The Museum as Object
The Guggenheim Museum, by Frank Lloyd Wright, is one of the first
examples of a museum designed by a “signature” architect. The term
“signature architect” was not used until the 1970s, but its meaning can
be traced back to this kind of commission.
The term “signature architect” refers to the culture of celebrated
designers whose name is as important an attribute of the
commission as is their design talent. Prior to this, the notion of
designing a museum or a gallery was viewed as an opportunity
for a museum institution and a designer to enhance a collection
of art by providing it with the best possible environment for
viewing and for curatorial purposes. The idea of “signature
design” suggests that the museum patrons come to view the
architecture of the building as much as they come to view the
collection of paintings, sculptures or other arts housed in the
building. While “signature design” is by no means limited to
museums and galleries--it is used by corporations and many
other institutions--it has a special meaning in the category of
museums and galleries. The architecture ultimately becomes
part of the collection it houses.
The Des Moines Art Center, by Eliel Saarinen, 1948, is an early
example of a museum designed by a signature designer. Begun
only five years after Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York,
the Des Moines Art Center was a more modest design and was
finished ten years before the Guggenheim.
Native field stone,
aluminum are the
Warm wood finishes on the
walls are set off by white
plaster ceilings with recessed
lighting in the coves.
The Des Moines Art Center grew rapidly and by the late 1950s
needed to expand its gallery space. The museum board turned to
the young Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei to design an
addition to the Saarinen building. Pei’s addition was built in the
early 1960s and represents the kind of stark geometries and heavy
weight used in brutalist and high modern buildings.
The addition was sited in such a way that it connected with a
courtyard of the Saarinen building but was mostly out of view to
the southwest. It took advantage of the sloping site and opened out
to a lawn that was eventually planted with a rose garden.
Pei’s interior was as stark as
Saarinen’s was warm,
exposing the reinforced
concrete walls directly as the
Some twenty years later, the Des Moines Art Center needed to add
additional gallery space as well as other amenties, including a small
restaurant/coffee shop and curatorial space. Having used two
prominent designers for the museum already, in the early 1980s the
board turned to Richard Meier, then at his apex, and commissioned
him to design an addition to the Saarinen-Pei complex.
Meier surprised the architectural public by using not only his by
then characteristic white baked enamel paneling but by adding gray
stone to the palette. The effect of the design on both exterior and
interior is the creation of a space modulator, interesting in and of
itself as well as serving the purposes of the needed gallery and other
spaces. The addition was completed in 1985.
It is in the courtyard that the three periods of the building stand in
dialogue with one another. Meier’s task was to bring some sort of
harmony out of the relationship. He did this by mediating
between the geometric and abstract qualities of the Pei building
and the more human scaled and intimate quality of the Saarinen
building with its carefully wrought details in stone and metal.
The Meier addition effectively brings a sense of a larger whole to
the composition, in part because it is carefully designed neither to
overwhelm the earlier parts of the Art Center nor to recede
needlessly from them.
What is true on the exterior is also true on the interior. The
abstract language of modernism is tempered by a human scale and
luminosity in the galleries and circulation spaces.
Addition to the
by James Stirling with
Michael Wilford, 1977-83
Plan of addition
The challenge of the design of the Stuttgart Landesmuseum was
the need to add a long wing to an existing late 19th-century
building in an academic classical style.
Stirling and Wilford chose to use classical materials and forms--
travertine marble and a rotunda but to contrast them with
contemporary materials and forms: steel painted in bright colors
and open tubular as well as channel beam structures. These
elements are arranged in playful geometries against the more
classical elements just as the addition is set against the original
museum building in a contrastive arrangement along a major
thoroughfare at the edge of the downtown and on the side of one
of Stuttgart’s hills.
The Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University is
another example of a “signature designer” gallery. Peter
Eisenman was selected as the architect of the Wexner Center in
part by virtue of his position as a cutting-edge designer. He had
never designed a gallery or museum before, so we can only
attribute the choice of his design by the building committee to
their interest in his design as art as well as an embodiment of
The Tate Modern represents another category of design: the adaptive
re-use of an historic building for the purposes of creating new gallery
space. Completed in 2000, the Tate Modern is the conversion of a
former power plant (vintage 1920s) into a dramatic gallery for
contemporary art as a branch of the Tate Gallery in London.
A team of designers from Switzerland undertook the adaptive re-
use project. It is thus not a “signature design” in the terms of the
other works we have examined.
The Richard and Lois
Rosenthal Center for
Contemporary Art in
Cincinnati, by Zaha Hadid,
opened in the spring of 2003.
It is the first museum in the
United States designed by a
woman and the first building
built in the United States by
Hadid’s CAC seems to reject
both the classicizing and the
modernist buildings adjacent
to it. Its verticality also
balances the sprawling
horizontality of the Aronoff
Center across the street.