Rem Speaks

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After work last Friday I stopped by the Van Alen Institute, an organization concerned with architecture and city planing, to watch Rem Koolhaas interviewed on a small stage by Hans Ulrich Obrist, who’s been doing a series of public Q&As with architects and artists. The subject, mostly, was museums.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Rem is fairly negative on what the 21st century museum is becoming, from the overcrowding to “the dreaded atrium that is inevitable in any museum.” It probably doesn’t help that his firm lost out on just about every museum competition it entered. Or sometimes, as with LACMA and the Whitney, won and then lost the job anyway after a round of institutional belt tightening. By actual count he estimates that for the various competitions his office designed “35 soccer fields of art space”.

The main threat to the museum as he sees it is people. “Flow is what is ruining the contemporary museum, the flow of visitors.” He talked about a trip he made to St. Petersburg in 2000 with Frank Gehry and Tom Krens, who was then still head of the Guggenheim, to discuss ways to repurpose an old Army staff building and incorporate it into the Hermitage. He was surprisingly snippy about Krens, who he said tried to convince Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky to enlarge his spaces to accommodate big American art like Richard Serra’s “and also the motorcycle show.” The Guggenheim’s infamous touring motorcycle show was a recurring theme Friday night.

Koolhaas wanted to keep intact as much of the old building as possible, so that its various histories — Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet — could continue to speak. His office proposed a continuous plane at the basement level that would accommodate the dreaded visitor flow while allowing separate parts of the museum at ground level to remain separate. In the end the job went to a Russian firm that opened everything up. But Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, is now preparing a master plan for the entire Hermitage for the year 2014.

I’m assuming it won’t include an atrium.