Saturday, November 29, 2008

Form or Function?

Form or Function? Does one trump the other when designing a new Museum? Should one? This is what I was pondering as I visited the new Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY - the first completely new museum building built in Buffalo in over a hundred years. My expectations were low, despite the fact that Gwathmey Siegel Architects from New York designed the building. Quite frankly it's probably been a decade since I've seen a design of theirs that interested or impressed me - probably since the last building they designed for Buffalo at the SUNY Buffalo Amherst Campus. My expectations were also low because there was a complicated story regarding the land the new museum sits on - belonging to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. There was great concern in the preservation community that the Psych Center, by turning that land over, was continuing to whittle away at the historic acreage originally planned and designed by H. H. Richardson, Olmsted & Vaux. Then personally my expectations were low because I hadn't really paid attention to what was going on with the design or construction of the building, despite being on the Richardson Architecture Center Board - too many buildings in too many states to worry about. But I had wondered over the past year as I'd drive by - what is that lousy concrete block structure going up on the northern end of the Psych Center's parking lots? I thought it was a parking structure. I woke up and started to pay attention about a year ago at one of our board meetings when I heard discussion about the new museum building.

So, now it's finished, and the past week has been the grand opening (free to everyone for 10 days). And no, I was not surprised by a beautiful and inspiring exterior. The exterior is banal and mediocre at best. But that doesn't mean it's a bad museum. Quite the contrary. And here is where my question regarding form vs. function comes into play. I'd like to believe that a museum can be both a piece of iconic, amazing architecture and function well to display art. In the past few years both architects, museum boards and architecture critics would like us to believe otherwise, and that is a disservice to all of us. Certainly, there are many pieces of starchitecture I've visited in the past couple years which focused on the building design to the detriment of the purpose of the building - Libeskind's Denver Art Museum, Gehry's Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis (see photo above), and Jean Nouvel's Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (it also has gallery space). But then there are some brilliant pieces of architecture I've visited that prove that icons can also function - Renzo Piano's addition (and completion) of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Santiago Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Herzog & de Meuron's San Francisco de Young Museum (adjacent photo) and their Minneapolis Walker Art Center, and Richard Meier's Getty of course, to name a few. Unfortunately, I've also seen a great many uninspiring buildings that exhibit art beautifully and that's a shame. In addition to the Burchfield Penney, there is the Seattle Art Museum and the Museum of Arts & Design in NYC both by Allied Works, and the addition and re-working of the Morgan Library by Piano in NYC.

One paragraph in the museum brochure particularly disturbed me and my artistic sensibilities:

"Not long after the architectural firm was engaged to design a new home for the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a debate began about whether the building itself should be conceived as a work of art or designed primarily as a container to hold and exhibit the museum's collections. The fear was expressed by some, quite openly, that if the architecture was too compelling, the art would have to compete for attention."

What Makes the Burchfield Penney Art Center a Good Museum?

Unfortunately it's not its exterior architecture. Let me get that criticism out of the way. Its use of gray brick and stone are monotone and monotonous and other than the curved solid wall and ridiculously large letters on the street facade of the building, it does not distinguish itself as the cultural icon it should be. It's barely better than a suburban office park building or a college administration building, really, and that makes me sad.

It completes and balances the cultural core of Buffalo. Were it not for the overly-trafficked Elmwood Avenue and exits to the Scajaquada Expressway directly adjacent to the Albright-Knox, this would really be Buffalo's cultural Acropolis. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Photo above) on the west side of the street is one of my favorite pieces of museum architecture anywhere - the 1905 Classically-inspired Green & Wicks marble building with its 1962 Gordon Bunshaft-designed glass box addition masterpiece, represents the layers and memories of Buffalo and the hope for its future. (Gordon Bunshaft, that towering designer of SOM midcentury modern architecture was a Buffalonian.) Now with Rockwell Hall flanking the southern half of the Albright-Knox and the Burchfield Penney flanking the northern half, this intersection has become the undeniable center of Buffalo's very rich art heritage.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one of the earliest museums in the country to have collecting modern art as its mission. Rockwell Hall at Buffalo State College, was the original main building (1931) of the college and the home of the initial Burchfield Penney Art Center for many years until it moved to the new building this year. It now houses the College's Performing Arts Center and Conservation School.

It showcases Western New York Art and Artists. Buffalo has produced some of the greatest artists, architects and designers - either as people who were born here or came here to design or create a project. There's just something in the water here that encourages and inspires creativity . The Museum's purview is interesting - not just artists who are from Buffalo, or are living in Buffalo. If you were born here and then moved elsewhere. If you went to school here and then moved on etc. I think it's quite appropriate that the rotunda tower actually frames the glass box addition of the Albright-Knox Gallery across the street which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, a Buffalonian by birth (I believe). (See adjacent photo.) And then of course the museum is the largest repository for Charles Burchfield's art - a transplant 20th century artist known for his visual commentaries on the effects of Industrialism on small town America (primarily watercolors), a friend and peer of Edward Hopper.

The Interior of the Art Center is actually quite well done. What does every museum that showcases modern/contemporary art really want? Just lots of white walls and wood floors. And the Burchfield Penney has that. The spaces flow really nicely. It's not a large museum, but it is filled with various types of spaces, niches, windows that frame different views, private spaces to reflect and view the art or just reflect. The light is quite wonderful throughout the museum. I sort of wanted the Burchfield Rotunda to be larger or to be more focused (on the first floor). Its accompanying space above on the second floor has no art but benches with a window that frames views of the Albright-Knox. And treating the view of that as a piece of art is quite brilliant - probably the best gesture of the building.

So, as an architect I was very disappointed by the building presented to the street and its contribution or lack thereof to the neighborhood. But as a museum-goer, I enjoyed my visit. And as a native Buffalonian, I think it's an important contribution to the community and the community is really proud to have this new addition - and raising $36 million in Buffalo is no easy feat. It was exciting that we had trouble finding a parking spot and that the galleries and shop were full of people. Granted it was free the first week, but still that bodes well I hope. I hope that despite its lack of stellar design, it will become an important component of the city's art world and its story. (See my Facebook page for a photo album of my visit to the Burchfield Penney.)

After all , the name of my blog is "Cities and Memory" because I love cities, their architecture, people, places, layers and what they say about us, remembering our past and creating our future.

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