Today, any attempt to single out ideal museums and exhibition spaces firstly requires that we shake off our fixations with new builds, architecture at any cost and construction anxiety. Some of the world's finest museums are spaces that were not originally intended to house art and
have been reutilised after restoration and conversion.
Many other museums have developed through a long process of stratification, in which architecture and contents have gelled through years of cohabitation. Other exhibition spaces—such as those filled with memories and historical remains often used to house biennials and temporary exhibitions—
are literally objets trouvés, places with mixed architecture and functions. However, for this same reason, these are also places of great evocative impact.
It is the software as well as the hardware that makes a great museum: the works of art, the exhibitions and the public, and not necessarily the appearance of the buildings. Or rather, what makes a museum unique is the dialogue between its software and its hardware, a dialogue that may flare up in a clash or friction, or settle into perfect harmony. The DNA of museums must be sought in the narrow space that separates the architecture from the artwork—the interval between the architecture and the art is a museum's true locus.
The spectre of history
The eruption of museums that marked the late 1990s and the boom years at the start of this century—i.e. the Guggenheim effect—seems to have been replaced, in recent years, by an ecological approach and environmental awareness that favours conversion, restoration and conservation over construction. It is no coincidence that the most famous museum of this century is London's Tate Modern, a former power station converted by Herzog & de Meuron in 2000.
Of all the contemporary museums housed in the skeletons of old buildings, however, the Haus Der Kunst in Munich is one of the most complex examples. Built between 1932 and 1937 to a design by the "Fuhrer's master architect" Paul Ludwig Troost, the building was originally conceived as the German regime's first huge propaganda building, and its history includes some of the most traumatic moments of Germany's past. With its gigantic proportions, Swastikas decorating the porch and marble and Bakelite surfaces, it is an awkward and terrifying symbol of Nazi arrogance. Yet, in recent years—especially since the outgoing director Chris Dercon retrieved the architecture and original details without shame or embarrassment—the Haus Der Kunst has emerged as one of the most fascinating buildings for the presentation of contemporary art. It has become a place where artworks seem imbued with fresh substance, as if the long shadow of history were inevitably colouring their contours. In other words, it is the history of the building that makes the architecture and lends new context to contemporary works. Rem Koolhaas described it as an "aura machine", declaring in a number of writings and talks that the real attraction of the Haus Der Kunst lies in the way it brings with it the frisson of the Nazi memory and the events of those years. The spectre of history invests the works on show with a host of potential interpretations, indirectly unveiling complicity between the aesthetic of contemporary art and that of 1930s' Germany. This complicity may perhaps be uncomfortable and difficult to admit, begging further enquiry, but it nonetheless instils unique energy in the works of art.
Until the end of the world
The recycling strategy—often hovering between philology and a kind of historic novel—has been adopted in many other museum and exhibition experiments in recent years. In Japan, since the early 1990s, the Benesse Art Site has been turning old houses and whole portions of abandoned villages on the island of Naoshima into stunning places in which to stage immersive installations and site-specific artworks. Despite the odd excess of 1980s' grandeur that has dented the project, Naoshima is a model of the scattered museum, or a museum-archipelago as it has been called by the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. It represents a wholly original approach that in the last few years has found many fans in distant places. In Brazil, for example, lying an hour's drive from Belo Horizonte and nestled in the hills of the State of Minas, is what might be the most extraordinary and surreal museum experience of the last 20 years. Inhotim is a botanical park that conserves the world's largest collection of palm trees. Immersed in the lush vegetation—a cross between tropical forest and Jurassic Park—are a number of pavilions, some making bold architectural statements and others more anonymous ones, containing works by Matthew Barney, Doug Aitken, Hélio Oiticica, Rirkrit Tiravanija and many more contemporary artists.
The Naoshima and Inhotim museum experiences are founded on the archetype of the pilgrimage, a journey of learning and discovery. They are extreme places, destinations that are only reached after considerable effort, and as such they have also emerged as compulsory stops for a new type of intellectual and global-chic tourist. Both Inhotim and the Benesse Art Site share an end-of-the-world or Garden of Eden feel. More than looking to radical architects or visionary town planners, these mirage museums seem to take their cue, respectively, from the heroic and crazy actions of Fitzcarraldo (the adventurer of the Amazon Forest immortalised in the memorable Werner Herzog film) and the aesthetic of the eternal bachelor à la James Bond. Or perhaps the forefather of this museum type is to be sought in the architecture of the universal expos, with the standard pavilions and gardens acting as the setting. After all, the temporary Venice Biennale museum also constitutes scattered architecture, and is hence all the more relevant today. Both Benesse and Inhotim can also be linked to the model of museum (or mausoleum, one is tempted to say) that Donald Judd constructed in the remote town of Marfa, New Mexico. The old huts of the Marfa military base—the sheds and hangars renovated and redesigned by Donald Judd—form a sort of imaginary city, a mental geography that seems to have become reality almost by sheer projection. With the stunning precision of a Paolo Uccello painting, the rigorous and manic installations in Marfa are made up of works by Judd and others by the few colleagues whom the minimalist artist invited to exhibit in his retreat. But Judd was not only a poetic surveyor of the world; he was also a sophisticated colourist, and in Marfa he played with natural light, immersing his sculptures and his spaces in a luminous substance that seems to mix the blue of the sky with the red of the desert.
Light and shadow
Light is an essential construction material in the architecture of galleries and museums. Renzo Piano is a master of natural lighting. Indeed, the spaces and works of the Menil Collection in Houston and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel seem to float in soft light while the architecture retreats into the background. Perhaps slightly too pedantic and constrained in its blasé elegance, Piano's architecture of light becomes a metaphor for the concept of the museum. Light and the museum identify with one another to define a space that is both tenuous and omnipresent, enveloping but elusive.
Piano has often spoken of the museum at the Ein Harod kibbutz in Israel as a major precedent in his search for perfect natural lighting. It was Pontus Hulten, director of the Centre Pompidou at the time, who encouraged Piano and Dominique de Menil to travel to Israel together and visit Ein Harod.
Its museum, designed by Samuel Bickels and inaugurated at the height of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was the first brick museum to be built in Israel. But it was a unique experiment even when it was only a shaky wooden construction back in the 1930s: a kibbutz where just a few hundred people lived and that lacked nearly all services had placed a museum at the centre of village life. Constructed before it even had a collection, it is the epitome of a museum concept that perhaps no longer exists but that should be rediscovered and preserved. The hub of a community, a place of aggregation and encounter, the backbone of society but also an escape, a place in which to hide from the pressure of real life. In 1937, the same year in which a degenerate art exhibition opened just a stone's throw from the Haus Der Kunst, an artist called Haim Atar wrote in the village newspaper of a remote desert kibbutz, "There has never been a generation as much in need of a museum as ours, because for us art is the spiritual possibility of living."
Art critic and curator