Deconstructing Constructions

When you think of great works of modern architecture, the first things that likely come to mind are the towering skyscrapers of New York or Chicago, or the great variety of eclectic homes built for special clients, like Frank Lloyd Wright's monumental Fallingwater, commissioned by a Pittsburgh department-store magnate and set deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania.

But another building type has given rise to some of the most significant architectural projects of the 20th century, and that's the museum. You can come up with any number of examples, no matter which architect you settle upon — Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind (all of whom just happen to be Jewish).

But what does the new millennium hold for the multivaried museum form? That's the question at the heart of a new coffee-table-size book called Museums in the 21st Century: Concepts Projects Buildings, published by Prestel, the venerable art publishers who've added any number of exquisitely made books to the world. For those with a love of architecture, this is yet another of them. Its assorted contributors add some intellectual punch through their essays to the sheer beauty of the images — photos of completed projects and lots of fascinating architectural drawings are assembled here.

As towns grew to be cities throughout the 19th century and became filled with those institutions that spoke of their importance as centers of art and commerce, public buildings were, in turn, endowed with greater relevance and their construction deemed significant enough to warrant careful planning — in the choice of architect, especially. According to Werner Oechslin in his forward to this book, architecture's collision with modernism only heightened the sense of an occasion whenever monumental public projects were planned.

Not to put too fine a point on it, when museums are spoken of these days, it's not that rare for them to be designated as "new cathedrals."

At the present time, he adds, there appears to be a distinct museum boom under way.

What has caused it?

According to Thierry Greub in the opening essay in the book, titled "Museums at the Beginning of the 21st Century: Speculations," these places of culture are particularly desirable commissions for architects to win, especially now that cities have discovered that such institutions bring with them considerable marketing possibilities.

"A spectacular museum building possesses supra-regional attraction, and in the best cases assures the city both a distinctive emblem and a city-centre function. Rundown or peripheral parts of cities can be revived by a museum and linked to the rest of the city — some examples that spring to mind are Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern in London. As Coop Himmelb(l)au note in the brief description to their Musée des Confluences [later highlighted in the book]: 'The incentives to make direct, active use of it make it not just a museum building but an urban meeting point. The architecture combines the typology of a museum with the typology of an urban leisure centre.' "

There are numerous examples of such grand palaces sprinkled throughout, all of them culled from structures found in the modern world, many in more exotic locales than you might imagine. In addition, this amply illustrated work manages to contain the theories and ideas — made easily digestible for nonpractitioners — that were also necessary to bring to fruition the wealth of beauty displayed here page after page.



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