Red Bulletin Magazine International

Red Bulletin: Living History


10 marvellous museums, and how they shape our past, present and future. By Stephen Bayley.

You want a caricature of museum staff? Old style: a creaking, sallow man in paramilitary uniform attends a grim display of fossils with a feather duster. New style: a black-clad, buzz-cut young buck with an earpiece pours sparkling water for a rich person at a noisy party held under bright lights.

Museums were once vast, stately municipal repositories of knowledge, and they had architecture to match. The imposing classical façade of The British Museum was designed as an irrefutable statement of London’s self-determined role as guardian, if not robber, of the world’s material culture.

London’s Natural History Museum was built in Gothic, the style of Britain’s 19th-century town halls. This was intended to suggest other values. The Natural History Museum was where the first dinosaurs were displayed and classified: perhaps dinosaurs felt at home in an architectural setting which suggested the primitive, rather than the refined. Certainly, wherever they are and whatever they display, any museum betrays the pride, ambitions, beliefs and preoccupations, as well as the anxieties and doubts, of the civilisation that built it.

Significantly, just as the great municipal museums were explaining science and art, the new department stores were putting the manufactured world on display and offering it for sale. Observers made the connection and a stream of metaphors followed. The novelist Émile Zola called Paris’s Le Bon Marché a “cathedrale de la commerce moderne”. His contemporary, Julien Guadet, went further and said it was a “musée de marchandise”.

America added an extra commercial dimension to the museum concept. In New York, The Frick Collection was what happened when new American money met old French furniture. The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 not by dissolute radicals, but by the Rockefellers. MoMA made art that was once challenging a safe investment. Then, in Paris during the 1970s, the Centre Pompidou showed how startling architecture could make a museum into an urban trophy.

Only confident cultures, cities or individuals build museums. A new generation of international museums now represents the limits of architectural possibilities. For an architect, a museum is a longed-for commission: an opportunity to design the ultimate building, free, to a large extent, from everyday realities. A museum is a symbol of wealth, status, culture, confidence, virility and style.


New York, USA
Architect: SANAA Year opened: 2007

Here on Bowery is New York’s first contemporary art museum since the influential MoMA. But while MoMA institutionalised the established darlings of the international art world, MOCA decided on a more subversive role. Even the architects who designed it were unknown in the US at the time.

SANAA is an acronym of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who join Shigeru Ban (The Nomadic Museum of shipping containers) and the late Kenzo Tange (Yokohama Museum of Art) as outstanding Japanese museum designers. MOCA is built on the site of an old parking lot. It comprises boxes arranged on a shifting axis to give a staggered effect, as if to explain that MOCA is a non-hierarchical institution.

A paradox is represented here: MOCA is interested in insubstantial digital art, but has acquired a building of emphatic architectonic presence. It’s both a foil and refutation of the videos and light shows on show here.

Although SANAA had earlier designed the Christian Dior shop in Tokyo, MOCA made their international reputation: subsequently they built The Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne (2010) and the pop-up Serpentine Pavilion in London (2009). A defining characteristic of modern life is that commerce and culture are no longer distinct: indeed, the worlds of brand-experience and museum-visiting are the same. Art and luxury have become the same thing.


Munich, Germany
Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2007

Coop Himmelb(l)au was established by young architects Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky and Michael Holzer in Vienna in 1968. This was a year that saw idealistic student rebellions all over Europe. Thus, the studio’s name is revealing. ‘Coop’ suggests a decent communitarianism, while Himmelb(l)au is deliberately ambiguous: it can, translated, mean either ‘heavenly architecture’ or ‘blue sky’. Or both.

In 1968, when French students were throwing cobblestones at gendarmes, BMW was busy consolidating a reputation made with the ‘Neue Klasse’ cars of 1961. With their clean lines and Bauhaus heritage, BMW cars became symbols of Germany’s economic progress, and were eagerly endorsed by global markets. So much so, that by the 21st century, BMW was no longer a specialist Bavarian motor-manufacturer, but a globally recognised luxury product, trading on a reputation for emphatic design, driving pleasure and advanced technology.

So, when BMW decided to create a temple to its own value system near Munich’s old Olympiapark, the brief was a complicated and subtle one. The Bauhaus values of clarity and functionalism, which were so well represented by, say, a 1968 BMW 2002, were already being reconsidered. Indeed, the 2003 5-series presented a new design language which was expressive, organic and, some said, perverse.

Coop Himmelb(l)au, which made its reputation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art Deconstructivist Architecture show in 1988, was well able to interpret the ambitious brief.

A BMW Welt of 1968 would have been a well-detailed shed. In 2007, it was instead a vast structure with complex spaces and many layers of meaning. Technology and quality remain, but assertiveness and complexity have been added to the mix of values. So has a restaurant and bar. Here you can take delivery of your new car or study the past.

Read the full story in December's issue of The Red Bulletin.

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