The ongoing debate around art museums building extensions is often related to the representational role that these institutions and their image assume in the urban, state or national contexts. If a policy of new construction and extensions of art museums according to the principle of city branding/iconicity of structures has characterised the 1990s, recently the tendency is counterbalanced with a more effective use and production of exhibition space by the museums, realised through lighter interventions and restoration of existing buildings. Does this mean that institutions are willing to invest more in art than architecture? Or is it just a more effective way of operating and managing resources for major institutions?
The case of the recently approved plans for the renovation and extension of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) are a good example to observe the phenomenon and discuss the question. The institution’s history starts in the 19th Century, although the museum structure as we know it today only dates back to the post-war period, commencing with the building of the War Memorial designed by Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero and continuing with the massive extensions of the Kahler building opened in 1975 and the addition in the 1990s of the Quadracci Pavilion designed by star architect Santiago Calatrava.
Last week the museum announced the new plans to restore the War Memorial Center and the Kahler buildings. The intervention, partly financed by the Milwaukee County (which has contributed $10 million) will also use public participation to raise further funds. The project will be made by the public for the public, as the museum’s director Dan Keegan confirmed: “we want our visitors, supporters, and neighbors to know that they are integral to the success of the Museum.”
The project signed by the firm of architects and engineers HGA includes both the renovation and repairs of the existing buildings of the War Memorial Center (1957) and Kahler building, as well as an addition to the latter on the lakefront side. This addition will also create a new lakeside entrance and atrium to the museum, improving the public enjoyment of the waterside from the building. The original project led by architect Jim Shields, who left the project team in February, was meant to be extremely light and respectful of the existing buildings; a glass transparent envelope of the façade would have allowed the total view and reading of the previous structure of the Kahler building, avoiding at the same time any interference with the Saarinen and Calatrava’s remarkable pieces.
Instead, the most recent proposal, even if inspired by Shield’s design is characterised by a more opaque and visible building envelope which might obscure more the original facade facing the lakefront. On the other hand, the amended proposal, with its still low impact, “make up” design, resembles the image of the Memorial building; the recessed first floor quotes Saarinen’s piloties base and the design of the façade ideally duplicates the Memorial building’s elevations pattern.
The two-story cantilevered extension overlooking the river will offer extra gallery space and will also welcome under its roof the current sculpture garden. The building programme will bring the American art collection together in a single place on the second floor while on the first floor it will give space to a new photography and new media gallery.
A complex building ensemble like the MAM is a site that challenges any designer both for the presence of such iconic buildings and for the topography of the area along the Lake Michigan. It is challenging to forecast what the best option is in these cases; the effect of a low-impact design can be better judged in time ,once the extension has been completed and the public has fully taken over the space. Like Le Corbusier envisaged with his unbuilt proposal of a museum of unlimited growth, art museum projects – like urban ones – are always open-ended pieces of a discourse that will be taken over by future generations.
Is the project just aimed at improving the use of the museum and its gallery space? How important is the participation of the public in the project?