Searching for Beauty, Meaning and Truth in Architecture and Museums

It should be no secret that, as architects specializing in arts and culture projects in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and the American West, we adore museums. Their hallowed galleries contain priceless paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and objets d’art, but they also possess the residual stories of the artists themselves, countless visitors who pass through, talented curators who bring the exhibits to life, and architects who have helped realize those storied spaces. It is a pleasure and a privilege to roam the creative displays and learn from some of the most influential museum designs in the world, just as Anne Mooney and John Sparano did recently on their European tour of London and Paris where they visited Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Tate Modern in London and the Louvre, Picasso Museum and the Rodin Museum in Paris. The inspiration drawn from these stalwart institutions absolutely helps inform our own design process, and we are excited to incorporate new ideas into our own museum projects, such as the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art (NEHMA) at Utah State University.

“Sectional Perspective of the Dome Area & Breakfast Room”, by Frank Copland, 1818. This section conveys the dual nature of Soane’s house as residence and museum. Image courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Sir John Soane’s Museum is truly a hidden gem in London. Founded by one of the most inventive architects of the 18th and 19th centuries, Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the museum was originally a home, office, architecture academy and space for Soane’s collections. Rebuilding and adding on to the property over a number of years, Soane embarked on an ambitious project: to turn the space into an educational monument to architecture and a museum of architectural models, casts and drawings organized in a rational, if eclectic, manner. Soane also graciously opened his collections and home to students, hoping the examples presented would aid their studies. In 1833, Soane bequeathed his home and its substance to the public and asked that they be preserved and kept open and free after his death. As he intended, his collections continue to inspire. For us, this project is all about the architectural section: letting light into a mass through strategic cuts in the architecture’s floor, walls and roof. The gallery walls open to reveal Soane’s immense collection, and open yet again to connect spaces through carefully considered sight lines. The organization of the museum may seem chaotic, but in fact, Soane designed the juxtapositions carefully and purposefully to affect the visitors’ experience of his collections. We were in awe of the space and its contents.

Exterior of the Tate Modern, showcasing the new Switch House extension by Herzog & de Meuron. Photo courtesy of Design Curial.

Since it opened in 2000 in the former Bankside Power Station, the Tate Modern in London has consistently broken attendance records with its thought-provoking exhibitions of international modern and contemporary art. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron converted the industrial structure while retaining much of the original character of the building, and also completed an addition to the museum that opened this year to house new gallery, performance, education and administrative spaces. The iconic power station, with its brick construction, imposing central Boiler House Tower chimney, and broad edifice that abuts the River Thames, has welcomed more than 40 million visitors and has presented acclaimed exhibitions by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg and Damien Hirst; the permanent collection is home to an entire room of moody Mark Rothko paintings, and controversial installations have included Doris Salcedo’s subterranean chasm titled “Shibboleth”, a giant crack in the Turbine Hall’s concrete floor into which overzealous patrons (in)famously slipped and fell. The Tate Modern is impressive in its scale, use of materials, and successful conversion of historic architecture into a beacon of modern art and architecture. It beckons us time and time again.

The Picasso Museum, with Pablo Picasso’s “La Chèvre” (The Goat, 1950) sculpture in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Paris Museum Pass.

The Picasso Museum, or the Musée National Picasso, in Paris has recently re-opened after a major renovation and it is a delight, as well as an important example of the state’s commitment to preserving and showcasing creations by one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. The museum is unique in its arrangement of the works within the asymmetrical footprint of the historical building, which was built in the 17th century as a private courtyard home in the Italian Baroque and French classical style. The challenges of exhibiting in variable gallery spaces are embraced rather than fought, resulting in a quirky yet intimate setting for Picasso’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings and his personal collection of art by old and contemporary masters. As you move higher in the building, the rooms become smaller in scale and labyrinthine. Each room is a surprise waiting to be discovered, offering unique ambiances around every corner and glimpses into other spaces.

The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, front view and walkway. Rendering courtesy Sparano + Mooney Architecture.

After visiting these exceptional treasure troves of art and architecture, we are inspired to continue work on our own museum project: The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University. As part of the USU Fine Arts Complex, the renovation to NEHMA includes the design of a three story, approximately 7,600 SF addition on the west side of the existing campus museum as well as renovation of parts of the existing museum. The expansion’s primary goal is to provide a new entrance for the museum, creating a stronger campus presence and connection. It will also: allow for the relocation of administrative offices to a new area in order to provide research space for scholars and curatorial staff; provide shared presentation and teaching and learning spaces suitable for visiting artists, elementary school visits, seminars and classes in art, design and art history; increase available climate-controlled, secure storage and exhibition space for the collection; and preserve emergency and loading dock access for operational personnel. Construction is underway with projected completion in 2018.

Our trip to London and Paris was an incredible learning experience and we are excited to apply these lessons to our practice and projects. Do you love museums? Do you have a museum, arts or culture project you want to begin? Give us a call and let’s talk art and architecture!