in Features | 01 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 2

Off the Wall

From the Louvre to the Hermitage, historical collections are being liberated from their museum walls - with varying degrees of success 

in Features | 01 OCT 13

‘She has indulged herself in an aggressive orgy of ornamental excess, and nowhere is it possible to escape from intrusions on the eye.’ So bristled critic John Harris, writing in the Architect’s Journal, on the completion of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, designed by Italian architect Gae Aulenti in 1986. The conversion of the city’s grand Beaux-Arts train shed into a gallery of 19th-century French art sent ripples of rage through the architecture and art worlds alike.

Into the soaring, barrel-vaulted hall Aulenti had thrust modern industrial materials with liberal abandon: the original cast-iron beams and plaster rosettes of the rococo revival shed were invaded by a world of wire-mesh partitions and rough stone walls, on which the collection was brazenly hung. ‘It is a kind of Dantesque nightmare,’ declared a horrified Building Design magazine. ‘One feels crowded, oppressed and empty in turn.’ ‘She had too much money to spend,’ wailed one critic, while another described it as ‘neo-Nazi architecture’.

For Harris, it was personal: ‘With such deep anger in my heart I turned to look back along the train shed, and saw it as a stage set for the ritual slaying of Aulenti on some marble slab.’ Although it’s rare that the design of spaces for art prompts critics to want to sacrifice the architect in question, new buildings for historic collections are rarely built without controversy. While Aulenti’s eccentric Postmodern collage was attacked for its excessive wealth of materials, with heavy layers of rusticated stone and metalwork thought to suffocate the work on show, France’s most recent arrival to the ancient art scene shocked critics for the opposite reason.

A cluster of metallic sheds, hovering on the horizon above a sprawling suburban landscape of pitched-roof miners’ houses, the Louvre-Lens was a startling addition to this remote coal town in northern France when it opened in December last year. Raised on the plateau of a former slag-heap, standing over the city like an industrial Parthenon, the group of glass and aluminium buildings could be mistaken for another slab of big-box architecture — joining the out-of-town vernacular of leisure centres, business parks and cheap wine warehouses that line the way to Calais. That is, until you get a bit closer. For these are not any old sheds, but a €150 million complex of carefully calibrated containers, designed by Japanese architects sanaa.

Working with a unique brand of sub-zero minimalism, the Pritzker prize-winning practice has garnered acclaim for stripping down and paring back, until its projects are the lightest they can be, mere membrane enclosures separating outside from in.

The effect in Lens is exaggerated by the fact that, although they appear to be rectilinear boxes, the walls of the museum are all slightly curved, bowed inwards or out along their length, as though under suction from within, or like flimsy sheets buffeted by the wind. It is as close as you could get to a building made of cling film and tin foil, a shimmering apparition that is barely there at all.

Such fragility belies the fact that this glistening carapace houses some of the most precious works of art in existence, selected from the core collection of the 200-year-old Parisian institution. It is a strangely insubstantial architectural language — with walls of 3mm aluminium — for a repository that contains some of the country’s most valuable national treasures, from Georges de la Tour’s Mary Magdalene with a Night Light (1635) and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). While the Musée d’Orsay risked throttling its collection with heaving masses of stonework and stucco, might the Louvre-Lens risk it all floating away? Even the idea of such precious works leaving Paris was repugnant to some. ‘It looks like a clumsy idea to me,’ wrote Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. ‘A self-hating move by an institution that should be proud of its palatial magnificence.’ Another critic quipped that it would be like London’s National Gallery incarcerating Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1651) in a metal box in Barnsley.

While the Louvre-Lens might not scream weighty temple of high culture from the outside, the real shock is reserved for within. Here, in the Galerie du Temps, six millennia of art has been laid out in a single room, arranged on a gently sloping concrete floor which stretches the length of a football pitch. More than 200 objects from the museum’s collection are displayed on freestanding walls and plinths, gathered into clusters to form little islands, allowing visitors to walk freely in and around the work.

Liberated from the damask-lined stone walls of the gallery’s Parisian parent, the pieces take on a new life: raised to the level of bench or easel, visitors view in a similar way to how the artists might have seen them in their studios. It feels a little like being given a privileged view inside the museum’s out-of-town storage facility — with the concrete floors and exposed roof beams to match. ‘We wanted to make it so you never hang anything on the walls,’ says architect Kazuyo Sejima — and she has made it impossible for the museum to do so. The interior walls sport the same metallic clothing as the building’s envelope, providing a ghostly backdrop to the work on show with a forest of reflections. ‘The idea was to reflect the viewer and their relationship to the art work,’ says Sejima’s partner, Ryue Nishizawa, ‘to show this mingling of the old and new.’

Sanaa’s curatorial approach is radical, and the Louvre-Lens’ reception in the French press was mixed — a critic writing in Le Monde noted that putting everything in one room risked it looking ‘like a bookshop where all the books are muddled up’. But this is precisely the attraction. The work is arranged chronologically along the length of the hall, with different geographic areas across its width, allowing fascinating cross-cultural comparisons to be made as you drift between the islands. A primitive stone idol from the Cyclades can be seen next to much more elaborate figures produced in Egypt at around the same time. You notice depictions of the human body evolving across continents and centuries, and different regions talking to each other — with Roman mosaics, Islamic ceramics and Renaissance canvases coming together for the first time — in a way impossible in the museum’s siloed hq. ‘In the Louvre in Paris, everything is exhibited in rigid departments, like an encyclopaedia of art,’ says Adrien Gardère, responsible for the exhibition design of the Lens outpost. ‘Here we are bringing sculpture and painting together, from different periods and geographical areas, to create fruitful confrontations.’

This desire to create ‘confrontations’ by liberating historic collections from their conventional placement on the wall is a strategy shared by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in his work on a curatorial masterplan for the modernizing of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg — due to be unveiled next year, to mark the institution’s 250th anniversary. Tackling the collection of 3.5 million artefacts, spread across 2,000 rooms in a sprawling urban complex, was always going to be a mind-boggling task — one which, unsurprisingly, has not resulted in much alteration to the museum so far. ‘Can the architect, a person usually hired to change the conditions he finds, perform more like an archaeologist’ asked Koolhaas, when his practice oma (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) was appointed in 2008, ‘scrupulously examining the current conditions, and proposing new forms of organisation that allow each element to enjoy renewed value?’

Part of his solution — first proposed to for the rambling 800-room General Staff Building (gsb) — was to move all of the exhibits into the centre of the rooms, and treat the neglected palace interiors as living artefacts of Russian history. Images of the proposals show dense clusters of objects, arranged on tables as you might find in an antique shop, in grand, mouldering ballrooms. Elsewhere, paintings are huddled together, frame to frame, on a single wall, to give the rest of the space room to breathe. By celebrating the context and making the existing architecture the star of the show, the intention was to ‘create a unique condition: enabling a confrontation with art more direct and more authentic than in more “modern” museums’.

Somewhat predictably, the Hermitage went for a safer option and appointed a local Russian practice, Studio44, to oversee a more conventional refurbishment of the gsb — although oma says it has continued a ‘fruitful collaboration’ with the museum, and will soon unveil plans for a new library building and ‘kunsthalle’ space in the Small Hermitage. But for all architects’ attempts to liberate historic art works from the shackles of curatorial tradition, some collections, it seems, are destined to remain firmly on the wall.