Museum Construction From white cube to event location

Volker Staab
Volker Staab | Photo (detail): Michael Brunner

Berlin architect Volker Staab is considered the most prominent German museum architect. Among other things he has built, expanded, re-designed and renovated museums of various kinds in Nuremberg, Schweinfurt, Chemnitz, Dresden, Bayreuth, Ahrenshoop, Kassel, Hohenschwangau and recently in Münster. Falk Jaeger spoke with him about current trends in museum construction.

The museum boom of the Seventies, scarcely subsided, has continued to the present with astonishing dynamism. Even now, new, spectacular exhibition venues are being opened everywhere, and some museums steeped in tradition are undergoing a comprehensive re-launch. What trends can you make out?

In the Nineties, white cube ideology was in the spotlight, the main issue was appropriate space for art. There was a widely noted book by Remy Zaugg, The Art Museum of My Dreams, or a Place for the Work and the Human Being (Das Kunstmuseum, das ich mir erträume oder der Ort des Werkes und des Menschen), a popular guideline that shows how one should present art. But the question of exhibition space is now being overlaid by the question of what the museum as institution means today? Today, museums are also judged by their visitor quotas. You have the pressure of high expectations on the part of policy makers to demonstrate that their museum has social relevance by showing high numbers of visitors.

What programmatic changes has this produced?

Museum activities have changed a lot. Museums are more open to other cultural sectors, of course also because the boundaries between artistic disciplines are shifting. Spaces are rented for events, of course also to generate additional revenues. Interestingly, this change in the institution has altered many curators’ relationship to architecture. In the past, the worst reproach curators could make to architects was that they wanted to fulfil themselves and build spectacular museums rather than serviceable ones. Perhaps you recall the discussion about Hans Hollein and his Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt in the early 1990s.

These days, I experience on juries that museum people are eyeing unconventional, spectacular architecture. Today it’s the architects who are pointing out that architecture with the Bilbao Effect can only help you over the first two or three years; after that you have to make it work with content. And Bilbao isn’t everywhere – neither in terms of the urban environment nor in terms of the potentials of the institution.

Is there such a thing as the typical contemporary museum of the early 21st century? Is it Frank O. Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, of which I haven’t yet seen a single photo of the interior, but instead only of the sensational exterior view? Is it SANAA’s stacked white cubes in New York? Or Chipperfield’s more understated Museum Folkwang in Essen?

  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Elisabeth Deiters-Keul
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Christian Richters
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Christian Richters
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Hanna Neander
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Elisabeth Deiters-Keul
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Elisabeth Deiters-Keul
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
  • LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster Foto: Elisabeth Deiters-Keul
    LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur Münster
No museum is like another, the differentiation is increasing all the time. The main things should be the location and the collection. Our museum in Münster, for instance, has a collection with an immense spectrum, both chronologically and in terms of content, from the Middle Ages to contemporary art, of works of relevance to both art history and regional history. What this means for architecture is what interests us. There are central works, also in terms of their dimensions, that become fixed points. One concern was to have a chronological circuit. But that overtaxes most visitors, who then either take a quick, superficial tour or concentrate only on parts of the collection. That naturally has consequences for the concept of the circuit. The second concern was that, above and beyond the central works and multilevel rooms, one should have frequent glimpses into other sections and be able to experience the spectrum of the building optically as well.

What do museum people today want in the way of spaces?

They often want staging. They are following a trend that things do not speak for themselves, but need to be narrated within a setting or scenario. That is understandable in museums that tell stories and do not live from the aura of the work of art – it gets more problematic in the case of art museums.

When one creates spaces for stagings, doesn’t one tie oneself own pretty much? Or does one deal with the problem with plasterboard walls that can easily be revised?

We like to create defined rooms that have a certain spatial dramaturgy. And these are then equipped with lighting and technology in such a way that one can make use of them in different ways, for example as classical gallery rooms, but also as darkened spaces with spotlights or artificial interior worlds.

If you had a completely free hand to do an art museum as a greenfield project, what would it look like and how would it function?

Framework conditions are necessary. Without framework conditions I cannot plan a museum, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’m not into self-sufficient objects on green fields. What makes the design process exciting is the search for the specific at the site, in the collection, in the museum’s content orientation.

How can one achieve a museum’s social added value over and above the high-cultural exhibition function desired by the operators or building contractors?
 
One issue is the threshold, the building’s openness towards the city. Does one make the building as transparent as possible on the ground floor? Can one go through the building without entering the museum itself? What spaces should a building offer to be more than an exhibition venue? A foyer, lecture hall, café, shop, library, multiple-use rooms? So that the building becomes a public space within the fabric of the city and is open until ten in the evening. That, for instance, was our goal in Münster.

Doesn’t secondary usage sometimes threaten to get out of hand?

That is a balancing act that is totally connected to this pressure for quotas. One cherishes the hope that people will also visit the museum once they’re in the bookstore. There’s definitely some truth in that. But what I find problematic is renting out the building for purely commercial purposes, whereby the museum is decoupled from its cultural mandate and degraded into an event location. But it’s great when a museum with its offerings and event programme succeeds in becoming a cultural place, a fixed point in the city’s public life and when the architectural concept can support this with the spaces it provides.