Motor museum: Driving force for urban development?

09 January 2017

We published a translation of an article of the German magazine Baunetz Woche#477 on the Symposium, which the Committee, in cooperation with the government of Moscow held in Venice, in the programme of activities of the Russian pavilion at the exposition of V. D. N. H. URBAN PHENOMENON at the architecture Biennale 2016. It was dedicated to two topics — «Museums and public spaces like city driver» and «Public space — new expectations.»

Baunetz Woche#477:

Overpowering: Monumental columns merge into a three-tiered building, with a golden, spherical beam reaching out to the sky, crowned by a communist star. But the description of this building, covered with symbols of collective farms, workers, animals, flags, and cannons, intensifies the impression. It is the central pavilion of the VDNH Park in Moscow, a model of socialist classicism. The site on which it stands was once the exhibition of the National Achievements of the USSR (VDNH), which opened in Moscow in 1959, after a few preceding attempts in all its 235-hectare dimension. It was conceived as a display of the achievements of socialism and the Soviet planning economy and was regarded as a showpiece project in the Soviet Union. It was a symbol of cultural greatness in the sixties and seventies as a turned into an urban burden in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The enormous area of Moscow’s inner city was transformed into a stock corporation, following the new primacy of capitalism. Parts of the area were sold, others were left to themselves. Legal and illegal sales booths as well as provisional fences splintered the park. In 2013, the Russian authorities finally decided to fix this abnormality. Vladimir Putin decided to restore the VDNH Park and return it to the public as a preserved example of the past. The park became a museum, with its own management and a fully-fledged cultural program. And: It is now again in the public domain since its opening in 2014.

The Russian Pavilion during the Architecture Biennale 2016 in Venice, curated by Sergey Kuznetsov, Photos: Moscow Committee for Architecture and Urban Development

A park to become a museum? And the buildings to be its only collection? The new status of the VDNH site as a museum brings together our classical concept of this institution, which is usually tied to a solid building with valuable cultural assets. But this is an outdated concept that dates back to the 19th century museum era, where a historical architecture of former elites at an urban location with medium-sized and large portals represents an artistic item. The definition of a museum by the International Museum Council does not refer to the physical place, but to the social function: ‘A museum,’ the Council explains, ‘is a non-profit, long-lasting, publicly accessible institution serving the society and its development, which preserves, researches, observes and exhibits material and immaterial evidence of people and their environment for the purposes of study, education and new experience.«

Симпозиум в Венеции — модератор Лукас Файрайс (первое фото — слева), Элизабет Диллер (первое фото — в центре) и Антон Белов, директор московского музея «Гараж» (первое фото — справа)

When the international online platform for contemporary art e-flux 2015 published «Museology of the avant-garde», its publisher, Arseny Zhilyaev, expressed his far-sighted ideas: a museum, according to Zhilyaev, is probably the most advanced recording device in the history of humanity that was ever invented. It is a place for the storage of historical grievances and the reminder of forgotten experiments, of social projects or of misguided futures. Zhilyaev, living in Moscow himself, tailored his concept of the museum to the new role of the VDNH Park: an institution that records past society models and makes them accessible.

The restoration of the VDNH park and the conversion of the facility into a museum is exceptional as well as the architectural strategy. The young Chief Architect of Moscow, Sergey Kuznetsov, sees in the VDNH Park a territorial revival of a neglected area in Moscow. Part of the strategy is physical: the restoration of the terrain. The other is institutional: the conversion and organization of the museum park.

The institution is already 100 years old, but the building is only three years old: New construction of the shipping museum in Helsingør, Denmark, by BIG, Photo: Rasmus Hjortshøj, © M/S Museet for Søfart

The VDNH Park was the theme of the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennial this year, whose curator was Sergey Kuznetsov. The exhibition VDNH. Urban Phenomenon presented copies of the sculptures in the park and arranged them together with photographs and chronicles to create a real-life tour. The cultural significance of the park for the city of Moscow has given rise to the debate about the role of the museum and its nature. By invitation of the Moscow Government, the VDNH Park and the AEDES Metropolitain Laboratory, numerous players of the international museum scene — architects, curators and museum directors — met in September for a symposium in Venice. The town that has already been a museum with its architectural heritage, welcomed such great names as Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta, Martin Roth, V&A in London, Volker Staab, Zelfira Tregulova, Director of the Tretyakov Gallery. The focus of the debate: the future of the museum as a driving force for urban development.

Smooth conversion to the new museum: the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, street view, photo: Ivan Baan, courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The VDNH park and its presentation in Venice was the occasion for the meeting. But the spirit of Bilbao hovered over the entire debate. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum of 1997, a landmark that made a medium-sized city in northern Spain a magnet for the art and culture lovers, still provides the measure for the architectural pattern of museums. It has been almost twenty years since Gehry realized his extravagant construction in a rather unknown city, thereby initiating a worldwide movement to see new museums as economic drivers and rehabilitation measures for neglected or unknown cities.

Snøhetta’s expressive expansion of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA

The result is not always positive: museum buildings hem the maps without any benefit and collections and with helpless exhibition programs. ‘Bêtes mortes’ or ‘architectural voids’ — the fear of empty museums is often a big issue. «Nobody wants empty museums!», says Sergey Kuznetsov opening the symposium.

Elizabeth Diller made an interesting perspective on the Bilbao effect: «Frank Gehry has given the cities a gift, which we must now revive.» One should not condemn the latest developments, but use a different conceptual approach. In the process of reestablishing and transforming the museums, the economic and the cultural sides must always be balanced. Dillers’ recent museum project in California, the Berkerly Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive — BAMPFA — is one of the projects to be redesigned. The building, which is located on the border with the historic campus of the Berkeley University of California, is an institutional interface between the research task of the university and the public interest. «Museums were once places where culture was produced, now it is places where culture is consumed,» says Diller. With a direct relationship to the UC-Berkeley, the BAMPFA is still a place of cultural production, but it is also a public place that provides knowledge. The team of architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro combined an existing printing house in a functional style from the thirties with a steel-clad new building, which with its diagonal edges and folds integrates with the contrasting reduced structure of the existing building. Aesthetically striking and yet adapted to the building, without a large landmark claim.

A new art museum founded in Los Angeles by a couple of collectors: The Broad by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with works by Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool (below), photos: Ivan Baan (top), Bruce Damonte Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

«Every museum has its own context,» says Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta, who has accumulated a wealth of experience in museum architecture over the past twenty years, from the remote fishing museum in Kormoy in Norway to the 13,000-square-meter expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Museums could not be treated as a whole; their cultural value can only be expressed in a specific way. In a fear of Bilbao, Thorsen’s statement also means that there can be no museum without a context. What motivated Volker Staab to build an art museum in the small town of Ahrenshoop on the German Baltic Sea? The reestablishment is a positive example of reasonability of many a museum in the province. It is based on the initiative of an association that is committed to the preservation and preparation of a cultural history of the place: the long painting tradition of the Baltic Sea basin, which began with plein air painting and continues beyond the GDR period to this day.

Garage Museum in Moscow by OMA is intended to convey openness with a monumental portal and a freely accessible ground floor, photos: Timur Shabaev (above), Vasily Babourov (below), © OMA

As an institution, the museum has grown from the cultural context of its location. Staab also focuses on aesthetical linking of the place to the surroundings. His museum building is an ensemble of abstracted vestibule houses typical for Ahrenshoop.

The Ahrenshoop Museum is a new foundation. Like the garage museum in Moscow. The latter goes back to the patroness Dasha Zhukova, who opened a public museum in the middle of the Russian capital for her art collection. Initially based in a converted garage of Constructivist Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov, in 2008, Zhukova moved her collection of contemporary art to the Gorky Park. The architecture comes from OMA, who converted a restaurant from the sixties for the garage museum in 2015. A new exhibition center, which cannot rely on history, must establish itself, must communicate proximity and openness to the public. If Staab had a relationship of the residents to the museum alone through the location, a seaside resort with 638 inhabitants, OMA in the 12 million metropolis first had to make itself known using the architecture. The most important feature of their construction in 2015 are two monumental polycarbonate portals. Like a garage door, they can be pulled up and open the interior of the building to the park. The cheap material and the inviting atmosphere put the collection and the museum experience closer to the audience. Anton Belov, director of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, puts it this way: «The museum is a cultural shopping mall». What Belov spells out in the language of capitalism what idea that the public needs to see in a museum. This can be the place of consumption that the customer needs or a democratic place that makes the visitor part of it.

How can architecture ultimately make the visitor part of a museum if the architecture of the museum has long since ceased to correspond to the Zeitgeist?

The Tretyakov Gallery, for example, which has emerged from the private collection of a merchant family, has its origins in the former residence of the family in Moscow. Gradually, more and more buildings were added to it, and today the gallery includes a whole street block with buildings from the late nineteenth century to the seventies. Director of Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova, who says that «Museums would keep the society healthy and cultivated», wants to reach visitors through an architectural opening. Sergei Tchoban and Andrey Perlich from SPEECH will considerably expand the gallery. Among other particular features is a glass entrance shaped like a pointed dagger, will guide the visitor into the depths of the new building — the opening of an established institution to society, symbolized by a transparent entrance.

Architecturally, the new entrance is not an extraordinary strategy. I.M. Pei already made his glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. But the nuances seem to change. Today it is more about communication with visitors and passers-by than reaching contemporaneity by architecture. A link between the museum building and the surrounding area is to be created. Amanda Ferrete’s design for the new entrance of the V&A in London is intended to express a perceptible permeability of the city space and to formulate a relationship between the museum and the street that has not yet existed. «We need functional buildings, not landmarks,» emphasizes Director of V&A Martin Roth at the symposium.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro used the aesthetic event as a gesture of communication. The team has in mind an inflatable architecture for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington by Gorden Bunshaft built in the seventies. As a temporary enlargement, large bubbles from the inner court of the cylindric structure will emerge and protrude like a squeezed balloon. But the project of 2013 was never implemented.

The open gate to a temple of art or a shopping mall? Garage Museum in Moscow by OMA, photo: John Paul Pacelli, © OMA

So, what strategy should existing and established museums choose to carry out their social role in the architectural sense? The symposium could not provide a clear answer. But everyone seems to agree on the idea that every museum — a park, a private museum or a historical institution — should be at the service of the public. And with this social demand in mind, one needs to find individual solutions in architecture. Francine Houben, founder of Mecanoo Architects, puts it this way: «As an architect, one is commissioned by the public to build a museum, the money for the order comes from everyone. Now we must always develop the architecture of a museum in such a way that we also give something back to everyone».

A summary of the symposium held in Venice on 24 September 2016 at the invitation of the Government of Moscow, the VDNH Park and AEDES Metropolitan Laboratory is available on the AEDES website:



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