Culture Building Boom RIP
The Guggenheim Bibao. Image: guggenheim-bilbao.es
It’s been a bad stretch for culture buildings. Big project after big project is getting
delayed or canceled. In the last few
weeks, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) announced that the Academy of Motion Arts’ film museum is moving into the old May Company
building LACMA owns next to their campus, meaning that glorious building will
not become the capstone in their often reconceived and always shrinking
planning efforts. The Tate Modern
announced that they will not open a giant new Herzog & de Meuron addition
in time for the Olympics, but will rather occupy basement spaces with art. In Abu Dhabi, construction officially halted
on the new Guggenheim there (though a friend who visited months ago said the
cranes have been motionless since spring), while the adjacent branch of the Louvre
will now not open for another few years. I won’t even mention the continual delays in the renovation of the
Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; both are running between
five and ten years behind schedule.
To cap it all off, the opening of the renovated Museum d’Orsay in Paris was
marred by strikes and protests.
Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Image: pandaholidaytours.com
So I guess we can now officially say that the so-called big
museum building boom is over. It was
never as big a deal as some thought, as there were a lot more buildings
announced than were ever completed. In
the Middle East, we got a new museum in Qatar, period. In Asia, they renovated a massive existing
museum on Tiananmen Square. In this country,
mediocre new wings grace the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston, and LACMA. None of them is a signature building.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Dubai. Image: guggenheim.org
The Bilbao Effect, in other words, didn’t really exist. What was built were not iconic structures
(other than the Libeskind bombs he likes to detonate around the world,
regardless of program or site), but interior renovations or polite boxes. The place where quality truly shone was at a
much smaller scale. Partially because of
EU policies and partially because many European countries actually care about
the culture that brings communities together, the whole continent is now dotted
with little jewels of regional museums and cultural centers, though even there
the financial crisis has curtailed operations and construction.
San Francisco's de Young Museum. Image: Wikicommons
The few bigger museums that do not pretend to be neutral
containers, such as the De Young Museum in San Francisco, have been successful,
both as forms and as attractors for visitors. The Bilbao Effect could work or not; we will never know.
It turns out that the Bilbao Effect was actually a name for
a different phenomenon: cultural attractors. In an era of instantly consumable images, etherizing communities, and
lack of either social or societal identity, we actually want places to gather,
to contemplate, to be immersed, and to be part of a history of making, seeing,
and thinking. Sometimes that act needs
architecture of a recognizable sort as a catalyst, other times it needs a great
performer or artist, an event (the proliferation of biennales and art fairs
comes to mind), or just a good place to reoccupy, such as the sprawling
precincts in and around the 789 Factory arts district in Beijing.
Just putting up a big building and importing some art alone
will not do it. In fact, it is often
difficult to predict what will work, though good spaces seem to be key, even
when, like the High Line in New York, they have no ostensible function. So let’s hear it for the real Bilbao Effect:
great architecture, great culture, great place, all coming together at the
right time. RIP imitators, haters, and
the many boxes the Bilbao Guggenheim came in.