Are too many museums relying on too few architects?

Famous name or talented newcomer—how art museum architects are chosen today


The increasingly close relationship between leading private museums, the collectors who founded them and public institutions was unpicked in a talk at Art Basel in June. One panellist taking part in the Art Basel Conversation was Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, who expressed his concern that private museums were proliferating and, with a few exceptions: “They show the same art and are designed by the same architects.” Ironically, the same charge, especially about architects, could just as easily be levelled at major public institutions.

The exclusive club who get the lion’s share of the top commissions to turn old buildings into art museums or design them from scratch includes Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, I.M. Pei and Herzog and de Meuron. Also working at this rarefied level are Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. Tokyo-based Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who work under the name Saana, followed a pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, with the New Museum in New York, which earned them a Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2010.

Miami Beach now boasts a building of Frank Gehry’s late period, albeit a concert hall—the New World Center. During Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) its walls form the screen for the Art Video programme. The British architect David Chipperfield has designed museums in Alaska and the Mid West, the Far East and Africa as well as across Europe. Chipperfield’s space for Eugenio López Alonso’s Colección Jumex is under way and due to open by 2013 in Mexico City.

What makes these architects so beloved by the art world? How did they gain admission to the club? And who should a collector dreaming of building a space for their collection choose: an architect they already find simpatico, someone with talent but a limited track record, or a star name?

Miami provides the “original recipe” for private museums, says the director of Dallas Contemporary, Peter Doroshenko, who has organised “Erwin Wurm: Beauty Business” at the Bass Museum of Art (until 4 March 2012). “Even if the fair disappeared, people will think of the city’s private spaces,” he says. For his book Private Spaces for Contemporary Art (2010), Doroshenko surveyed private museums, their collectors’ motivations and the architects they chose. Collectors featured include Ingvild Goetz, for whom the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron designed the Sammlung Goetz in Munich in 1992, long before they achieved international prominence and were chosen to design the new Miami Art Museum (MAM). “A lot of collectors are business people who have worked with architects before,” says Doroshenko. This is true of Miami, where no one can say the major private spaces lack variety.

Doroshenko does, how-ever, recognise the phenomena of collectors and public museum directors who see a museum they like and decide: “I want the same thing.”

That, he says, can start an “avalanche” of commissions.

Museum directors and their boards of trustees are prone to “hiring the usual suspects—sometimes for suspect reasons”, says Terence Riley, the former director of MAM (2006-09). A practising architect and founding partner of K/R with John Keenan, he was the chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) before heading to southern Florida. In New York he was closely involved in MoMA’s renovation and expansion by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, completed in 2004. Riley is currently the chief curator of the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/ Architecture (8 December to 18 February 2012).

“There are several reasons why certain architects tend to get all the commissions,” says Riley. Directors and trustees’ lack of experience in building is one. “Get the choice wrong and it’s a potential career wrecker,” he says. So the natural tendency is to err on the side of caution and choose “someone who has done what [they] want to do and has not made a huge error”.

Another reason, he says, is the perceived celebrity value of certain architects, which trustees “hope will garner potential donors and the media’s attention”.

There are architects who are closely involved with the art world. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are two. Their ability to understand the needs of directors, boards and curators is illustrated by the way that, after Tate Modern, they went on to extend the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, design the De Young Museum, San Francisco, and build the Schaulager for the Laurenz Foundation in Basel and the Caixa Forum in Madrid.

Harry Gugger is a professor of architecture and practitioner who established his own studio in 2010, having been a partner of Herzog and de Meuron for 19 years, during which time he worked on Tate Modern and the Schaulager among other museum projects. He describes himself as an “art aficionado” who is influenced by artists more than anything else in his work, like Herzog and de Meuron. “Jacques was uncertain whether to become a sculptor or an architect,” says Gugger, who is working with Xavier Hufkens to expand the gallerist’s space in Brussels.

Tanzanian-born, British-based David Adjaye is another architect closely involved with the art world. He has collaborated with Chris Ofili, designing the space for the artist’s The Upper Room, 1999, now in the Tate’s collection, and a pavilion for Olafur Eliasson’s Your Black Horizon, first shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Adjaye’s clients have included the artist Jake Chapman and late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The 2011 Design Miami designer of the year, Adjaye has created the fair’s entrance pavilion, Genesis. Marianne Goebl, the director of the fair, says she is hopeful the piece of “architectural furniture” will find a permanent home in Miami.

Renzo Piano is an architect often hired by museums, though not part of the art world in the same way as Adjaye or Herzog and de Meuron, says Riley. “Norman Foster is another. They can deal with the objective problems of museums—working with light, space and the flow of visitors—and they have a real sensitivity to how objects look in space.”

The Fundación Botín is building a €106m, 6,500 sq. m art centre on the waterfront of Santander in northern Spain, due to open in 2014. Iñigo Sáenz de Miera Cárdenas, the general manager of the foundation, says the trustees always knew who they wanted for an architect. “Renzo Piano was the first and only possible architect,” he declares. Why only him? “There is general agreement that he is the best for art, and we did not want to close the centre to the light. Renzo can use light to create a magical atmosphere,” says Cárdenas.

Winning competitions is one way architects can break into the prestigious field of museum building. US architect Stephen Holl made his name building Kiasma in Helsinki, having won the competition to design the museum in 1993. David Adjaye won the competition to design the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which opened in 2007. Adjaye says that it was his breakthrough in the US: “It led to a number of other projects, notably the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington.”

“One of the hardest things for a museum to do is hire someone not well known,” says Riley, especially when public money is involved. That said, Riley has found that private collectors can be as deeply conservative as “angst-ridden trustees”.

When clients are willing to take a risk, however, interesting buildings can result, and at a fraction of the budget a high-profile architect demands. Riley gives the example of the Tampa Museum of Art. Originally due to be rehoused in a Rafael Viñoly-designed building, when the budget rose to $76m the museum went back to the drawing board, hiring San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz, who designed a fine building for $33m.

A private collector can open the door for young or less well known architects. Would Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, have spotted Herzog and de Meuron’s potential if they had not already created the Sammlung Goetz?

There is a big difference between the challenges involved in building a major public museum and creating a space on the scale and intimacy of a home or a private museum—collectors can be in a hurry to see their dream built. The architect Rene Gonzalez remembers when Ella Fontanals-Cisneros talked about having her Cifo Art Space ready in time for ABMB: “We thought we had a year longer,” says Gonzalez, “but she meant that year’s fair. We had to go into high gear.”

Miami's private collectors support homegrown talent

The Rubells were pioneers, choosing Miami-based Allan Shulman to convert a 45,000 sq. ft warehouse in Wynwood into a home for the family’s fast growing collection of contemporary art. Opened in 1993, the building has a colourful history. It was formerly the Drug Enforcement Agency’s store for confiscated goods. Mark Hampton, a Tampa-based architect, turned a historic 1920s building in Miami Beach’s art deco district into the Wolfsonian in 1992 for Mitchell Wolfson Jr’s 70,000-item collection of industrial design and decorative art. Another pioneering spirit, Marty Margulies, worked with Miami-based Stu Cohen in 1998 to convert a former factory in Wynwood, the start of a project that led to today’s 45,000 sq. ft Warehouse. Cohen has also worked on the collector’s other properties. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros already knew the architect Rene Gonzalez, who is Miami based, before choosing his firm to transform a 1930s warehouse near Miami’s Freedom Tower into the Cifo Art Space. It opened in 2005. Meanwhile, Rosa de la Cruz found her architect in Miami’s Design District, where the De La Cruz Collection is based. The architect John Marquette designed the three-storey 30,000 sq. ft space for the collection, which opened to the public in 2009.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘My kind of architect is…'