richard Meier’s usual all-white façades were rejected by museum authorities with conservative taste, which were reacting to strong community concerns about the suitability of white for the exposed hilltop and the intense California light. The pristine, high-modernist buildings of beige travertine and off-white porcelain enamel have been called conventional and predictable by those who would have preferred to see the foundation’s considerable resources devoted to a more daring or experimental approach.”[xii] If a criticism were to be made of the use of white in the Frankfurt museum, the visual effect of Meier’s exterior has been altered as a result of aging and dirt. Considering the geographical location of Frankfurt, there is not a large enough overhang to protect the vertical surfaces of the museum building. While the surfaces of the museum have acquired a different appearance over time, the massing and treatment of Meier’s addition and its relationship to the Villa remain in the way that had been intended by the architect.
As Huxtable so poignantly wrote on this topic, “The art museum goes beyond the preoccupation with material things. It is dedicated not only to collecting and preserving, but also to the search for meaning that has always been among civilization’s highest achievements. This has produced a unique building type today, based on an unprecedented kind of collaboration between artists and architects. At its most successful, it is a new art form.”[xiii]Together, the presence of history and the addition of the new building create in a synthesis of the old and new to produce a culture and artistic achievement in its own right. Much of Meier’s success in this example can be attributed, in part, as Frampton points out, in the larger agenda of postmodernism, articulated in Rossi’s book, which entailed both an acceptance of historical precedent and context, and also an attempt to enhance meaning and experience.
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[i] Robson, Ian. Museumsarchitektur in Frankfurt 1980-1990. (Munich : Prestel, c1990) 13.
[iii] Robson, Ian. Museumsarchitektur, 15-16.
[iv] Ibid, 15.
[v] Ibid, 16.
[vi] Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Museums: Making It New,” 9.
[vii] Frampton, Kenneth in Robson, Ian. Museumsarchitektur, 20.
[viii] Meier, Richard and Lisa J. Green. Richard Meier. (Cambridge: St. Martin’s Press, 1990) 44.
[ix] Robson, Ian. Museumsarchitektur, 16.
[x] Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sandy Nairne. Thinking about Exhibitions. (New York: Routledge, 1996) 347.
[xi] Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Museums: Making It New,” New York Review of Books, V.46, no.7, April 22, 1999, p. 9.
[xiii] Ibid, 11.