Space is a human construction, outcome of the natural tendency of categorising reality. Architecture is thus the deliberate manipulation of these spaces and works as the ‘inevitable background, support and frame of any work’ (Buren, 1975 cited in Greenberg et al. 1996).
When it comes to art, architecture, seen as a system of cultural signs, plays a fundamental role in framing the exhibited works by imposing them a specific role within a particular context. In the same way curating creates a narrative among the exhibited pieces, exhibition design has the responsibility of rendering the discourse into a physical element; that is the architecture of the spaces.
As stated by Martina Abramovic, in ‘Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art’, it is ‘the public that makes the piece’, reason why the design of the exhibition space – the navigation through the artworks – is of fundamental importance in moulding the visitor’s experience. Moreover, ‘the work of art only exists, can be seen, in the context of the museum/gallery to which however no special attention is paid’ (Buren, 1975 cited in Greenberg et al. 1996). The traditional ‘Withe Cube’ is, in fact, an attempt of creating a neutral space where ‘the outside world must not come in […]. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically […]. The art is free, as the saying used to go, “to take on its own life”. Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial – the space is devoted to the technology of aesthetics. […] Art exists in a kind of eternity of display’ (O’Doherty, n.d. cited in Greenberg et al. 1996). The space of curating needs, therefore, to be ‘empty’ not only for making the artworks stand out to the eye of the visitor but also to create the conditions for the public to engage with their creativity, being free of any distraction.
Nevertheless, as much as architecture, which embodies our social relations and reflects our social values, the exhibition space can’t possibly be designed as neutral but rather ‘as thoroughly prescribed by the psychodynamics of politics, economics, geography and subjectivity’ (Blazwick, n.d. cited in Greenberg et al. 1996). Furthermore, each cultural institution tends, through architecture, art and activities, to inevitably represent the context where their action take place.
In this perspective, Mudec, the Museum of Cultures of Milan, emerges as a response to the conflict between the neutrality of the white cube and the inevitable influence of the surrounding context. Born in 2014, from the regeneration of an early 20th-century factory placed in a working-class area of the city, the museum is the meeting point between different cultures and communities populating Milan. Mudec is the centre of cultural diversity, admirable through ethnographic collections and temporary exhibition, where the aim is to build a dialogue among contemporary themes through visual, performative and sound art, design and costume.
The renovated building, work of the international architect David Chipperfield, is formed by external parallelepipeds made of zinc, which, by reminding of containers, reinterpret the old factory’s spaces. The outer constructions act thus as a shield for the core of the museum, a glass structure which geometrically burst into the building and reminds of an organic form.
What’s interesting about Mudec’s architecture is the contraposition between the utilitarian design of the perimeter and the experimental structure of the core, which perfectly represent the impossibility of the latter to be part of an industrial context and the consequent choice of accessing it only through the ‘protection’ of the outer containers. The museum, which arises on a building that was not designed for people, succeeds in its mission: creating a space (the organic structure) where different cultures can meet and preserve their differences as a symbol of the most multicultural city in Italy.
The new challenge of museum architecture is, therefore, to create a synergy between the signature buildings and the transparency – or ‘neutrality’ – of the internal spaces, which must be able to allow artworks and visitors to ‘produce a creative partnership’ (Blazwick, n.d. cited in Greenberg et al. 1996).
- Capdevila-Werning, R. (2015). Nelson Goodman’s philosophy: an analytical account of architecture. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University.
- Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B. and Nairne, S. (1996). Thinking about exhibitions. London: Routledge., pp. 313-319, 340-348 1996
- Macdonald, S. (2006). A companion to museum studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. pp.221-318
- Marincola, P. (2006). What Makes An Exhibition Great. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibition Initiative. pp. 118-133, 134-141 2011
- Thorne, S. (2015). What is the Future of the Museum?. [online] Frieze.com. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/what-is-the-future-of-the-museum [Accessed 7 Nov. 2016].