A rant on art museum architecture

In last month’s issue of Metropolis magazine, I ran across a refreshing little article about the expansion of the North Carolina Museum of Art. What appealed to me was a quote by the architect Thomas Phifer who said, “We toned down the architecture to better show the art.” I haven’t been to North Carolina to see if Phifer practiced what he preached, but I think the sentiment is spot on, yet relatively unpopular with the “starchitects” charged with the museum expansion projects of late.
Ironically his statement made me think of a project that accomplished just the opposite—the recent wing of the Denver Art Museum. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it’s a glaring example of the architecture overpowering the art. While it’s striking angles look great from the outside, it poses a number of obvious problems on the inside.

For one, how do you hang paintings on slanted walls? This isn’t just an issue for the museum’s prep crew, it makes for an awkward building for a visitor to navigate.  

Surely Libeskind is too accomplished to have forgotten the two most important things when designing an art museum—the art and the visitors.  So was this strategic or a classic case of an artist’s ego clouding the fundamental task at hand? I appreciate Libeskind’s rejection of the boring white cube in favor of something more interesting, but he went too far in Denver. Is there a museum expansion project out there that is aesthetically spectacular and still allows the art to be the center of attention? Phifer thinks so. The real question is, do the visitors and staff agree?


  1. What do you think about the Guggenheim?

  2. One thing I like about the Gugg is that is bascially forces visitors on a specific route, which is kind of nice since too much choice in route overwhelms people. The ramp system does restrict how far you can back away from an object, which is one example of the drawbacks. But for the most part, the Gugg seems to be choosing shows or installing shows in a way that plays to the strengths of the building. What do you think?

  3. Agree! It's one of my favorite places to view art.