Beyond Buildings


Whitney and SFMOMA: More Dueling Reviews of the Unbuilt

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Renzo Piano's Whitney. Courtesy: Artnet


I usually feel a little reluctant to write about buildings that aren’t here yet, as I did in my last blog post, but apparently others have little such compunctions. Dueling West Coast critics Christopher Hawthorne and John King have each voiced their opinions about the proposed new SFMOMA building, writing with a sense of certainty I find a bit astonishing, while East Coast Justin Davidson has pronounced the new Whitney Museum of Art in New York DOA. At this point, do we even need to build the buildings? Is it more important what the images say about the institutions, their role in our society, and how we perceive cultural monuments? Or should we just wait and see what the buildings look like?


The logical answer is, of course, the latter. It is fun, however, to see how different people think art museums function in our society. Davidson, writing for New York Magazine, ends his pre-release review of the building that just broke ground by saying its “both hazy and too slick.” Nothing in his writings quite justifies this judgment. Instead, he criticizes the building for providing only marginally more gallery space, and space that is so open that “curators will no doubt chop it up with movable partitions, a solution that in a double-height space like this one often winds up resembling convention-center booths.” Moreover, the staircase that Piano calls “grand” he thinks is only “ample.” Given the visual evidence, I would have to concur. He points out that a large part of the building will be given over to the sort of ancillary activities that are these days as much part of what an art museum does as galleries: places for café, store, partying, and interaction with the street. I know that is supposed to be bad, but you can also say that art museums are contemplative community centers, and cannot pretend to be just about throwing some paintings on the wall. They have to develop an active, though one would hope critical, relationship with the society of which they are part. Finally, Davidson puts on his architectural historian hat to point out that he has seen many elements that Piano is incorporating in the building elsewhere. Thus his criticism is that the building is not so much slick and vague, but without focus or originality.


Hawthorne is equally critical of what he has seen of Snøhetta’s design for SFMOMA, though he admits that “so far we have seen few details” of how anything will work. From the renderings, he says, it appears as if “The new wing is a chiseled behemoth, and though it does its best to hide, trim, shade and disguise its bulk, the result is somehow disingenuous, impressive and amusing all at once, like an iceberg trying to convince everybody that it is in fact an ice cube.”


Beautiful words, and I can see his point. But how does he really know? I worked in the Botta building for six years and have no sense from what I have seen how the new addition will really appear or function. For Hawthorne, however, the observation is just a jumping-off point to criticize the new slate of museum buildings coming down the pike, without saying anything about their design. What he does not like is that museums are abandoning or adding onto recent masterpieces: “the cycle of obsolescence spins ever faster.” The Whitney’s Breuer building is less than 15 years old, SFMOMA was finished in 1995. Somehow, the move from the Barnes in Philadelphia, though that is an almost 100-year old building, falls in the same category. “This is the odd cultural moment we're living in,” Hawthorne concludes: “Never have museums been so eager to hire talented architects and give them large-scale commissions with generous budgets. And never have museums been so dismissive of architecture's civic or historic value.” The implication is that whatever current architects come up with cannot be better than what the previous generation designed.


John King implies that this is a good thing: “The conceptual design focuses on how the new wing would mesh with the skyline and neighboring streets, and it has little of the drama seen in the existing structure and other high-profile museums of the past generation. ... Rather than compete for attention, Snøhetta's design takes a deferential approach to its neighbors.”


We seem to be living in an anti-Bilbao moment, where architects are not making buildings that are iconic, and critics are both lamenting that fact and not wanting them to make such buildings—or don’t believe they can. What astonishes me most, however, is that both architects and critics seem to have a taste for the tried and the true, and are leery of asking the question in built form or even in drawing and model of what an art museum should and could be in our contemporary society. Those that do seem to want something new, like Davidson, have an outdated notion of what an art museum does. Perhaps it is time for a new slate of building designs: not for real structures, but theoretical models that will let us test out new models for such contemplative community centers. After all, as the renderings allow us to say all this about unfinished buildings, perhaps they can help us answer the question of what sort of cultural focal points would serve our society and blow our minds.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.