Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Roland Halbe.

WITH THE INAUGURATION of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum in early November 2017, France fulfilled a wish it had harbored for a long time. This ancient dream, which emerged under the Sun King Louis XIV at the end of the seventeenth century, was nothing less than to assume the mantle of Imperial Rome, claiming its cultural and territorial heritage. The dream ebbed and flowed for three centuries, but its crucible and the moment that shaped its colonial, epistemological, and symbolic dimensions was the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt in 1798. This ambitious adventure ended less than three years later with a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British, the traditional rivals of France, and their Ottoman allies, but its moral, material, and intellectual outcomes continue to affect the East-West relations until today. Foremost among them was La description de l’Égypte (twenty-three grand volumes), the monumental compendium composed by more than 150 savants who accompanied Bonaparte’s expedition that attempted to recover all available knowledge about Egypt and to classify, codify, and represent it. This encyclopedia instigated not only a learned fascination with Egypt—and the Orient—in Europe on the eve of the colonial age; it also launched several disciplinary developments in geography, history, ethnography, cartography, archaeology, Egyptology, museology, and the arts. These early endeavors are now recast in utmost splendor in the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, which overlooks the serene waters of the Gulf on Saadiyat Island, opposite Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is one component of a massive, audacious, and perhaps a bit reckless plan to turn Saadiyat Island into a global cultural hub. The plan was conceived more than a decade ago and is only now receiving its second installment; the Louvre Abu Dhabi follows the Saadiyat campus of the New York University Abu Dhabi, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, which opened four years ago. Originally conceived as a string of three first-class museums and a performing-arts center along the shore facing Abu Dhabi with a fourth museum inland, this grand cultural district has been stalled for many years, and it is not clear whether it will be completed as planned. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first museum to be finished, after more than ten years of faltering. Rumor has it that only the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum designed by the Canadian American starchitect Frank Gehry, and the Zayed Museum, designed by the British starchitect Norman Foster, will be built, although no concrete time frame has been set.

There is no doubt that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a singular architectural and museological masterpiece with huge touristic, cultural, and political promise. It breaks the record on more than one level. It is the largest art museum so far in the Arabian Peninsula, where competition for cultural preeminence among the Gulf states has emerged in the last two decades as a fast way to assert a global and contemporary identity. The museum has an area of 24,000 square meters with an exhibition area of 8,600 square meters. It is also the most expensive museum built in the twenty-first century (as far as the published figures allow). The Abu Dhabi government paid nearly $1.3 billion to the French government, owner of the Louvre Museum, as fees for trademark use and for museological and managerial consultancies and services. The amount is distributed as follows: about $520 million to use the Louvre name in Abu Dhabi for thirty years, $250 million to borrow about 300 masterpieces from the Paris Louvre to be exhibited in Abu Dhabi in the next ten years, another $250 million for special exhibitions arranged by the Paris Louvre in Abu Dhabi in the same fifteen years, $215 million for the Paris Louvre to manage the new museum and to lend its expertise in buying new works for Abu Dhabi, and, finally, more than $30 million for the restoration of a gallery on global art in the Paris Louvre. The Abu Dhabi building, designed by the famous French starchitect Jean Nouvel, the architect of several large buildings in the Arabian Peninsula, is estimated to have cost more than $650 million. In other words, the total cost of the Louvre Abu Dhabi thus far is about $2 billion. And that before the new museum builds its own collection, which is still to be purchased in today’s overinflated art market. (Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, auctioned off in November 2017 for $450 million, was finally revealed to be destined for Abu Dhabi.)

Approaching the museum, the first thing one notices is the vast, shallow, perforated dome, consisting of superimposed layers of hollow lozenges and octagonal patterns, which hover over a number of white pavilions. These buildings, some of which stick out from under the dome, are the actual exhibition spaces of the museum. Set on a huge slab that appears to be floating on the water, they are supposed to recall the organically arrayed structures in a traditional city or bazaar. The effect of this domed, open arrangement is magical: The mass of white buildings is bathed in an infinite number of uneven spots of light filtered through the dome’s layers, which are continuously changing following the movement of the sun. This composition surpasses all earlier screening experiments that have distinguished Nouvel’s work for his Arabic projects, from his Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (completed 1987) to his Doha Tower (built in 2012). It truly establishes Nouvel as a virtuoso of the manipulation of natural light, who, in the process, gives Le Corbusier’s dictum “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light,” a new twist, which was probably unforeseeable by the prophet of modern architecture.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Mohamed Somji.

The visual impact of the museum architecture, amazing as it is, does not eclipse the grandiose aspirations of its first exhibition, ambitiously titled “The Story of Humanity.” Divided among twelve discrete galleries, a total of about six hundred magnificent objects (three hundred of which on loan from a consortium of French museums), purport to tell the story of a cross-cultural humanity from the “First Villages” to “A Global Stage.” Using a thematic approach that follows the development of the world’s artistic sensibilities comparatively and cross-culturally, the exhibition’s message begins to falter when it hits the colonial age in Gallery 9, titled “A New Art of Living.” Unable to suppress the Eurocentric and stratified conception of art at the moment in which Europe discovers and then conquers the world, the exhibition reverts to a triumphant telling of European artistic inventions despite its sincere though feeble attempts at including artistic specimens from other cultures. Unsurprisingly, the situation is corrected in the last gallery, “A Global Stage,” where the exhibit again becomes truly worldly and global, with artworks from everywhere arranged with no apparent hierarchy. This is undoubtedly a function of the vigor of the contemporary international art scene, with successful artists, empowered by a buoyed art market, acting like creative free agents working and living in multiple abodes.

Aside from the visual, artistic, and architectural dazzle—or perhaps because of it—the Louvre Abu Dhabi is above all a geopolitical event. The inauguration in November was attended by the ruling elite of the United Arab Emirates in addition to a group of international presidents and kings, led by the French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s presence and his speech in Abu Dhabi underscored the importance of this cultural event to French politics. The president noted that the museum “is very meaningful for France,” and is “at the crossroads of the Western and Eastern worlds,” facing toward “Europe as much as towards the Arab world, India, and China.” Macron went on to stress that “France knows it must maintain its position in this dialogue of cultures, in this outreach of art and heritage. We’re inaugurating here a very special link between our two countries.” Soft power is at its best display here: Culture, beauty, syncretism, togetherness are all themes that Macron emphasizes in his speech.

But visitors to the museum will also be reminded that France’s glory and global aspirations are not confined only to art and culture: They are also operative at the military and imperial levels. After several galleries celebrating the crossroads of the ancient and medieval cultures, the visitor arrives at the nineteenth-century gallery. In its center and on its axis hangs the stately painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David (1803, the third of five versions), which has been given further visual emphasis by placing it on a freestanding wall painted dark maroon, in contrast to the off-white of the rest of the hall. Gripping the reins of his white steed with his left hand and pointing toward the mountains with his anatomically impossible right arm, Napoleon looks dreamily but resolutely at the viewer. The powerful symbolism of this painting and its carefully orchestrated location cannot be ignored. But if the visitor for any reason overlooks it, a smallish portrait of the first American president, George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1822 and hanging in the left corner of the same hall, will hammer in the allusion to imperial power in the David painting with a potent and contemporary message: France is telling the United States, “We are returning to the center of the events in the Arab world.”

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800, 1803, oil on canvas. Installation view, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017.

If there are any doubts about the implications of the message conveyed by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its first exhibition, we must remember that the French acquired a naval base in Abu Dhabi—their first in the region—in 2009, eight years before the Louvre Museum. And as some gossipers would have it, the Louvre was the reward for the military base. Located in Port Zayed on the eastern tip of the Abu Dhabi peninsula, the base is clearly visible across the water from the open foyer of the museum. This visual connection was intended by Nouvel. In a symposium we both attended at the Paris Louvre in December 2009 to discuss the then-still-design Louvre Abu Dhabi, Nouvel, with a hint of irony, haughtily declared: “I designed the museum in a way that would allow the visitor disoriented by the glare of the relentless sun and the strong white colors of the desert sands to look toward the French naval base and to rest his eyes on the calm gray colors of the French warships!”

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mies van der Rohe, Mansion House Square, Unbuilt design.

THERE ARE TWO JUBILANT MOMENTS in “Mies van der Rohe + James Stirling: Circling the Square” at the Royal Incorporation of British Architects’ (RIBA) Architecture Gallery in London, but they are easy to miss, even in a show as small as this one. Both pertain to Mies’s plans in the 1960s to erect a nineteen-story office high-rise on a central site in the City of London, and both are represented by ephemera that suggest the slow rise and precipitous fall of the ill-fated project.

The first piece is a quick sketch of an inverted pyramid of champagne glasses, made by the architect’s grandson Dirk Lohan to celebrate the ostensible approval of the project in May 1969, just a few months before Mies’s death. Dubbed Mansion House Square, after the large public plaza Mies proposed to place opposite his building, the bronze skyscraper would have stood just a few hundred feet from Saint Paul’s and would have had a profound affect on the development of the London skyline.

The second is a press clipping from 1985, which metaphorically tells of a second spumante-fueled celebration: this one by the project’s opponents, who definitively stopped the project later that year. Mies’s vanquishers included several high-profile antagonists: the arch-contrarian and trend-chaser Philip Johnson; the bumptious scion the Prince of Wales; and reportedly even Margaret Thatcher herself. His design was also, it would seem, a victim of the shifting winds of architectural fashion—by the early 1980s, thanks in no small part to people like Johnson and the prince, postmodernism was replacing Mies’s sleek modernism (and the very un-Miesian clamor of Brutalism) as the preferred style of corporations worldwide. Accordingly, James Stirling was chosen in 1986 to design a building for the site, and his low-slung and immoderate, if imaginative, No. 1 Poultry was constructed in lieu of Mies’s troubled tower in 1997.

“Circling the Square” places the two very different projects on equal footing, but they are awkward tango partners. Mansion House Square was a monolith plunked down in a historic quarter, alienation—or at the very least, corporate America—embodied. No 1. Poultry is emphatically gauche by comparison. Where Mansion House Square was too high-minded, too cerebral, No. 1 Poultry is a feast for the senses. Indeed, it is a buffet, although by now, for most Londoners, indigestion seems to have kicked in. A boatload of leaden cheer, Stirling’s structure regularly ranks among London’s ugliest buildings, according to newspaper polls. And yet it marks a moment—just two decades old, the building was last year listed in Historic England’s register as an “unsurpassed example of commercial postmodernism.”

James Stirling, Michael Wilford, and Associates, Number One Poultry, 1997.

The story of “Circling the Square,” which is recounted largely through archival documents, drawings, and a few scale models, maps neatly onto this modernism–postmodernism continuum. There is a feeling of historical inevitability about the telling as well as an off-the-cuffness in the way entire epochal shifts seem to have been set in motion by squabbling personalities. The visitor quickly encounters a scrum of illustrious architects, not just Mies and Stirling, but also Berthold Lubetkin, Denys Lasdun, and Richard Rogers, among others. Their signatures appear on letters of support solicited by the Mansion House Square’s developer Lord Peter Palumbo, who, by the early 1980s, was finding the climate increasingly hostile to his plans. In order to lay the ground for the project, Palumbo intended to flatten several Victorian office buildings, barely a notable one among them. What they did have going for them, however, was their unequivocal Englishness, a highly trafficked commodity in Thatcherite Britain, when conservatism had triumphed and modernity—Miesian and otherwise—was in retreat. In the face of withering criticism, Palumbo eventually conceded defeat and scaled down his vision. In tapping Stirling, a talented eclectic, for the job, Palumbo opted for an architectural statement more in line with the mood of the time.

Once deemed elegant, Mies’s design had come to be seen as pugnacious. The “target,” it seemed, was the neoclassical bastions—the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange—that define the City of London’s amaranthine character. Where the newspaper columns had feted Mies upon a visit in 1967, they had, by the mid-1980s, swayed in the opposite direction. “Attitudes have changed since Mies conceived the design 20 years ago,” the Times asserted. “Lessons have been learnt about how cities work.” The wisdom of “learning from” was typical of the period, at the same moment when the right to the city was being curtailed. The sober platonic geometries and obsessive spatial investigations of Mies’s generation were discarded for riotous levels of surface effects stemming from a deeply unfounded optimism. Not the optimism of technology, nor the optimism of any pronounced collective will. Instead, this was the delirium of deregulation, a manic belief in consumer choice and positive thinking. How freeing it was to not have to think about society’s course. What a relief it was to ditch the future. Every project offered something effervescently new, and for that reason, they were all equally disposable.

Mies, the most po-faced of builders, must have seemed a fossil to the protagonists of this new zeitgeist. Indeed, the Times article was accompanied by an illustration depicting a diminutive Mansion House Square mounted on a museum display; exhibited alongside a dinosaur skeleton, it was drolly labeled “Pre-Palumbian.” Not only had the figure of the architect within society shifted (it was ultimately diminished), corporations, too, had changed. Mies had been the architect of capitalism with a human face. The Chicago housing developer Herb Greenwald, Mies’s devoted benefactor, and Phyllis Lambert, the whiskey heiress who commissioned the architect to design the Seagram Company’s Park Avenue headquarters in New York, were representative of this slightly less rapacious bourgeoisie, which made it a point to invest in high culture. With the advent of Thatcher and the dismantlement of the postwar compromise, the velvet gloves had come off and capitalists grew bolder in their avarice, aesthetics included.

At the RIBA, it is easy to appreciate the clarity of Mies’s plan, and it is obvious that the master attended closely to its development. Having visited London twice, Mies was not, contra the naysayers, insensitive to place, and the curators point out the ways in which he reworked the exact placement of the tower several times. No detail was left unresolved, a fact colorfully demonstrated by two large models situated at the exhibition’s gravitational center. Mies even concerned himself with the positioning of a flagpole, meant to punctuate the capacious public plaza, which would have been the largest in London.

In the end, though, the overemphasis on Mies is misguided. The tragic leading man has been miscast; it is not Mies’s Passion but Palumbo’s. Palumbo’s father had a great hand in reshaping postwar London, making gobs of money developing bombed-out sites all over the city. Palumbo the Younger had been primed to take over the family business, but he was more than anything else a connoisseur-collector. While still in his thirties, he had acquired a string of modernist homes, including, in 1972, Mies’s Farnsworth House, a jewel box for living (or lounging) in. The Miesian corpus inspires a kind of fetish and that is what certainly impelled Palumbo to seek out the architect. With family lands and a locked-in tenant, the Lloyd’s Insurance Company, he plotted the ultimate monument to his pet hobby. Mansion Square House gave him the chance to act out the role of cultured patron, a Medici, steward of the sublime architectural object. Mies’s death did not dissuade him, as he had had the foresight to obtain from the architect a complete set of building drawings, down to the design of the door handles. One can read in Palumbo’s dedication an abiding fanboyism. He paid dearly for it, sinking millions of pounds into the Mansion House Square project. Lloyd’s had long since recused itself; it was to later take up quarters in the unrepentantly futuristic skyscraper Richard Rogers built for it in 1986 elsewhere in the city.

Even so, it may have been poor Stirling who got the very worst of it. The second half of “Circling the Square” unspools the design process behind No. 1 Poultry, a stony mishmash of vague referents. A brilliant series of graphite-and-ink drawings illustrates the attention Stirling’s office paid to each element of the design. These were poured over, primped, and carefully modulated to achieve just the right effect. Contextualism was a starting point, not an unwelcome imposition. Yet the success of the end result is debatable, and even at the time the project was proposed, it drew harsh and very public criticism, including, ironically, from some of the same figures who had opposed Mies’s alienating proposal—among them the prince, who complained that it looked like an “old 1930s wireless.” Under duress, Stirling threatened to return his Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, which had been granted to him by the Queen. More seriously, he pondered relocating to America. He did neither and died in 1992, five years before No. 1 Poultry was opened.

Today, when visiting No. 1 Poultry and the surrounding area, there’s little indication that this was once hotly contested terrain. Across the way, Bloomberg’s European headquarters is nearing completion. Designed by that gentle baron Norman Foster, the building is carefully integrated into the surrounding streetscape. Foster is mindful of the context and has permitted himself the use of “historic devices”—namely, English sandstone—while making up the innovation deficit with huge grooved-glass window panes fabricated in China. “It’s all about values, what is appropriate, respectful, fitting in in terms of the City,” he has said of the project. There is no longer any pretense of artful mastery, nor much authorial intent. Power resides ineluctably with the same institutions, but only now the architect is intimately familiar with the boundary walls of the playpen. Seamless integration and continuity are all he hopes for. Easily granted.

Sammy Medina is a writer based in New York.

Chicago Hope


Johnston Marklee, View House, 2009, Rosario, Argentina.

The recently appointed 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial artistic directors, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee—in contrast to their predecessors, Graham Foundation director Sarah Herda and international biennial curator Joseph Grima—are not professional curators, but practicing architects. In 1998, they cofounded the Los Angeles–based firm Johnston Marklee, whose current projects include the Menil Drawing Institute, a renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Green Line Arts Center, a project with the University of Chicago and Theaster Gates. Here, they discuss their interest in honing the next biennial’s focus on architecture’s intersections with art, world history, and urban design.Janelle Zara

As two practicing architects, what was your interest in taking on a curatorial role?

Mark Lee: We’ve done guest-curation projects for galleries, as well as academic shows at UCLA and other universities, and for the last biennial, we presented photographs we had commissioned artists to take of our buildings; but we haven’t curated anything on this scale. The last biennial was a great success in the way that it not only drew the international architecture crowd, but it formed a dialogue with people who were not architects. We’ve been working in Chicago for the last couple of years on a couple of different projects, and that kind of engagement was important to us.

As you said, the inaugural biennial was a success as a public event, but the shortcoming most critics cited was its lack of cohesion, noting that it would have benefited from a centralized theme. Although planning is still in the early stages, have you decided on how to address such criticism?

Lee: Last year’s show was an ambitious, grand survey of what’s happening internationally and among different generations; an overview is important to establish. And then it takes a second iteration to make a biennial. The two general thematics we’re thinking about right now are in nascent stages, but we’re interested in the renewed role of history for younger architects, a generation that believes in continuity. They don’t have the stigma of postmodernism; they’re looking at different parts of history and its precedents and how they can build that on current design work. The boundaries of architecture are also becoming more fluid. We’d like to explore the convergence of art and architecture, with the changing nature of public spaces and the proliferation of multimedia art practices. We want artists to participate, and to collaborate with architects.

Sharon Johnston: We’re also in the middle of analyzing the 1897 Chicago Cultural Center and understanding the qualities of rooms, of circulation—and using the historic and contemporary spaces to help organize the design of the exhibition. We’re taking advantage of scale and attributes of the architecture to tell a story, as opposed to a free-for-all of things placed where they fit. We’d like our expertise as architects to be part of our approach to the organization of the show.

With the growing number of design and architectural biennials in the world, what do you hope will distinguish the Chicago biennial on an international scale?

Johnston: The history of architecture in Chicago is exciting to revisit and to resuscitate; for architects globally, it represents a major part of the American landscape. And our role is partly determining how the organization might partner with other institutions, buildings, and parts of the city to more deeply embed itself into the urban fabric.

Conversations about Chicago architecture often use the words “history” and “legacy,” and now “resuscitate,” as if much of it happened in the past. How do you describe what’s happening there today?

Lee: Through the schools and through the Graham Foundation, we’ve gotten to see a lot of work by the younger generation. We find it really refreshing to see that, for them, history is a treasure trove. They don’t feel shame or guilt to retrieve from it. That’s not just a way to resuscitate history but a source to push it much further, a part of the Chicago scene we want to keep present in this biennial.

Tailor Made


Christ & Gantenbein, Kunstmuseum Basel addition, 2016, Basel. Photo: Julian Salinas.

IT HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE for architects to describe their work as “tailored” to the sites on which they are built, but in the case of Christ & Gantenbein’s new addition to the Kunstmuseum Basel, this is literally true: The geometry of the structure has been ingeniously derived from the different angles of the ancient city’s streets. At the north-east corner of the site, Saint Alban-Graben turns toward the Wettstein bridge. The museum’s entrance runs parallel to this gesture, creating a small plaza defined by the front facade. This concave space reads like an open book, with its left page facing the original museum, which was designed by Paul Bonatz and Rudolf Christ and completed in 1936.

As a result of this carefully contextual gesture, the new building does not feel tacked-on, like a traditional wing or extension. Indeed, the architects chose to connect the new museum to the old only through a lofty underground passage, which functions as an additional exhibition space, allowing the two buildings, which have the same height and possess a similar monumental presence, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with each other and the city at large.

The building’s site also influences the organization of the interior: The floorplans of the spaces inside are organized from the outside in. All of the rectilinear galleries are placed along the angular exterior walls, which lay tangent to the property line. The somewhat eccentric geometry of the site itself is a result of the organic growth of Basel, a fact the architects chose to embrace and accentuate with the lobby’s grand staircase, a triple-height space that echoes the site’s unique contours, anchoring the building in the medieval city and at the same time creating a dramatic contemporary interior. This link to the surrounding urban environment is continued throughout the museum’s exhibition spaces, where carefully placed windows frame views of the city.

If the museum’s massing and organization is consistently thoughtful and successful, the architects’ material choices are only sometimes convincing. The understated gray brick facade establishes a subtle urban presence, yet also contains a sophisticated signage system that allows curators to display the title of the current show over the upper part of the building. This blur of pixelated text adds a faint glow to the faceted monolith, seeming to bringing another dimension to its uniform grayness—yet the effect is playfully inconsistent, as the sun sometimes outshines the hidden LED light diodes. On the interior, the extensive use of gray Carrara marble and rough plaster in the circulation spaces can be seen as a provocative statement. Instead of receding into neutrality, the materials are bold and draw the eye to themselves, forcing visitors to consciously focus on the architectural elements.

It is difficult to understand why the gray plaster reappears at each passage between exhibition spaces. It distracts from the experience of the art, and accidentally touching it isn’t pleasant either. To use galvanized steel for the gates of the main entrance might make sense, but the excessive placement of a material generally praised for its weather resistance feels ostentatious inside the museum. The shiny, metal-clad walls behind the ticket counter, in the bookstore, and the bathrooms are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silver factory. But unlike Billy Name’s intervention in Warhol’s first loft, the spacious museum is in no need for a boost of amphetamine stimulus, or the effects of visual enlargement. While the galvanized steel feels too cold and industrial, the yellowish oak floors throughout the exhibition spaces are too warm and domestic. Over time the floors might lose some of their coziness, but for now the wood and their grid created by grout joints is in conflict with the art placed directly above it, and the walls around them. The scale of some of the architectural elements too seems distractingly disjointed. Several of these elements are disproportionate in relationship to the human body. In particular, the wide marble balustrade of the staircase, which rises up to shoulder level, dwarfs visitors as they traverse the stairs.

  • Christ & Gantenbein, Kunstmuseum Basel addition, 2016, Basel. Photo: Stefano Graziani.

  • View of “Sculpture on the Move 1946–2016,” 2016. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel. Carl Andre, 10 x 10 Altstadt Square, 1967.

Then again, these limitations are easily forgotten in the presence of some of the best art of the twentieth century. The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel is in no way overpowered by the architecture that houses it, and many of the pieces look even better in this new setting. By rejecting the art world’s penchant for “versatile” or “flexible” spaces, the new building is bold in its permanence—undiluted by moving walls and structural indecision. This spirited building is a particularly welcome shakeup in Basel, where more established players have dominated the city’s development.

While climbing the new stairs to the lobby of the older half of the museum, I rediscovered Bruce Nauman’s seminal neon piece: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967. The last time I saw the work was in 2009 in Venice where Nauman installed an edition in a window of the US pavilion, a location quite similar to the one in which it was first displayed in his San Francisco studio the year it was created. If that setting was almost effortlessly natural, in Basel the piece seems slightly foreign, almost as if it is rubbing against the rough gray plaster behind it. In the glow of the neon, the wall appears newly cloudlike and soft, a fresh transformation suggesting that Christ & Gantenbein have successfully created a museum that reveals new truths for its collection, and for the city to which it belongs. 

Christian Wassmann is principle of Studio Christian Wassmann, based in New York.

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, operating theater in Frankfurt, May 21, 2016. Photo: Tibor-Florestan Pluto.

IN OUR EVER MORE INTERCONNECTED CULTURE, architecture’s predilection for interdisciplinarity has become a popular topic both inside and outside of the field, whether among those seeking to expand architecture’s reach or to co-opt its methodologies. Most of these conversations focus on a relatively narrow range of interaction with the visual arts, despite the fact that, historically, music has often been architecture’s closest partner. For centuries, while painters and sculptors were preoccupied with various techniques of mimesis, architects and musicians focused on more abstract compositional problems. Indeed, within the classical tradition the deep connection between spatial and sonic structures can be traced back as far as Pythagoras, who expounded a system of musical harmony based on mathematical ratios equally applicable to geometric relationships. During the Renaissance, the Greek philosopher’s theories became a cornerstone of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s celebrated theory of proportion, and influenced the architectural writings of polymath Daniele Barbaro, who declared that the secret of beauty “in music as well as in architecture is called harmony, mother of grace and of delight.” And Andrea Palladio himself based the dimensions of many of his buildings on mathematical ratios derived from harmonic intervals in music.

While this belief in a single, shared order has faded, an essential connection between musical and architectural composition has survived well into the modern era. The most famous example of this ongoing relationship is probably provided by Iannis Xenakis, whose musical training informed both the visual rhythms of the façade he designed for Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette and his design for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which deployed topologically deformed surfaces that were adapted directly from his research into polyvalent musical composition. Indeed, Xenakis remains best known for his 1971 magnum opus Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Even if the mode of Xenakis’s composition is diametrically opposed to that of a classical figure such as Palladio—having evolved from the static expression of a universal principle into the pursuit of nonlinear progressions that celebrate complexity and simultaneity—both point to the perennial appeal of the idea that the composition of space is indissociable from the composition of sound.

Daniel Libeskind might seem to be a natural candidate to extend this tradition, given that he was a child virtuoso who underwent years of musical training before he entered the field of architecture. Certainly the depth of his musical background was obvious in the concert series he organized in Frankfurt this past May. Yet this project, titled One Day in Life, actually suggests that, in a contemporary context, it may be less productive to celebrate the underlying mathematical structures that unite music and architecture formally, and more generative to interrogate the specific ways in which music, as a temporal art form, can change the ways in which we experience and inhabit architecture.

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, Boxcamp Gallus, Frankfurt, May 22, 2016. Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Tibor-Florestan Pluto.

In response to an open-ended invitation from Stephan Pauly, the artistic director of the city’s Alte Oper, Libeskind conceived of a continuous twenty-four-hour concert series comprising seventy-five performances (many of them simultaneous) at eighteen venues scattered throughout Frankfurt. The architect’s goal was to move music from the rarefied space of the concert hall into the city at large, weaving music into the daily life of its residents. But by shifting the performances—which ranged from full orchestral concerts to solo violin recitals to electronic sound pieces—out of the opera house, Libeskind raised a series of puzzling questions. The space of a concert hall is tailored for musical performance in two senses: first in that it is calibrated for optimal acoustics, and second in that it is often designed to fade into the background so that audiences focus purely on listening. (In the latter sense, it is analogous to so-called minimalist museum spaces, where architecture’s material and spatial qualities are often suppressed in an effort to provide a space for pure looking.) But if not in one of these spaces, where should music be performed? And what should architecture’s role be in performance, if not simply one of neutrality? Perhaps most urgently, what criteria should be used to select specific venues from among the nearly infinite possibilities available in the city?

Because the problem was not one of design per se—or at least not one of creating a new architectural form—Libeskind could not base his choices on the kind of formal correspondences that guided figures like Palladio or Xenakis. Instead, the project became about more atmospheric, even affective, affinities and interactions between the qualities of a space and the music to be performed within it, often all the more powerful for being totally unexpected. A hardscrabble boxing club in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, for example, became the site for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s rendition of Beethoven’s notoriously difficult Piano Sonata No. 31 Opus 110. The low ceilings and crowded space, with chairs packed in between punching bags, forced the audience into a direct confrontation with the sheer physicality of Aimard’s playing—his grimacing face, the sweat dripping off of his nose onto the keyboard—which, as he labored on a Steinway positioned in the center of a boxing ring, seemed breathtakingly natural. When Luigi Nono’s haunting sound piece, “Remember what they did to you at Auschwitz,” written in 1965 in response to the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, was played in a World War II bunker built on the site of a synagogue destroyed in 1938, it resonated powerfully not only because of the site’s historical significance, but because of the strange synesthesia produced as the sounds, bouncing off of the bunker’s super-thick reinforced concrete walls, seemed to become interchangeable with the dank-smelling notes of underground air.

But the significance of One Day in Life was not only in the specific qualities of its individual performances. The project also suggested new ways of experiencing the city, of understanding the architect’s role within it. Today, globalization is rapidly ironing out local idiosyncrasies, rendering cities uniform and most forms of urban experience overdetermined, none more so than cultural tourism. Ironically, while major cities increasingly turn to cultural institutions to establish their identity, the buildings that house these institutions are increasingly the same, as are the uses to which they’re put and the programming they contain. Just as one high-end shopping district is very like another, a visitor to a contemporary art museum or concert hall often has few clues about which country or even which continent he or she is inhabiting.

Daniel Libeskind, One Day in Life, 2016. Performance view, Frankfurt Central Station, May 22, 2016. Photo: Norbert Miguletz.

Libeskind’s programming disrupted—briefly but radically—the typical experience of the contemporary city. In part, this was simply a matter of drawing visitors into the normally invisible spaces that make up part of the hectic complexity of urban life: Works by Marin Marais played in an operating room of one of the city’s main hospitals, Mozart’s famous requiem mass performed by a full chorus in an empty train depot. But the most impressive performances were those that transformed the kinds of spaces city-dwellers traverse daily but never really notice or experience, as when students from the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts played a series of solo performances while moving back and forth along an unused subway line in Frankfurt Central Station, flooding the tracks with sound. Such performances not only suggested the latent possibilities of such spaces, they also served as a reminder that urban environments only achieve their potential when activated in time, that buildings and spaces are only one part of what makes up a living city.

Libeskind has long known this. Among his earliest works is a series of drawings titled “Micromegas,” which explicitly borrowed from techniques of musical notation to address architecture’s existence in time as well as space. The complex and eccentric geometries he derived from such early experiments have evolved into something like a signature style, proving highly susceptible to demands for symbolic gestures and formal metaphor. For better or for worse, he has in fact become known primarily as a form-maker, making his latest suggestion that an architect’s job may be as much about exploring what unfolds in a space as creating an envelope in which this space is packaged all the more powerful.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.

Snøhetta, SF MOMA, 2016, San Francisco. Photo: Henrik Kam.

THE TWIN IMPERATIVES steering the flurry of recent museum transformations resemble a yoga technique: expand and relax. It has been a boom time for some while now, but growth tells only part of the story and increasingly, a smaller one. In their drive for more space and higher attendance figures, large art museums in America are being refashioned to strike a casual demeanor and achieve an integrated relationship to their urban surroundings. These are renovations of institutional philosophies as much as buildings.

The Whitney, relieved of its weighty uptown building—which the Met is leasing while replacing its own late-1980s modern wing—is diverting pedestrians from the High Line into its new downtown home, offering them art and even more elevated views from outdoor terraces. And MoMA is busy scrubbing hauteur off its chilly Yoshio Taniguchi–designed expansion, hiring Diller Scofidio + Renfro to expand galleries, improve circulation, and, in an effort to make more of the ground floor publically accessible, add unticketed exhibition space to a ballooning lobby.

As museums loosen up, they’re becoming more flexible about designers’ credentials. I would wager that Diller Scofidio + Renfro earned the MoMA job less on the merits of their museum work than on their successful revamps of the High Line and Lincoln Center—two New York has-beens made over as interactive open-air attractions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened a $305-million expansion last month, commissioned architects Snøhetta in large part because of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Rising out of the Oslo harbor, the landform-like structure buries the performance functions under an inclined public plaza that, upon completion in 2008, burnished the firm’s reputation for making human-centric and photogenic places. Snøhetta did not have much experience designing spaces for art, but SF MoMA made other demands. “We really want the museum to be much more outward-looking, to open up the doors and bring the public in,” the museum’s director, Neal Benezra, told the New York Times in 2011, when plans were unveiled for a ten-story addition to its South of Market building, a sober brick-veneer edifice with a mouse-hole entrance designed by the Swiss postmodernist Mario Botta and completed in 1995. “We want it to be an embracing, luminous space where you can get good coffee, a place where people come and meet their friends.”

Snøhetta, SF MOMA, 2016, San Francisco. Photo: Jon McNeal.

The existing five-story stepped building posed space problems. In 2009, attendance and collection already swelling, the museum secured a century-long loan of postwar blue chips from Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher (the Fisher collection now constitutes the bulk of the work on view). Botta’s imperious tone, too, was at odds with the institution’s softer message. If barely a decade or two ago the astringent rationalism of Botta (and, in a different way, Taniguchi) was to modern art museums the keeper of a high-middlebrow flame, the white-hot contemporary art market and the hordes of tourists flooding gentrified cities have them going casual, an effect that is especially pronounced in San Francisco, where the tech industry is reshaping the city around a mixture of innovation and inequality, and drawing international attention.

Snøhetta fits in comfortably here. More than a traditional architecture practice, the Oslo- and New York–based multinational resembles IDEO, the stalwart design and innovation consultant. In addition to architecture, it creates landscapes, interiors, brand design, and, soon, new banknotes for Norway. Part of Snøhetta’s success as a company lies in how well it mines the Scandinavia-meets–Silicon Valley ethos that undergirds large swathes of our present culture (a mostly affluent, white, American and European culture, granted). In its most caricatured instances, this is a culture of city dwellers who yearn for the outdoors; “disruptors” who work from Eames chairs and communal desks; digital craftspeople who spin bespoke wares. This is a culture that aspires to a lifestyle of purity and simplicity in every consumer choice, yet whose material expressions can be quite baroque (urban farms, rough-hewn farm tables in minimalist apartments).

On its website, Snøhetta describes its working methodology as the “simultaneous exploration of traditional handicraft and cutting edge digital technology.” On the facade of the SF MoMA addition, there is a similar kind of statement. If the view from the front of Botta’s brick structure is simply a cream-colored slab shaved off at slight angles along the top and side, the volume’s obverse is a bulbous form clad in over seven hundred unique fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels inspired, we are told, by the fog and waters of the San Francisco Bay. The ripples may have been generated by algorithms and carved by robots, but Snøhetta embedded the panels with a natural touch: silicate crystals from nearby Monterey Bay. The panels were fabricated by Kreysler & Associates, a Bay Area firm that grew out of the boat industry and has made numerous large-scale public sculptures for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (Pop art confections such as twenty-foot ice-cream cones and banana peels). Here Snøhetta has selected a more serious subject, but earnestness can inspire a kind of kitsch. Whereas the Oslo opera conflates an architectural element (sloped roof) and natural formation (glacier) to produce a new relationship between the public and the landscape, the facade arrests the ephemeral coastal atmosphere in a frothy simulacra the pallor of steamed almond milk. As an image, however, it has currency—a cunning triangulation of the local terroir (coastal environment, technology, and capital) that is globally recognizable.

The Roberts Family Gallery at SF MOMA. Right: Richard Serra, Sequence, 2006. Photo: Henrik Kam.

If SF MoMA has a recent precedent it is less Guggenheim Bilbao than Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which did not inspire the growth of museum lobbies but dissolved them altogether: You step off the street and directly into a gallery. Snøhetta’s extension stretches a full city block from Minna Street to Howard Street, where there are two new entrances and a double-height street-level gallery with floor-to-ceiling glass—literally the clearest expression of the museum’s refashioned identity. Here, visitors are greeted by Richard Serra’s Sequence, 2006, a sculpture resting in an expanded field of pricey concessions and 45,000 square feet of unticketed gallery space. This space, which starts at Sequence, extends up amphitheater steps to a second-floor level containing a satellite museum store, education space, and a large Sol LeWitt wall drawing; then it turns ninety degrees (on axis with the original Third Street entrance) and continues, following a flight of stairs, into Botta’s atrium, a tall, oculus-topped square ringed by a museum store, restaurant, and auditorium (by 2017, two enormous paintings by Julie Mehretu will flank the atrium). What is most generous about this free gallery space, though, is the way in which it effectively creates a new route through the city block, enabling new connections with Yerba Buena Gardens, a public park sited between the museum and the convention center.

Yet despite the effectiveness of this continuous passage on an urban scale, an odd dynamic emerges between the two buildings themselves. The natural light, bright white walls, and openness to the street of the new building have sapped energy from the existing one—particularly the atrium, which is no longer the heart of the museum, as it was designed to be. The strong centrality and unadulterated symmetry of the Botta building make it intolerant of change. Remove one part—such as the black-granite staircase that originally soared up the atrium toward the oculus—and the whole space gets off kilter. In its stead are cheery new maple steps connecting the first and second floors. They leave the atrium feeling even more solemn, reacting to Botta’s formal bombast without reckoning with it. And this is the paradox: The binary mantras that informed the redesign—old SF MoMA is a bunker; new SF MoMA is light filled and open—have been crystallized rather than overcome.

While Snøhetta’s relationship to the Botta building wavers between begrudging deference and bald indifference on the exterior and ground floor, it transitions to neutralization on the gallery levels. The existing galleries—well-proportioned enfilades around the atrium—have been maintained, beginning on the second floor (accessible from the new ticketing area) and then on levels three, four, and five, where they merge with the addition (new galleries continue on floors six and seven of the extension). Here, seamlessness is the strategy: The floor levels are contiguous, and Botta’s material palette, white sheetrock and blond-maple flooring, lines a record-breaking expanse of exhibition space. With a combined 146,000 square feet of galleries, SF MoMA has—for the moment—the most display area of any museum in the US devoted to modern and contemporary art (MoMA is set to add 50,000 square feet to its existing 125,000 ). Functionally, Snøhetta has managed an efficient plan—not an insignificant feat considering the museum expects 1.4 million annual visitors following the reopening.

City Gallery stairs in SF MOMA. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Beyond a certain size, it seems that architects don’t design museums so much as manage symptoms. Snøhetta has threaded a stair route through all seven publicly accessible levels, along the length of the new, bulging north facade, and everywhere it attempts to stave off homogeneity. The straight flights of blond-maple steps vary in width and alternate directions on each level. (During a tour, Craig Dykers, the Snøhetta cofounder who led the SF MoMA project, told me that long stairs are “frightening.”) The stairs let out into what Snøhetta calls “city galleries,” loggia-like corridors between the new galleries and facade that are a prescription against “gallery fatigue.” (The bathrooms, keyed to a unique monochrome on each floor, provide another kind of relief). Although they are among the most novel of the new spaces, the city galleries can gnaw at someone who desires architecture that is capable of more complicated and profound pleasures, of less habituated types of experience. Snøhetta’s emphasis on atomized behavior not only draws from a well of bromides—“soft,” “inviting,” “friendly,” “unimposing”—but inches toward a kind of “retail science” of predictable consumer outcomes.

The bulk of the new exhibition space is composed of long, windowless, rectangular boxes interrupted only by one structural partition. They are chaste to the extreme and divided with a warren of temporary walls. Dykers wanted visitors to have “a moment of reality,” and walking me through the new galleries, he pointed out the lengths to which his firm has gone to “avoid distraction.” There are no visible electrical outlets on the walls (they’re in boxes in the floor); indirect lighting is drawn discreetly out of coved ceilings. But the space, devoid of supposed visual irritants, resembles something more virtual than material. Contributing to this is the decision by the museum to forgo cord barriers around paintings and sculptures and instead install low platforms that, painted the same color as the walls, dissolve the corner and disrupt the eye’s sense of ground. Instead of slowing us down, the galleries cultivate a frictionless experience. This isn’t contemplative space as much as hyperproductive space. Can one really afford to be distracted—by shadows or by art—in a museum this large? Indeed, an anomalous gallery on the third floor, separated from a narrow outdoor sculpture terrace by glass along the entire length of one wall, proves there are pleasures to be had in letting more reality in. Not only does this innovation allow art to be disposed continuously across a single interior and exterior space, as works by Alexander Calder are currently displayed, but the terrace, located in a slender gap between the new addition and an existing parking garage, achieves an effect both intensely urban and outdoors, without recourse to natural metaphors.

The Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace at SF MOMA. Alexander Calder, Maquette for Trois Disques (Three Disks), 1967. Photo: Henrik Kam.

In the 2011 Times article presenting the design, Dykers asked, “Is it a building filled with art with some people in it, or a building filled with people with some art in it? There needs to be enough social space to make people feel comfortable in what can be an austere environment, the white box.” The subtle oppositions—of comfort and austerity, social space and gallery space, people and art—reinforce the schisms presented to large contemporary art museums today. As ground floors of museums mutate into free entertainment, with galleries reserved as premium content—the former following the logic of hospitality management and the latter clinging to standardized models—it is more urgent than ever for architects to define the connections between these two realms. This interstitial zone might be the last place where architects can still gain a foothold, and where museums—operating within an ecology with art fairs and “museum-quality” gallery shows—can set themselves apart.