Raymund Ryan of Pittsburgh's Heinz Architectural Center says that a new museum-building trend is heading our way, only this one isn't shiny and big like the 1990s—it's environmentally friendly and focused on social interactions.
The new trend became apparent to the curator of architecture when he was giving a lecture at Lismore Castle in Waterford, Ireland, in 2008, for castle owners and contemporary-art-lovers Lord and Lady Burlington. The contrast of the castle greens, the building from the year 1185, and the contemporary art (the Burlingtons have installed neon signs that spell out slang words in the west wing) was exhilarating. And it brought to Ryan's mind other museum-like spots that exhibited the same merger of landscape, building, and installation or conceptual art: Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, Japan's Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Mexico's Jardín Botánico de Culiacán, Germany's Stiftung Insel Hombroich, Brazil's Instituto, and Italy's Grand Traiano Art Complex, among others.
Those six "sites" as Ryan calls them, make up the new exhibit White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, only they come with a twist that Lismore Castle didn't have: They're all built on former brownfield or industrial sites. ("I often say that the full title is 'White Cube, Brown Field, Green Maze,'" Ryan says.) Leave it to artists and architects, who often live in industrial settings themselves, to reenvision such brownfield sites as possibilities for future beauty.
Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, in particular, is a startling case of an ugly duckling that grew up into a swan. The site has been sculpted and changed since the birth of Seattle, but in the early 1900s, it became a fuel-storage area for Union Oil of California, resulting in tons of contaminated soil along the waterfront. Ryan says that today, through the efforts of the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land, the site is once again attractive to both humans and wildlife. (University of Washington scientists have recorded the first reappearance of crabs and fish to the Elliot Bay water in front of the park.) "I think there’s a far greater awareness of green issues, ecology, and the environment," Ryan says. "I think that’s partly generational, as young people are more conscious of these things."
These new museum sites also reflect a growing interest in landscape design as a discipline. "The High Line for example, allows people in [other] cities to say, 'Look, rusty old infrastructure can be something beautiful," Ryan says. Although he cautions that, as with the Guggenheim Bilbao, "it's a masterpiece, but boys and girls, please don’t try this at home." Cities shouldn't blindly copy one another, but instead be inspired to do what works for that city's conditions.
All these trends—brownfield remediation, sustainable issues, landscape design's rise—will come together in a kind of jambalaya to attract a younger generation who appreciates art outside of the white, "monolithic, precious, pretentious, bank vault" feel, Ryan hopes. It's fitting then, that Ryan chose architectural photographer Iwan Baan to photograph each museum that is mentioned in the exhibit: Baan's work is less focused on the traditional building shot, and more focused on the museum-goers and the building context.
Watch out: Art is breaking out of its box. Again.
Through Jan. 13. • web.cmoa.org