I ended yesterday’s post about the new National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press book A Modernist Museum in Perspective by talking about how the display of art and art galleries weren’t a primary consideration for the NGA administration and East Building architect I.M. Pei. [Image.]
Perhaps the best way to understand why the East Building is such a bizarre structure for an art museum is to remember that Pei was motivated by making the building a “very important center for social and artistic life in Washington.” The result was the preposterously over-sized atrium which effectively precluded the construction and placement of coherent gallery space.
The University of Pennsylvania’s David B. Brownlee says that’s because the building wasn’t particularly informed by art museums: “Pei’s East Building can be better understood when it is seen as
part of this development of a popular American modern architecture,
which includes shopping malls and splashy hotels.”
As it turns out there’s a reason that the East Building has come to feel like an expensive Embassy Suites: No fewer than three scholars in ‘A Modernist Museum’ trace the NGA’s atrium less to central interior museo-courtyards (such as the one on the NGA’s John Russell Pope-designed West Building) than to John Portman’s Atlanta Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta (1965-67). [Image below.]
Alona Nitzan-Shiftan also sources the atrium in the NGA administration’s near fear of showing art. She finds that then-NGA-director J. Carter Brown was concerned about giving visitors too much art to look at:
[In 1969]… Carter Brown returned from a museum directors’ conference in Mexico where behavioral scientists discussed the “anxiety syndrome” of museum visitors, who felt, according to researchers, either overloaded with information or frustrated by lack of orientation. Brown further reported on “the ‘erratic exploratory locomotion’ of museum visitors that recalls… a rat in a maze,” wanting one thing only — to get out. The objective was to “captivate but not process the visitor,” they said, claiming that the ideal pre-fatigue museum experience should not exceed forty-five minutes to one hour of walking in roughly ten thousand square feet of space.
No surprise then that scholar after scholar reports that when it came to the East Building, art was always kind of an afterthought. The University of Chicago’s Neil Harris notes that by 1990 this shortcoming became so obvious that Brown claimed he’d asked Pei’s firm to make the exhibition spaces larger and the atrium smaller and that Pei said no. (Harris seems skeptical that Brown ever actually did so, noting that one reason Brown chose Pei was his interest in big museo-atriums, as demonstrated in Pei’s design for (and Brown’s admiration of) the Everson in Syracuse, NY. Says Harris: “[T]he East Building, in its early stage, was meant primarily to house activities rather than objects.”)
With a renovation of the East Building on the way, the National Gallery has an opportunity to radically shift the East Building from a social space to a museum where more art can be installed and to where the spaces for art are less clunky.
Whether the NGA will choose to go in that direction is another question: That would require performing major surgery on Pei’s building, a potentially controversial step that the traditionally risk-averse NGA may be unwilling to take. Just as problematic: Even though the NGA’s collection has grown substantially since the East Building opened in 1978, it’s not clear that the current NGA administration wants more gallery space. When I spoke with NGA director Rusty Powell last year about the NGA’s space problems he mostly pointed to administrative needs such as offices and programmatic needs such as an education center. Gallery space was at best a distant third on the want-list.
Still: With the forthcoming renovation of the East Building the NGA has a chance to address a 30-40-year old error, an error (very) subtly but plainly made clear throughout A Modernist Museum in Perspective. Would fixing the East Building solve all of the NGA’s space issues? No. But it would be a good start.