Troppo Piano

When you next find yourself in my birthplace, pay your respects to Sam (Mark Twain) and Harriet (Beecher Stowe), then head a few blocks west to view a fine example of architectural sleight of hand.

Having given up “its role as a traditional residential divinity school and established itself as an interdenominational theological center,” Hartford Seminary commissioned and, in 1981, moved into a neo-moderne jaw-dropper by Richard Meier on its 25-acre collegiate gothic campus. Into the six masonry beauties left behind, designed by Charles Collens in the 1920s, slipped the University of Connecticut School of Law, formerly housed in a plain-jane building from the ’70s in West Hartford. On UConn Law’s website, the campus is called “probably the most beautiful of any law school in the United States.”

In this example, downsizing and a change of mission led one institution to a new, statement-making building, while growth and a rising stature led a second institution to a historic, symbolically prestigious campus. (There were also financial considerations, no doubt.)

How much of an institution’s identity resides in its physical setting? What happens when you put old wine in a new bottle? Are most of the vitamins in the skin? Can you tell a book by its cover?

What if…

  • The Philadelphia Orchestra bowed out of the Academy of Music (that happened in 2001)
  • Long Wharf Theatre packed up from the New Haven Food Terminal (that nearly happened)
  • The Whitney Museum abandoned its Breuer fortress (coming in 2015)?

Those of us who follow packaging—which is, in a sense, our topic—looked on in sheer amazement as one of the all-time greats ended its run:

2012 marks the start of a beautiful evolution – a package redesign that is fresh & modern, with a timeless appeal! And while the package design has changed, the promise of L’eggs remains the same: Great sheer legwear for women to look and feel their absolute best! You’re in Luck, You’re in L’eggs!

Or as we in the arts might say: You’re in Luck, You’re in L’incoln Center!

For the classic cultural repackaging took place in the 1960s, when the New York Philharmonic left Carnegie Hall for Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, the Metropolitan Opera left “the old Met” for Wallace Harrison’s Lincoln Center centerpiece, and New York City Opera and New York City Ballet left City Center for Philip Johnson’s New York State (now David H. Koch) Theater.

In addition to the Big Four (now Three), many other cultural and educational institutions have called Lincoln Center home over the decades, each dealing with its own challenges and opportunities. At the same time, Lincoln Center is greater than the sum of its parts, promoting, programming, and expanding beyond its original site, the $1.2 billion redevelopment of which was completed last year to designs by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.   

One of the early (rejected) schemes for Lincoln Center’s redevelopment was Frank Gehry’s proposal to erect a glass dome over the central courtyard, along the lines of Norman Foster’s glass roof for the British Museum’s Great Court, which opened in 2000. Foster created a similar glass canopy in 2007 for the Kogod Courtyard at the renovated Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Whether Foster was inspired not only by 19th-century greenhouses and train sheds, and I. M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, but by the acres of landscaped walkways, waterfalls, and restaurants at the Opryland Hotel I don’t know. In any event, try and catch the International Waters Fountain Show in the Delta Atrium when you’re in Nashville.)

This notion of putting cultural facilities under glass—creating terraria, so to speak—was carried out at a number of locations in the first decade of the century. James Stewart Polshek enclosed New York’s Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space in 2000, for example. But the leading composer of variations on the theme has been Renzo Piano.

Piano, who will be 76 on September 14, made his name in the museum world in the 1970s as co-architect, with Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, of Paris’s pop-industrial Pompidou Center (or Beaubourg). He designed the famously understated, naturally lit Menil Collection in Houston, which opened in 1987, and its Cy Twombly Gallery of 1995. Three years later, he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize.  

Renzo Piano is a “starchitect” whose mastery is recognized worldwide. According to Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg, when the building committee for the new Whitney asked each of the prospective architects to name a museum design he or she admired, the response was always (or almost always) a Piano project. So the committee members said, Why don’t we just hire Piano?

By now you’re thinking: Where does this guy, some nobody from Hartford, Connecticut, get off criticizing Renzo Piano? Let me assert, with some anxiety, that I’m not criticizing him per se, but rather expressing regret that so many museums have chosen the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design their expansions, including, just in the United States: the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA, the High, the Kimbell, Harvard, and the two discussed below. In my opinion, this will result in an oversaturation of the ingeniously elegant and elegantly ingenious glass-and-steel solutions for which RPBW is famous.

Take the expansion of the Morgan Library at 36th and Madison, about which I quoted COOLOBSERVER in last week’s post, “You Can’t Go Back to Your Momma’s MoMA.” In 1991, in an early case of the terrarium syndrome, this cut-stone treasure chest of art, manuscripts, and rare books (original building, Charles McKim, 1906) was given a glass-roofed courtyard, with café, by Bartholomew Voorsanger. The sound of breaking glass was heard just a dozen years later, for the Morgan had engaged Renzo Piano to vastly augment its facilities in a way respectful to the historic structures (though not to Voorsanger’s courtyard).

Having hired a curator of 20th-century materials, and after nearly three years of excavation and construction (price tag: $106 million), the treasure chest reopened in 2006 as the Morgan Library & Museum, with a glassy, Madison-facing atrium, a see-through elevator, and an underground auditorium (along with, to be fair, new spaces for exhibition, storage, and conservation). “Just a short walk from Grand Central and Penn Station, the Morgan is a major exhibition venue for fine art, literature, and music, one of New York’s great historic sites, and a wonderful place to dine, shop, and attend a concert or film,” says the website.

Last year, Piano completed a comparable project—you get my point—for Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Because the Gardner occupies an even more precious place in the hearts of Bostonians than the Morgan does in the corresponding organs of New Yorkers, this was a highly controversial procedure. A carriage house was demolished despite some heated opposition. At the reopened museum ($118 million), a wide glass façade leads to a wing larger than the original palazzo (Willard Sears, 1903), a mansion-gallery known as Fenway Court during Gardner’s lifetime and now as “the historic Palace building.”

Connecting the Gardner to living artists—through an artist-in-residence program launched in 1992, other programming, and special exhibitions—was a priority for the new wing. The mission statement adopted in 2000 says it all:

The Museum exercises cultural and civic leadership by nurturing a new generation of talent in the arts and humanities; by delivering the works of creators and performers to the public; and by reaching out to involve and serve its community. The collection is at the center of this effort as an inspiring encounter with beauty and art.

One could easily spend two or three hours browsing in the shop, Gift at the Gardner; lunching in the restaurant, Café G; and relaxing in the Living Room, a space with couches, books, and touch-screens—not to mention attending a lecture on art or landscape design or a concert in the new Calderwood Hall (the concert space in the palazzo has been reclaimed and restored as the Tapestry Room).

You may have time to see the ornately decorated and furnished Venetian revival mansion, chock-full of idiosyncratically displayed objets d’art, ancient art, Asian art, paintings by John Singer Sargent (including the 8’ x 11’ El Jaleo, the subject of its own special exhibition at the National Gallery in 1992) and his contemporaries, and a collection of Old Master paintings, prints, and drawings selected by Bernard Berenson; you may not.

As a marketing person, why am I not rejoicing in the variety of experiences offered by the new, more commodious Gardner, which will attract a more diverse audience and increase the average length and frequency of visits? Am I the Anti-Marketer?

Okay, I’m back after some soul-searching. I have only visited the new Gardner once and, being a Hartford boy, the old Gardner was the setting for experiences of my youth that I shall never forget…the snow…the Titian…the Corelli. So I’m going to spend some more time there, and at the Morgan, with an open, analytical mind.

You should, too, and let me know what you think. But, for me, the applicable marketing principle is that a single bold stroke has more of an impact than several swipes of a broad brush. It’s not a given that a powerfully quirky museum, one that’s “got the goods” (in these examples, “the greats”), will reach more people in a meaningful way by moving into the mainstream. Your identity is your brand. When you diffuse it, you defuse it. And sometimes it’s hard to hear your message through the glass.

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