Friday, October 19, 2012

Form follows content

In my recent trip to Paris, I visited two new museum expansion projects. One is in the Louvre – the world’s most visited museum, and the other Palais de Tokyo, the epic center of contemporary art in France.

The Louvre
First time since the glass pyramid was completed in 1989 has the Louvre introduced a second piece of contemporary architecture: the new Department of Islamic Arts opened last month. Designed by Italian architect Mario Bellini and his French colleague Rudy Ricciotti, the new wing covers the historic Cour Visconti with a shiny undulated glass and metal roof. Underneath are two levels of open gallery spaces housing the 2,500 objects from the largest and most significant collection of Islamic art in Europe.

Palais de Tokyo
In 2002, Paris-based duo Lacaton & Vassal renovated Palais de Tokyo – an old exhibition pavilion originally built for the World’s Fair in 1937 – and turned it into a contemporary art center. 10 years later, they have extended their work to the previously sealed basement, increasing the exhibition space from 8,000 to 22,000 square meters. Instead of adding or finishing, they basically stripped down the structure to raw concrete. It reminds me of HdM’s Tanks at Tate Modern. Just in this case, there’s an extra layer of French carelessness. It feels like in some old cistern or even disorienting sewers. (In fact, Paris is quite famous for its labyrinthine sewer system.) I love the floor in particular. It looks wet at first glance. But it’s actually a layer of special resin poured on the rough concrete surface to make it smoother.

Down to the basement
Resin floor
Only in France

Modernists believe in “form follows function.” These two Parisian projects are both exhibition spaces, then why the stark contrast? Some may say, “Form follows finance.” There was a steep price tag of €100 million for the 2,800m² expansion in the Louvre, while Palais de Tokyo paid €20 million for 14,000m² new spaces. But I would argue the power to get money is also linked to the contents in the exhibition spaces. And the contents would ultimately determine the overall atmosphere generated by the form. The new Islamic wing of the Louvre houses precious antiques, so they can afford some precious looking materials like gold and silver aluminum mesh for the roof and special black waxed concrete in the basement, and the architects would at least try to do some delicate details. Palais de Tokyo, on the other hand, doesn’t own any permanent collection. The ever-changing nature of the contents sets it free from the typical clean-room type atmospheres. In fact, construction work keeps going while the artworks are being exhibited. It’s a raw space where anything could happen.

The architects of the Louvre expansion denied the references to flying carpets, Islamic veils or musciarabia. But one could easily make the convenient associations judging from its floating undulated form. For Palais de Tokyo, the architects explicitly cited Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. And I think they did a good job to make it real.


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