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A Natural Place for Art – The Relationship
of Art and Museum Architecture
Preliminary review of contemplating the possibilities and the necessities of museum architecture in anticipation of Kolumba, the envisioned new building of the Diözesanmuseum in Cologne (December 1994)
»One lives somewhere,
one does some kind of work,
one babbles about something,
one feeds oneself somehow
one puts on something to wear,
one randomly sees some pictures,
ONE LOVES SOMEHOW
ONE IS SOMEBODY...«
It is in these Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten (Notations about Clothes and Cities) of 1989 which he made in reference to the fashion of Yohji Yamamoto that filmmaker Wim Wenders describes just how much the identity of humans is dependent on being conscious of the things which surround them and to what extent they are at stake if places, work, conversations, food, clothing, and pictures become interchangeable (published in The Act of Seeing, Frankfurt, 1992, p. 103ff). The building site of Kolumba for the new building of the Diözesanmuseum which is being planned is not a random place, just as a museum is not a place that shows interchangeable pictures or random works of art. Rather, the decision for this possible building site was preceded by the thought that indeed the uniqueness of the terrain and its history, which may be gleaned from architectural fragments, would through an interchange of fluctuating effectiveness of its deliberately placed artistic areas of concentration, lead the spectator to a state of »aware-being«. In light of the fact that there is the chance of realizing this project at the end of an era of new museum buildings which dominated the international architectural discussions of the previous fifteen years, it is the intention to ask for the conditions which might help establish a constructive relationship between art and architecture before the execution of tangible architectural plans. This is what might enhance the desired discourse between the place and the work.
The Museum as a Department Store
»Art does not remember its origins in climate controlled museums«, this is the reflection made by the »Flounder of History« in Günther Grass' 1977 novel – i.e. before the recent boom of new museum buildings. In the same year, with the completion of the Centre Pompidou, the idea of culture as the multimedial factory had been prototypically realized. In it, the claims in reference to the duties of a museum were broadened to a heretofore unknown extent. Museums evolved into culturally broad forums and places of societal happening, which have to satisfy the most diverse expectations and which reach their identity primarily as places of exhibitions. The attractiveness of museums has since then been measured more by the multitude of their changing exhibitions than in reference to the character of their collections. The inherent dynamics of this development have in many places led to a compulsive exhibition-activism which has been bemoaned by many of those involved. Simultaneously, it has led to the necessary cooperation with sponsors who combine their own interests of representation with the projects they support. As a result of this development the museum visit is geared towards the spectacular and not so much to the continued confrontation with the facets of a collection which is only in a superficial sense one that is already known. »Indeed, the museum wants its visitors to enjoy viewing works of art and it takes care of the visitors' comfort, their recreation by means of refreshment amenities, tearooms, winter gardens, reading- and writing lounges, and special exhibitions, all of which are facilities which exist for the sole purpose of luring the public.« This slightly altered quote from the beginning of Modernism makes it quite clear, just how far – for the most part – the commercialization of art exhibitions has advanced. This is particularly true if one substitutes terms like »museum« with »department store«, »visitor« with »customer« and »viewing« with »buying« (Alfred Wiener, Das Warenhaus (The Department Store) in: Die Kunst in Industrie und Handel (Art in Industry and Commerce), Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes (Yearbook of the German Werkbund) 1913, p. 43 ff). Like the merchandise in a department store, most museum concepts of collecting is traditionally geared towards completeness – of an era, a region, a group of artists, etc. – to be documented not only in the storage areas but also in the galleries themselves. Regardless of how problematic such a museum type – as a public storage area – is, and notwithstanding the related tendency to ever larger museum buildings, some of the repeatedly recurring structural peculiarities in recent museum architecture can be traced back to exactly this intention. Consequently, and indeed comparable to department store architecture, in many of the new buildings »public thoroughfares« underwent significant upgradings. Entrance lobbies were created which remind us of amusement parks, community colleges, hospitals, and administrative offices; over-sized stairwells, broad museum highways and elaborately dimensioned suites of galleries were erected, which may claim to be references to the respective prototypes in architectural history – such as the Grand Gallery in any princely collection. In their claims, however, there is a disregard for the fact that an individual appreciation of a work of art demands different architectural givens. Therefore, the contemplation of the relationship between art and architecture requires, before anything else, a look at the relationship between art and the public.
The Living Museum
»Once the work of art has been created, then all it needs is to be received by the spectator in order to fulfill its intention. Contemporary art requires an absorption which must be understanding, thoughtful, and responsible, and a public forum where the order is to observe, to know, to judge, to choose; the selected material must be held to for the museum, must be appropriately installed and if possible should become the spiritual property of the visitor.« These seemingly contemporary sentences are the introductory sequence Ludwig Justi, Director of the National Gallery in Berlin, wrote in 1930, on the occasion of the inaugural volume of the periodical Museum der Gegenwart (Museum of the Present Day). It was in this journal that the renowned museum curator discussed – for a total of only three years, namely until its untimely demise which was precipitated by the beginning of the »Third Reich« – contemporary art and the problems of bringing it into the museum. The present day perspective still deems necessary this discourse. It was the intention to take this discussion as the point of introduction for the reform towards a »living museum«, in which it would be possible to experience art as contemporary – regardless of its period. Writing in the same periodical as Justi, Max Sauerlandt described it as follows: »I am unable to acknowledge a principal difference between old and new art; just like the present may only be wholly explained through the past as its point of reference, the art of the past as well can only be explained with today's art. What good are all the accumulated treasures of bygone times being hoarded in the museums if they do not help make productive the sense for the character and the specific value of the artistic creations of our time?« A museum which keeps alive the works of art in this manner – by virtue of regarding them not exclusively as historic documents and thus as vessels of information but rather as contemporary possibilities of experience which have the function of keys that open doors to historic information – presupposes an open-minded visitor who is ready for confrontation in the same way that an author may presuppose the openness of the reader. Measured in relationship to the claim of »transmitting« art, the popular art museum is a contradiction in itself, because in order to gain popularity it must take into account the museum visitors' expectations. The museum cannot take as its point of departure the fact that the visitors might gain unexpected perspectives or see new possibilities or horizons. It is the museum's responsibility to encourage the readiness for productive behavior. The didactic contents of a collection – which does not strive to obstruct the openness for confrontation by virtue of a one-sided iconographic or stylistic accumulation and which furthermore does not wish to limit itself through simplistic literary attempts of explaining – is made up on the one hand of the quantitative reduction of the works exhibited and on the other hand will practice a conscientious juxtaposition of related artistic questions. Concerning the architecture a number of conditions emerge, circumscribing the task of building a museum; by comparison with the diversified usage of other buildings it will appear simple.
A Propos Simplicity
Motivated by his unease about existing museum spaces, the Swiss artist Remy Zaugg (born in 1943) in his lecture Das Kunstmuseum, das ich mir erträume oder Der Ort des Werkes und des Menschen (The art museum of which I dream or The place of art and the human being), delivered in 1986, has in an exemplary fashion anatomized the artistic consciousness for the necessary foundations of architecture for art. (Published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne 1987.) He has described extensively the nature of imaginary architecture, taking into consideration its location within the cityscape as well as essential details concerning the floor, wall, and ceiling and their relationship to one another. His introductory sentences may also be read as a summary: »The thing about which I dream is simple, I would even say that it is trivial.« It is even more astonishing that in most of the invitations for architectural competitions and in architectural criticism the term »simplicity« as one of the significant criteria is rarely missing. Even in buildings which offer eclectic materials, the simplicity of the architecture was stressed. One example is the addition built to the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt; another one may be seen in the galleries of the Diözesanmuseum in Eichstätt in which elaborate solutions to details dominate the broad picture. Apparently, the understanding of what a simple solution is varies greatly. This is particularly noteworthy since – starting from the task of exhibiting works of art – it would certainly be possible to give a precise definition of the »simple solution«. The museum is a place of perception. It is a space, a shell for the presentation of non-functional yet meaningful objects. Central to the discourse with the objects is to look around, to become aware, to observe, to see, and also »seeing-by-feeling«, letting the eyes touch the surfaces. This does not at all exclude hearing, smelling, and tasting. As part of a remembered act of seeing, perception also entails the pondering of sensuous impressions. It is the architecture's task, then, to nurture the necessary intensity in this process of fluctuation between concentration and relaxation. Therefore, it is one of the imperative prerogatives – in order to achieve a sense of community and in order not to diminish the works' multiple layers of interpretation – to reduce the design-related selfreferentiality of all details and of the necessary accessories – such as vitrines, pedestals, and glass embellishments. In this context architectural „gestalt« becomes visible through reduction to the essential, by virtue of the difference to the work of art – based on the difference in function – which is indeed designed but yet non-functional. Functionality of design and of the materials used will initially require that all conservation- and security- related issues are taken into consideration. In addition functionality of architecture implies that under no circumstance there may be any competition provoked with the material presence of the work of art, because in the »Material Art« aesthetic appearance and meaning are inseparably connected. In order to achieve this goal, a submissive attitude and an architectural understatement are called for which will not ask for eccentricities and effects but rather for inconspicuous precision and quiet self-sufficiency. What is required is an architecture which is well aware of its necessity, because it knows about its dependencies, of its sensuous qualities from the fundamental factors of the builders' craft, it knows of measure and proportion, light and materiality.
Intensity Instead of Neutrality
Therefore museum architecture may not take a »neutral« standpoint in relationship to the works of art exhibited therein. Even the imagined »white wall« is – in the moment it is built – a real entity, offering an interpretation of the art it bears. There is no possibility of installing and exhibiting works of art which does not establish a relationship and thus always suggests a certain viewpoint, while other perspectives are neglected or almost excluded. Particularly the striving for neutrality of the spaces and their permanent conditions has lead to the often-felt artificiality of many museum buildings which are perceived as a contradiction to life. Stable conditions – achieved with highest technical sophistication – are not only put in place where they are crucial for conservation (e.g. the relative humidity) but also in details which then virtually preclude any enjoyment of the artwork. In light of this it is barely understandable why an art museum – regardless of the season or the weather – should have totally constant light levels. This is particularly true when one realizes that the changing light situation is a fundamental prerequisite for the appreciation of painting and sculpture. The complicated transformation of this insight – as may be observed in the Von-der-Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal – by means of a turning ceiling segment inserted into which are spotlights, clarifies in detail how far the museum as a building task has removed itself from natural architecture. »All things considered it appears that in recent times we have obviously become numbed by electrical light and we seem to have lost to a surprising degree our sensibility towards the disadvantages brought about by an exaggerated illumination.« This is what Tanizaki Jun'chiro knew to decry as early as 1933 in his Lob des Schattens (Praise to the Shadow). In it he was referring to the »bright-and-dark nuances which approximately correspond to the slight emotional fluctuations in the spectator.« The »living museum« – the new building of the Diözesanmuseum is conceived as such – may therefore claim for itself to offer a different mood on darker November days, which will be comparable to the light in private rooms, than on cloudless days of sun in June. The lifeless light of so-called daylight units does thus prohibit itself on the basis of experience inasmuch as the exaggerated usage of spotlight installations only makes sense in such situations where merchandise is being offered for sale and where it needs to be highlighted in its environment. However, in the reflection of a spotlight a painting appears like a mere reproduction of itself, and sculpture is flattened to a woodcut-like interchange of lit and unlit parts. In order to experience a work, its relationship to space is crucial, and for the viewer the mood of the space fulfills a mediating function towards the work. A spatial effect presupposes spatial illumination which is subject to time related fluctuations. These cannot be neutralized, for example, on lightly cloudy days, by virtue of a permanent up-and-down of automated blinds. Perception is impeded by a background of technical activities, independently functioning optical details, and peculiar noises whose interwoven function is invisibly steered. In »climatized museums« this makes impossible an engagement with the substance art which by contrast seems lifeless and isolated. Therefore a fundamental re-thinking of the use of technical equipment in museums should be undertaken, and it should be reduced to an absolutely necessary minimum. The advantages of a more traditional building technique and the taking into consideration also of ecologically conducive materials cannot be outweighed even by the most advanced air conditioning system. Precisely because the highly technical spaces – due to their constant and therefore characterless nature – are devoid of any relationship to real life, in them »art does not« remember »its genesis«. The getting to know and the experience of a work pre-supposes change, it pre-supposes the modulation of a situation. For this the differing acoustics of the rooms are also essential. This is true for instance for the different extent to which the inside is divided from the outside, the presence of the surrounding everyday activities, of which the confrontation with art is indeed supposed to be a part, or even the distinctness of the noises caused by the spectators, their steps, their voices in conversation. Changes of materials are not to be determined by decorative considerations but with greatest precision for the creation of a spatial context in which walls, floors, and ceilings are the determinants. Walls in exhibitions are walls in use. The material of the walls has to take into account the intended changing presentation without seeming to be like a stopgap measure. In order to counteract the impression of it being preliminary and coincidental, paintings in museums must be nailed to the wall, they are certainly not to be suspended by ropes from a painting rail. The walls must be a reliable carrier of the objects and give the impression of a solid arrangement. In structure and fabrication the material of the walls should be level, even, and it should have a high degree of depth perception. It should also be considered that walls serve as a background for objects standing in front of them. For freestanding sculpture the floor is to be regarded as the continuation of the wall as far as its material specifications are concerned. Also an even structure is essential for the floors. Their properties should be tactile and devoid of a distinct innate color. Walls, floors, and – especially in low headroom galleries – ceilings should determine the optical field. All of these call for a structure that in its subjugation allows the work of art to dominate. In reference to the anticipated new building of the Diözesanmuseum the opportunity arises, through the desired non-chronological positioning of the works which moreover follows content-related considerations and corresponding situations, to choose specifically – in an edifice of many moods – the most suitable position. Only after the architecture is finished will the art finds its locations, except in cases of site-specific works. It is not the intention that everything can happen or be exhibited in every gallery space. Rather, the intensity of experiencing the different rooms and their varying moods is to lead to a constructive union of architecture and art and to the preparedness for understanding. The layout of the exhibition spaces should not follow a rigid formula, rather it should present itself as sequence of smaller and larger rooms. Moreover, the realization of the »Living Museum« concept requires a multitude of uniting vistas, spatial axes, and open suites of rooms which enable a dialogue without giving the rooms in themselves the effect of restlessness. The visitor is not only taken on one possible tour. There are main and subsidiary paths which through diverse use make it possible to experience the manifold connections between the exhibits. The entire concept, resting as it does on the changing daylight, could be applied partially even in places where small objects are shown in glass cases. In some rooms it might also be conceivable to recess window-like glass cases of varying sizes into the wall so that the daylight falls in from above. In most museums visitors complain of a lack of suitable seating arrangements. One is forced to keep moving instead of resting in the presence of the artworks and contemplating them. A »Museum of Reflection« requires hardly noticeable seats sometimes even as integral parts of the architecture. Or is it too idealistic to think that the visitor in such rooms might desire to remain longer – maybe even to read there?
The Danger of Aestheticizing
As a way out of the lifelessness of the museum and in an attempt to a renewed approximation between art and life, since the early 1970s artists and museum people have been using old buildings such as factories, railway stations, office buildings, and private homes for exhibitions and installations. They are edifices in the architecture of which remaining traces of a definite everyday life may be noticed. The visible usage of these spaces establishes a relationship to the exhibited works, given that a connection to life or a production-related connection may be observed which will emphasize the notion of the process-like qualities indicative of the creation of art. In such worn out buildings, the aesthetic of the »used-up« and the necessity to turn to the peripheral, the seemingly meaningless as art object, does not need to be interpreted. It appears that Heinrich Böll in his Frankfurt Lectures (1963/64) which were entitled Erscheinungen des Humanen (Appearances of the Humane) was thinking of such contexts – for instance living, friendship, religion, food, clothes. He pointed out the possibility of a known place in literary works. His point of departure was that language could »establish a relationship of humans to themselves, between themselves and others, and to God.« This is doubtlessly also true for the language of the fine arts. In most of the instances where the old buildings had been transformed into exhibitions spaces – frequently with the intention of a permanent change – and where they had undergone extensive restoration and thus had been aesthetically modified, these relationships were for the most part lost. Suffice it to remind us of the massive protest voiced by artists who were trying to prevent the restoration and the alterations of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (i.e. one of Berlin's oldest railway stations in the center of the city, near where the wall divided the city; this space was turned into an exhibition center in the 1980s): »This over-restoration, this perfection was highly irritating during the installation of the exhibition Einleuchten. An ugly and highly glossy floor which is too weak to bear anything heavy; a 'lamp shop' installed right under the ceiling; the wonderful cast-iron construction completely overpainted [...]. We don't want something similar to happen with the Hamburger Bahnhof. We urge that this place remain a place and a space for art; and that it not be ruined with post-modern kitsch. [...] We are asking that the Hamburger Bahnhof remain not exclusively but at least partly an alternative to museum buildings most of which are in themselves rather complicated pieces of sculpture, leaving the art to decorate a selection of empty walls. Simple and clear walls, a nice floor, nice light ... this is what we want and need.« (Thirty five artists of the opening exhibition of the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg signed this petition; undated type-script.)
It is quite interesting to see how in recent times fashion has been trying to deliver to the buyer the patina of objects right from the beginning. There are for instance brand new pieces of clothing which pretend to be worn already. Or shops and bars as naturalistic stage sets, creating an ambiance which tries to convey character and historicity. The quest for lost identity (one is tempted to write »for the lost time«) becomes a commercially viable factor and is reacted to with false authenticity. A contemporary building of a new museum – even if reacting to its time – is not capable of delivering any traces of history because if it could it would become a historicizing back drop. Such a building can, however, due to its design and thanks to the choice of materials – the choice of which is determined by virtue of its anticipated process of aging – make clear to what degree the future traces of its usage will be permitted to be seen.; i. e. a timeless beauty may also be deduced from the effects of time. Only an architecture which may be used and which does not perceive humans as a factor of intrusion who are to be kept out will be able to integrate itself into the life context which is pivotal for the understanding of the work of art.
The Natural Place
The danger of aestheticizing is particularly acute for Kolumba because in this case the task is not only to preserve historic fragments but also their inclusion into the context of perception and the erection of a new building which is supposed to combine the complexity of that which already exists. The site of Kolumba is the only one remaining in the inner city of Cologne which to this day bears visible signs of almost complete war-induced destruction. The Kolumba Chapel (completed in 1950) which would be surrounded by the future architecture marks the hopeful beginning of the re-creation of the city. To Cologne's landmark preservation department Kolumba represents one of the most compelling archaeological sites because some of the excavated architectural fragments are dating back as far as Roman antiquity. Some foundations of medieval structures related to the Late Gothic church can be noticed in unusual clarity: For instance a number of basement spaces with barrel-vaulted ceilings remain, and it might be possible to at least partly put them to use for art. The endeavor of a new definition of this place, which is supposed to perpetuate its history, is done with the understanding that any interference within the areas of excavation and the church ruin itself would inevitably mean an intrusion and a loss of authenticity. Respect for the historic traces must be extended to the excavated outer walls of the first consecrated space of the post-Roman era, as well as to the defaced iron reinforcements which have been dangling down from the walls since the church collapsed, and the concrete stones which were presumably used in the 1970s in order to provisionally close a door in the northern sacristy wall. The basis of a sensible integration of this substance – which due to various interferences even in the post-war era underwent further changes – is to show consideration for all details. This rules out the restoration and the reconstruction of individual parts. The fragments retain their meaning not only as worthy exhibits but much more their meaning stems from the entirety of fragments as crucial elements for the perception of history as a continuum in this particular place. As part of the future use artifacts which are reacting to the existing situation and which in their very own way collect and preserve the evidence of traces will help to clarify this continuum as well. This, for example, happens in the projected works of Dorothee von Windheim and Bill Fontana who in the present situation find their materials in situ. The present situation – though transposed by an artistic process – is supposed to be kept present in the future. Through the creation and inclusion of works of art the destroyed place undergoes a re-creation reaching beyond its re-construction. Richard Serra's steel sculpture The Drowned and the Saved, to be erected in the former sacristy, will contribute significantly to the identification of the new structure. It may be described as representative of this program: This two-part room exists in the brick walls of the ground floor area which – above head height – is interrupted by a Late Gothic double lancet window with pendent boss tracery. The upward view is not obstructed because the quadrupartite vault has been destroyed all the way to the moldings below. Hence the visitors are in an open-air space which is at the same time an indoor space: It is carefully screened-off from the city hubbub, though the immediacy of the noises indicate the inter-relatedness. Below this room there exists a barrel-vaulted sepulcher. This is where all the remains of human bodies formerly buried within the church and subsequently excavated during recent campaigns have been moved. The sculpture by Richard Serra is envisioned to be installed below the former transept in the center of the room. Above the sepulcher, placed on the remaining tiled floor of the sacristy, two steel angles will be wedged together, supporting each other's fronts and thereby merging together space and time. The naturalness of this place would be achieved if the simultaneity of its historic traces with an architecture adequate to our time and to the corresponding works of art would need no explanation, if the visit »on« Kolumba would become a holistic experience, if the perception of the place and the works would lead to reflections concerning history, the site, and the possibilities of people to create their future in a responsible way. If all of the above goals could be achieved, then the future museum would be the art of building in the truest sense of the word.
© Diözesanmuseum Köln/ Kolumba/ Stefan Kraus 1995
Any quotation, even as excerpt, only with acknowledgement of the source
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