Thursday, May 19, 2011

Contemporary art galleries in Rome and the new museum architecture

I’m so lucky.  I’m about to experience the Venice Biennale for a second time as I’ll be working there next month.  In the meantime, I’m studying Italian in Siena for a couple of weeks, and as the title of this post indicates, I just spent a couple of days in Rome.

Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna
So, contemporary art in Rome… unfortunately, I didn’t find any small artist-run spaces (shout out if you know of any), but I visited the contemporary art space, Macro, and Rome’s new mega museum: MAXXI (as in art of the XXI century).  I also visited the smaller private gallery, Museo Carlo Bilotti Aranceria di Villa Borghese, and the city’s Modern art museum, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. I very much enjoyed seeing contemporary Italian art, and so I’ll write on the art contained within these museums in my next post, but in this post I’d like to talk about the architecture of contemporary art museums in relation to Macro and MAXXI.

MAXXI: the unassuming streetfront
Macro and MAXXI epitomise the new museum architecture: they showcase innovative architecture while retaining novel elements of the respective original site.  In the case of MAXXI, it’s really only the rather unremarkable (for Rome, at least) street front, but for Macro, it’s features of the gallery buildings’ past functions as slaughterhouse and Peroni brewery (don’t worry, they were separate factories).  I enjoyed both museums, but after visiting a number of galleries whose identity is very much connected to this new style of architecture, I’ve noticed that the declarations of ‘innovation’, ‘difference’ and in some cases ‘challenging the notion of the white cube’, are ironically very similar.

Here are some features of the new museum architecture:

[Update: Dec 2011. I have written a more thorough list at a later post here]

1. Angles. Not right angles, other angles.

National Gallery Victoria (NGV) Australia, Melbourne
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne

2. Floating (or unlikely) staircases.


Macro, Rome
cage staircase, Istanbul Modern, Istanbul

3. The walls are mostly white, even if they’re self-aware of the white.  Sometimes they’ll have a few coloured walls just to show that they’re slightly subversive.

GOMA, Brisbane
Macro, Rome

The red to break up the white, Macro, Rome

4. (speaking of which...) A touch of red.

Ceiling, Istanbul Modern
5. Sexy concrete: polished for the floor; brutally raw or curved for the walls/exterior.


Istanbul Modern
Cer Modern, Ankara, Turkey

6. At least one ridiculously large room, which will often accommodate small objects.  You will look up at the skylights or beams on the roof (oh, so far, far away) like you would in a church.  The room will make you feel insignificant and humble. Art is god.

Macro, Rome
Macro, Rome
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo © 2003 Tate, London
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2004), Tate Modern, in the turbine hall

7. They have toilets with weird sinks. You may or may not get them to function. (I wish I'd taken a photo of the Macro sinks, but it's a bit uncomfortable taking photos in bathrooms)

Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

8. The building has a previous function as a slaughterhouse, factory or similar (usually) industrial structure:

Macro (ex-slaughterhouse, Peroni factory)

Istanbul Modern (ex-shipping warehouse)

Detached, Hobart (ex-Church)

Cer Modern, Ankara, Turkey (ex-railyards)

Tate Modern
Tate Modern, London (ex-powerstation)
okay, it's not a gallery per se, but Cockatoo Island's a popular venue for the Sydney Biennale (ex-shipyards, gaol). It's similar to the Venice Biennale's arsenale in this way.  The use of industrial structures for temporary exhibitions is a whole other post...

9. Exposed plumbing or other functional parts of the gallery (also to show awareness of the white cube shiz) 

Pompidou, Paris

Istanbul Modern

MONA, Hobart

10. Rust fetish.  If the rust was not already part of the building prior to its current function as a gallery, ‘new’ rust is manufactured.  Rust fetish not only refers to literal rust, but also aged features in general - old machinery, crumbling bricks, old graffiti...

ACCA, Melbourne (new rust)

10. Site-specific art that responds to unusual or novel aspects of the architecture.

GOMA, Brisbane
Daniel Buren, Dance Between Triangles and Lozenges for Three Colours, Work in Situ (2010)
, Macro

11. A will to get visitors lost.


12. A funky gift shop, expensive restaurant, and similarly overpriced café.  It will have all three.

Cer Modern
Tate Modern (image credit: Splash Magazines)
Istanbul Modern (image credit: Tesker)
GOMA, Brisbane (with water dragon)

As I wrote earlier, my next post will be on the art contained within the respective museums, but I just had to get this ‘new museum architecture’ theory out there.


Mark said...

Great post - you are so right. It should be a top 10 architectural features of contemporary art galleries. The rust at ACCA is just faux industrial.

Lucy said...

Thanks Mark. The rust can be new (ie manufactured) or old. What I'm getting at is there's a certain romanticism about rust in architecture at the moment. I have updated the list at this page here: