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The New Cultural Institution: Museum or Amusement?

There was a time when, if you had told your friends that you were taking a trip to Bilbao, they would have wondered why you were going to a shabby, terrorism-scarred Spanish city. Nowadays, they'd envy you for visiting the world's most talked-about museum–the Guggenheim Bilbao–designed by acclaimed Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry.

Gehry conceives his buildings as sculpture, and the Guggenheim's titanium-clad silhouette looks extraordinarily beautiful against the neighboring deserted dockyards. In its first year it attracted 1.4 million visitors, three times more than expected, causing $200 million to pour into local hotels, shops, and restaurants. Hardly any of those people–or that money–would have come to Bilbao without the museum.

Even more impressive, the museum catapulted architecture into the mainstream ("Have you seen that cool building?" is now an inescapable part of dinner-party chitchat) and proved just how seductive contemporary architecture can be. To design several new stores, Prada recently hired Dutch super-architect Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss team of Herzog & de Meuron, who converted an abandoned power station into London's new architectural sensation, Tate Modern. Giorgio Armani commissioned his new Milan fashion show venue from Tadao Ando, the grand old man behind Japanese modernism. Hotelier Ian Schrager toyed with asking Gehry himself to work on his new Manhattan site on Astor Place, then plumped for a collective design from the Prada trio.

Other cities have become convinced that they, too, can draw tourists by commissioning splashy museums. Since Bilbao, at least 30 cities have approached the Guggenheim's director, Thomas Krens. When Koolhaas entered the competition (won by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid) to design the new contemporary art center in Rome, he was told, "We need a building that does for Rome what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao." Rome, home of the Colosseum, wants to copy Bilbao?

Cultural tourism isn't a new phenomenon. think of Edith Wharton's late-19th-century heroines setting sail for their Grand Tour of Europe's antiquities, Baedekers in hand. The difference is that old-school tourists sought out historic treasures (and still do–look at the long lines outside the Louvre in Paris and Madrid's Prado). The new school wants to see what's happening now, and there's no better way to sample contemporary culture than by visiting the adult theme parks of our era.

Thomas Krens once said that a successful museum needs at least "five rides" (is this Disneyland jargon or what?)–architecture, a great permanent collection, strong temporary exhibits, shopping, and good food. Guggenheim Bilbao hired Martín Berasategui, the star of modern Basque cuisine, to run its restaurant. Krens's formula worked for Tate Modern: the museum planned on 2 million visitors in its first year but drew a million in only six weeks. Just don't expect anyone to ask you about the art. All they'll want to know is how Herzog & de Meuron turned a power station into a museum, and what you thought of its cafés, overseen by Jeremy King, co-founder of the Ivy and Le Caprice.

Barely a month goes by without yet another American or European city announcing that it has commissioned a hot architect to design a new museum–or to expand an old one–in the hope of joining the cultural tourism trail.

the first museum to attract as much attention for architecture as for art was Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It didn't get off to a good start. When Hilla Rebay, Solomon's adviser, first wrote to Wright in 1943, he replied as if she were a man by inviting "Mr. Rebay" and "his wife" to visit him. But Wright's museum shaped like an upside-down ziggurat was an instant hit with the public and has been ever since.

The next mega-hit was 1977's Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, designed by Richard (now Lord) Rogers and Renzo Piano. Still in their thirties when they got the job, Rogers and Piano were hippie idealists who placed the Pompidou's brightly colored ducts and piping on the outside of the building to make a political statement about the importance of openness in public architecture. Tourists mobbed the Pompidou, less to relish the political metaphor of its plumbing than to enjoy the postcard views of Paris from the glazed escalators. One in five visitors didn't even bother to go inside the museum, but the Pompidou soon ousted the Eiffel Tower as Paris's top tourist attraction, and the area around it flourished.

Still, it takes more than knockout architecture to guarantee a success. Britain's pop music museum in Sheffield hit a cash crisis last fall, less than a year after its opening. Branson Coates's funky design–it looks like two giant spinning teacups–was well-reviewed, but the exhibits flopped. Crowds have been flocking to the dramatic structure that Polish-born Daniel Libeskind created for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. But when the museum realized how much publicity the building was attracting, it delayed the opening to allow extra time to beef up the contents.

Nevertheless, the new cultural tourism shows no sign of flagging. Tate Modern isn't the only museum where attendance has soared above expectations. Once the name of a quaint Swiss city, Basel is now fashionable shorthand for Renzo Piano's elegant Fondation Beyeler. Set in the leafy suburb of Riehen, the Beyeler was founded by art dealers Ernst and Hildy Beyeler as a showcase for their Matisses, Picassos, and other 20th-century gems. Don't even attempt a weekend visit, when it's packed to the gills. Equally popular is Kiasma, the cool contemporary art museum in Helsinki designed by American architect Steven Holl, who is creating an addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. However, Kiasma is such a dramatic structure (imagine a futuristic igloo) that it almost overshadows the art.

Purists tend to prefer restrained buildings, such as the Beyeler and the graceful galleries designed by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza for the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Oporto. But architecture junkies enjoy tracking down obscure museums, such as Caruso St. John's New Art Gallery in the dingy British industrial town of Walsall, and U.N. Studio's Het Valkhof Museum at Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

As for tomorrow's cultural hot spots, take your pick. Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is bidding to become the next Bilbao by commissioning Herzog & de Meuron to design an art museum. David Chipperfield, the British architect of soon-to-open hotels in New York (Bryant Park) and Miami (Shore Club), is master-planning Berlin's Museum Island. Frank Gehry is working on a museum in Mississippi, an addition to Washington's Corcoran Art Gallery, and a super-Guggenheim in downtown Manhattan. Ever been to Cincinnati?Just wait until Zaha Hadid's new Contemporary Arts Center opens in early 2002. Fancy a weekend in Milwaukee?Bet you will next spring after Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava finishes his dragonfly-shaped glass and aluminum museum building on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Can they all be as successful as Bilbao?Probably not. But if they follow Krens's "five rides" formula, you'll have fun testing them out.

NEW MUST-SEE MUSEUMS

GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM BILBAO
2 Abandoibarra Et., Bilbao, Spain; 34-94/435-9080; www.guggenheim-bilbao.es
Frank Gehry's mold-breaking sculpture-cum-museum.

TATE MODERN
Bankside, London; 44-207/887-8000; www.tate.org.uk.
The building of 2000, from Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron.

CENTRE GEORGES POMPIDOU
Paris; 33-1/44-78-12-33; www.cnac-gp.fr.
The high- tech temple that redefined the museum has just been spruced up by Renzo Piano.

101 Baselstrasse, Basel, Switzerland; 41-61/645-9700; www.beyeler.com.
Renzo Piano's show-stopper has elegant galleries that bring out the best in the art.

HET VALKHOF MUSEUM
59 Kelfkensbos, Nijmegen, Netherlands; 31-24/360-8805; www.museumhetvalkhof.nl.
Amsterdam-based U.N. Studio's space age–inspired project.

KIASMA MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
2 Mannerheiminaukio, Helsinki; 358-917/336-500; www.kiasma.fi.
A funky creation from Steven Holl.

NEW ART GALLERY WALSALL
Gallery Square, Walsall, England; 44-192/265-4400; www.artatwalsall.org.uk.
This unexpected gem made a star of the architectural firm Caruso St. John.

into the future

JEWISH MUSEUM
Berlin; www.jmberlin.de; opens fall 2001.
Daniel Libeskind conceived this museum as a physical metaphor for the Holocaust.

NELSON-ATKINS MUSEUM EXTENSION
Kansas City, Mo.; www.nelson-atkins.org; opens 2004.
Steven Holl's underground expansion will throw the spotlight on one of America's finest art collections.

OSCAR DOMINGUEZ MUSEUM & CULTURAL CENTER
Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands; no set opening date. The sunny island of Tenerife is bidding for tourist dollars by hiring Herzog & de Meuron. CONTEMPORARY ARTS CENTER Cincinnati, Ohio; www.spiral.org; opens fall 2002.
The first major public building of Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, (so far) the only female architectural superstar.

MILWAUKEE ART MUSEUM
Milwaukee, Wis.; www.mam.org; opens spring 2001.
Santiago Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee museum will be shaped like a giant dragonfly; huge "wings" will open and close to let light into the building.

BALTIC CENTRE OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Gateshead, England; www.balticmill.com; opens fall 2001.
London-based architecture team Ellis Williams's abandoned flour mill in northeast England's deserted docklands is planned as the hub of a new cultural zone.

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