Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two is better than one

Building extensions are to art museums what bulking-up is to body builders. It's usually easier to get cash for bricks and mortar that donors can carve their names into than to entice them to pony up for collections or for exhibition programmes. So expansion is the name of the game.

The most common target is the public servicing areas, those functions that used to be housed in a cupboard or two in the foyer: coats, snacks, pamphlets, a map if you were lucky. They now get areas that need food drops to get from one side to the other and usually end up giving confusing signals about the core business of the institution.

But in Milwaukee, Wisconsin of all places they've devised a brilliant expansion strategy. Leaving the elegant 1957 Eero Saarinen-designed gallery spaces untouched they commissioned Santiago Calatrava to design a spectacular entry pavilion. This dramatic winged building on the waterfront is not to show art (although there is space for temporary exhibitions) but to take on all the new service essentials of an art museum. In Milwaukee the two buildings are connected by a couple of long graceful portals with the large temporary exhibition space between them.

When you’re in the Calatrava bit you’re in Experience Land with extraordinary height and spectacular lake views. The dominance of the architecture in all its whiteness is pure pleasure. You also have access to cafes, the shop and a place to hold a spectacular function. In Saarinen's Museum Land it’s a thoughtful showing of the collections in elegant galleries with lots of dedicated spaces for education. It’s such a perfect solution (and it’s been around since 2001) it's amazing that the idea hasn’t become a go-to formula for all new art museum buildings.

Images: Top and first row down the Calatrava pavilion, middle the portal to the original museum building and bottom a gallery in the Saarinen designed one.