Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

On Hold: The Met Postpones Drinking The Art Kool-Aid

The continuing woes of The Metropolitan Museum of Art seem to keep on coming.  With continued layoffs, deficits, leasing the old Whitney Museum, and lawsuits about all sorts of things, the white elephant of 5th Avenue has been going through some hard times of late. Now, it appears that The Met will have to postpone the planned renovation and expansion of its Modern and Contemporary Art wing, in order to address more pressing needs, such as fixing the roof.

The problems faced by The Met are not unique. Similar issues have arisen for most of the world’s major art institutions, as they struggle to find an identity for themselves in the 21st century. Most seem to be suffering from a kind of institutional schizophrenia, as they try to appeal to as many potential visitors as possible, while at the same time hating themselves for doing so.

Contemporary Art is increasingly perceived as the solution to this existential dilemma. Covering the floor of a large room with thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds will attract more visitors to an art museum than a beautifully-painted, delicate landscape of olive trees by Corot. Thus, old-skool art museums like The Met want to steal some of the crowd from their expressly avant-garde sister institutions, and get some of that tourist lolly for themselves.

Long gone are the days when art museums were visited with some degree of circumspection, like libraries, with a quiet hush enforced by sharp glances and “shush!” from both staff and patrons. Today, the primary goal of the art museum is to get as many punters in the door as possible, like at a shopping mall or theme park. Groups of unimpressed school children and great swarms of foreign tourists all follow their designated guide, quickly passing over as many works as possible in the 1-2 hours they have been allotted, and all of them will have to pay an admission fee, get something to eat, and purchase a souvenir.

To do this, art museums have become fora for the airing of grievances, real or imagined, and the celebration of enshrined mediocrity in Contemporary Art. Even grand, old institutions such as The Met, which should know better, want to display the workings of utterly untalented hands, because this is what draws a crowd. It allows curators and directors to feel as though they have not sold their souls to Mammon, even if in the process they are selling them to Moloch.

Eventually, someone will come along and give The Met the cash it needs to increase its floor space for Contemporary Art, and display all sorts of awful things. It’s the nature of how museums work: just as the New York nouveau-riches of a century and a half ago built The Met in the first place, so too some 21stcentury arriviste will do the same with his or her fortune made from whatever the latest widget may be. Fortunately, unlike a magical baseball field in the middle of nowhere, if they build it, you do not need to come.