As Museum Design Moves Beyond Starchitecture, New Blueprints Show Signs of the Future

For Imagining the Future Museum: 21 Dialogues with Architects, released earlier this year, writer and museum consultant András Szántó conducted interviews with established and rising stars in the field of museum design.

The cast of subjects is widely international, and the roster includes architects at different stages in their careers, including David Adjaye, David Chipperfield, Elizabeth Diller (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Bjarke Ingels, and Jing Liu & Florian Idenburg (of SO – IL), among others.

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The new volume follows the 2020 book The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, for which Szántó interviewed museum directors in the midst of the pandemic about the state of art institutions going forward.

Below, Szántó spoke with ARTnews about aspirational architecture, museums’ new trend toward humility, and how the art world can help guide society at large.

ARTnews: Before getting to the new book, what was the response like around The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues? Was there anything that surprised you or stood out?

András Szántó: Just the other day I was having dinner with a museum director and he was talking about it. That book came out before the end of 2020, when we were still deeply in the pandemic, and he said, “You know, we were at a moment when we were questioning so much and losing faith, and just the fact that there was a book about the future—with that word in the title—was tremendously reassuring.” That’s been the big surprise: how many people found it somehow reassuring, or optimistic. Which I found very interesting for a book of conversations with museum executives who were, without fail, experiencing the most-difficult, most-trying time of their careers, talking about a cultural/economic landscape that was treacherous and ominous in so many ways. I was very pleased that that it didn’t turn into some sort of bummer.

I think the underlying root of that optimism was [the belief] that the museum can overcome difficult phases, which we can now see happening in light of bounce-backs in terms of audience and funding. And also that the museum, as an institutional typology, can evolve. Contrary to public perception, the museum is not this ossified, high-end elitist institution trapped in a travertine box, a Greek temple that is static and unable to change. It is an institution that is very much capable of evolving and becoming relevant in contemporary society. I have to say that that message wasn’t obvious to me going into the book. I was aware of strains of new thinking about the museum, but it was reassuring to see so much evidence of this new thinking and willingness to the push the museum outside of its old comfort zone into a more contemporary form that is aligned with the needs of today’s society.

AN: What made you turn to architects next?

When I was explaining the first book to people, I found myself saying that it’s almost like there’s new software running the museum. There’s a new set of ambitions animating the museum, and a lot of those ambitions have to do with functions like engaging the community or creating more space for education and entertainment, and new types of art that are not paintings or sculptures, creating community hubs for cities, engaging the natural environment, and things of that nature. It is logical to ask, “What kind of a museum building is going to be a catalyst for all that?” What I found is that architects are not only willing to answer that question but are able to lead museums toward answers. Museum-making is probably the top thing you can do as an architect, and the architects who get to design museums are also engaged in many other spheres: they build universities, factories, governmental facilities, parks, churches. Architects have a broad set of references and are able to bring them into questions of what sorts of forms to give to institutions.

An aerial view of a white buildings snaking around a beach with an ocean vista behind.
UCCA Dune Art Museum in Qinhuangdao, China, designed by OPEN.

AN: How did you go about putting together the list of which architects you would speak with? It’s a quite diverse group working in different places in different ways.

When I did my first book, because I work in the museum field a lot as a consultant, I knew a majority of the people. For the second book that was not the case. It was important to me to have a global range and gender parity as well. I gradually came to the conclusion, based on a lot of conversations and advice, to use the book primarily as a way to give voice to a younger, incoming generation. Architects don’t mature too young, so the young generation can be people in their 40s and 50s. Would I have liked to have Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano? Absolutely. But I think their voices have been heard, and in many ways they speak through their acolytes. Many names will be new, and I think that provides a service to the field, because these are the people who are in the vanguard and, in some cases, will be building museums for the next 10, 20, 30 years.

AN: How hesitant or eager were architects to speak with you? It’s a very ideas-driven field, but then it’s also very contingent on clients. Architects also operate on such different scales of time, from the idea stage to the execution stage.

For the younger generation, I think it was an opportunity to think out loud about something they really care about. And architects are very collaborative. Another thing I’ll say is that architects are absolutely fascinating interview subjects because they are incredibly good verbal virtuosos. Architects are—forgive the word—seducers: they have to present these incredibly expensive projects to all kinds of stakeholders, and they convince people to do extraordinary, even revolutionary buildings. These are people endowed with a finely tuned capacity to make arguments.

A headshot of the author, in a sportcoat and a checkered shirt.
András Szánto.

AN: In your introduction to the book, you write, “A museum should never be confused with its building—it is so much more.” What do you mean by that?

You can make a great museum in a mediocre building, but no amount of great architecture will make a good museum out of an institution that doesn’t have a good program or a good collection. We’ve all been to old dusty museums that have the world’s most extraordinary collections, and, by contrast, we’ve been in shiny buildings that are just boring. In this moment, post-Covid and post-starchitecture, this has a more current meaning as well. Since the 1990s, we had a post-Bilbao style, where cities invested enormous amounts of money in extraordinary, flamboyant architecture that in some ways began to dominate museums. The assumption was that these buildings were to serve as magnets for cultural tourism and as emblems for their cities. They were very successful at that, but I think today there’s a kind of disenchantment with that notion of the museum that competes with its own contents, as a sort of giant sculpture in an urban landscape. We are looking at more humble museums that are much more woven into their surroundings and speak a different language.

And then, during the pandemic, we really came to terms with questions like: Who is the museum for? How is the museum an institutional construct, and how should it serve communities and serve society? Service to society involves a range of activities that are not confined to what happens in museum buildings. It’s about pushing beyond and beginning to think of the museum as not just this thing trapped in its own building, but something that is fused with its city through a set of relationships, collaborations, projections beyond the walls.

A white building at dusk that seems to twist, with a window showing a museumgoer inside.
The Twist Museum in Jevnaker, Norway, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group.

AN: In the intro, you quote an architect saying, “We can make sure museums are pioneers, part of the avant-garde. Not just the artistic avant-garde, but the social avant-garde.” What constitutes that social avant-garde?

That was Bjarke Ingels who said that. He is as close as it comes to sort of a wunderkind of this younger generation, designed the Googleplex [Google’s tech campus in Silicon Valley, conceived in collaboration with Hearthwick Studios] and Mars Science City [a campus for outer-space simulation outside Dubai]. He’s one of the most successful architects of his generation, and as a Danish architect, he is particularly invested in climate as a subject. He said that in the context of work that they are doing with port cities around the world where they are creating green ports. Ports are so substantial and so important to the economy of their regions that, if they go green, then everybody else is forced to go green.

The conversation we were having was about the impact of the museum. I think what that quote reflects that is that very often we confuse things we do in the very small art world bubble and think that that is driving society forward. But, in fact, a lot of what happens in the art world is fairly insular, speaking to a fairly narrow audience—it’s a bit of a hall of mirrors. I think what Bjarke meant there is that we can really drive society forward by making the museum a platform of public awareness around these issues. And maybe architecture can play a role in that in in terms of how we integrate museums in different scenarios with other configurations of buildings and institutions. Architects are trusted advisers and have their fingers in all these other pies. They can nudge institutions to look beyond their immediate functions serving an art public.


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