Adjaye, Chipperfield, Heatherwick, Levete, and Renfro on the 21st Century Museum

A laundry list of the some of the world’s biggest architects gathered in London for Frieze’s Art + Architecture Conference to discuss trends in museum architecture.

Zeitz MOCAA Heatherwick
Within the central carved-out atrium of the Heatherwick Studio–designed Zeitz MOCAA, the architects made vertical circulation a performance in itself with glass elevators and a dramatic spiral stair. Courtesy Iwan Baan

A laundry list of the some of the world’s biggest architects–Chipperfield, Heatherwick, Renfro, Levete, and Adjaye–gathered in London on Friday for Frieze’s Art + Architecture Conference, part of the annual art festival. Using some of the most closely followed and anticipated cultural architecture projects in development at the moment, including the Zeitz MOCAA, The Shed, The Broad, the expansion of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology (MAAT), the group reflected on their recent work and speculated on what’s next for art and architecture.

“Art and architecture is a balance between form and function—navigating the physical demands of the buildings, the fragility of the objects, and the political pressure of building something with public money that can either be a local landmark or a local catastrophe,” host Alice Rawsthorn commented, opening the day’s sessions.

All of the designers acknowledged the inherent privileges and challenges of creating spaces to show, make, and live with art. While in many ways these projects are dream collaborations for the architects, they involve balancing the needs of often conflicting parties: the curators’ need for walls and exhibition space, the institutions’ need for space for events, operations, and retail; and an often fickle public. As Chipperfield puts it, “With artists, they can create something and you can either like or not like it—for architects, we have to argue in defense of things before they even exist.”

Zeitz MOCAA Heatherwick
Visitors enter the Zeitz MOCAA (previously an industrial transportation hub) through the building’s former train track sheds. Courtesy Iwan Baan

The two most distinct trends emerging from these conversations on the architecture of art spaces are the need to create flexible designs that can accommodate the interdisciplinary, multi-use, and multi-scale function of many arts institutions today as well as the larger role these spaces now play in connecting to their wider streetscape, neighbourhood, and ultimately the city at large.

For The Shed—the $500 million arts and cultural mecca that’s part of the Hudson Yards development—this flexibility is literal, in the form of a retractable roof that essentially creates an architectural indoor/outdoor toolkit depending on whether the building needs temporary exhibition or large-scale art installation space, a concert venue, or a lecture or performance hall.

Charles Renfro commented afterward on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s approach to the project, saying “the cultural spaces that we are thinking about are infrastructure-heavy, design-light; flexible-heavy and fixed-light. Art is becoming so varied in scale and in temporality, it’s all merging into one big stew of unknowable-ness. And the architecture needs to reflect that.”

During his presentation, Heatherwick commented that cities around the world are now falling over themselves to build new arts institutions and, at this point, it pretty much seems like “you’re not a proper city unless you’ve built your contemporary art museum.”

David Adjaye Studio Museum
Exterior view of Adjaye Associates design for The Studio Museum in Harlem; the project is located on the rapidly-developing 125th Street. Courtesy Adjaye Associates

But both the designers and the institutions are conscientious not to feed wholesale into what Adjaye called an outdated Bilbao effect. Speaking to his recently-released design scheme for the Studio Museum, he commented that his firm is working to reimagine the role of the cultural institution as an agent of change in the city, “moving away from the building as an effect and the flash and circumstance of it to creating buildings that will have an ongoing life and purpose.”

David Adjaye Studio Museum
The Studio Museum’s lobby features a large public amphitheater that serves as cafe, gathering space, and performance/lecture venue. Courtesy Adjaye Associates

In articulating her design philosophy of “the iconography of place rather than building as icon” with the MAAT, Amanda Levete has created not just a cultural project but an urban project: a publicly-accessible roof creates an entirely new vantage point back to the old city, a public step-way that directly connects the museum to the water, and a new bridge directly links the city to the museum.

The most important and reaffirming element of all these projects is an attempt to use architecture to create spaces that take art out of the realm of the elite and inaccessible and return it to the public and the wider city. In doing so, they are attempting to shift the focus away from aesthetics to creating places of substance that can fulfill their new role as the community centers of the 21st century.

You may also enjoy “Johnston Marklee Breathes New Life Into Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.”

Recent Viewpoints