Museums Expand Their Habitats

Museums Expand Their Habitats

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes
By Raymund Ryan
University of California Press, $50.00

An art museum that continues to attract art lovers, donors, and visitors from elsewhere, tends to get bigger over time. As its collection grows, and special exhibitions become popular, cafes and shops appear. Fastidious critics, who once declared that an art museum must be a sanctuary undefiled, now celebrate as “democratization” the additions that have become mandatory today.

Raymund Ryan is the architectural curator of the Carnegie Museum. He writes: “We may today be in a period of museum fatigue, of over-saturation by images of attention seeking architecture. The new focus on nature and landscape—the green maze—may in part be a reaction to the excesses of recent institutional ambition.” His exhibition and book present six art museums expanding over time that are distinguished by genuinely innovative architecture and landscape: the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, the Stiftung Hombroich in Germany, the Benesse Art Site in Naoshima, Japan, the Instituto Inhotim in Brazil, The Jardin Botanico de Culiacan in Mexico, and the Grand Traiano in Italy.


The Olympic Sculpture Park was inaugurated by the Seattle Art Museum in 2006. It occupies an 8.5-acre site on the edge of downtown Seattle and overlooks Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. When chosen, the terrain could not have been worse. Because it had been used for fuel storage, 120,000 tons of contaminated soil was removed. A major traffic artery and train tracks were there to stay. Architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi and the landscape and engineering consultants devised new parkland to bridge them. Stepped concrete retaining walls support triangular stretches of grass, earth and trees, bordered and intersected by pedestrian pathways that gently zigzag downhill from the crowded city above to quiet recreational places along the Puget Sound bayside below. Visitors, strolling up or down, view from many angles sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, and Richard Serra, among others, each dramatically sited in outdoor light. For Ryan, the Olympic Sculpture Park “is about revitalization, connectivity, and viewing, a new synthesis of topography, nature and the city. [It has] as much to do with civic leisure as any didactic imposition of art.”

Very rarely, a client of today will hire an ensemble of architects that do not necessarily share a common aesthetic, but will generate and implement planning goals that can help save the world. The German businessman and art collector Karl-Heinrich Muller is one such enlightened philanthropist. In his words: “We are answerable to nature, or reckless covetousness will devour all of us. We will uphold it. Animals and plants are members of our family. We have to raise our protective hand, we have to return their habitat and we have to be aware of our common unity.”

In 1982, Muller established headquarters for his foundation, Stiftung Insel Hombroich, on 46-acres of farmland near Cologne. He returned much of this land to a pre-agricultural state that welcomes the return of wildlife. By 1987 he had inaugurated Insel Hombroich, a collection of thirteen small buildings, mainly houses and one or two-story gallery pavilions, all the work of German sculptor and architectural designer Erwin Heerich. In 1994 he purchased Raketenstation, the nearby 32-acre former NATO rocket base, described by Ryan as originally “a rather bleak and exposed world of berms, tarmac, and missile sheds surviving from the Cold War. The landscape strategy here is a case of retaining much of the site’s history, converting military sheds for communal activities and as architect’s studios.” Among the fifteen new or adapted for re-use buildings are bold, signature works by Tadao Ando, the late Raimund Abraham, and Alvaro Siza Viera.

In 2005, Muller invited more than a dozen architects to collaborate in the creation of what he calls a “spaceplacelab” master plan to serve his acquisition of 988 more acres that surround the earlier sites. Like them only 10 percent of the land will be built upon. Still in the early development stage, this landscape will consist of clusters of small houses, studios, and exhibition spaces interwoven among forests, meadows, and orchards. Ryan believes that “the thrust of this evolving settlement in the flat north German landscape is a holistic one. It is more to do with sociopolitical vision than with art as an expensive commodity.”


Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima, three small scenic islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, were each damaged by heavy industry and pollution. Today they are widely known pilgrimage destinations for contemporary art. This transformation, commenced in 1989, is being brought about by the patronage of Benesse Holdings, a global Japanese company in the fields of healthcare, education, and language with a majority stake in Berlitz. The company director Soichiro Fukutake once wrote, “I would like to send out a message to the world, a new view of civilization for the twenty-first century: Use what exists to create what is to be.” Among the architects who have helped deliver the message are Tadao Ando, Hiroshi Sambuichi, Kazuyo Sejima, and Ryue Nishizawa.

Ryan has found botanical gardens to be ideal settings for art.  The Instituto Inhotim, in Brazil, opened in 2006, and the Jardin Botanico de Culiacan in Mexico begun in 2007 and to be completed in 2016, both foster ecological concerns as well as the work of vanguard artists. He concludes his book with an art museum to begin construction in 2014, the Grande Traiano Art Complex in Grottaferratta, Lazio, Italy, a historic town in the hills south of Rome. Patrons of this project are art collectors Pierpaolo and Valeria Barzan, founders of the Depart Foundation, to promote contemporary art. According to Ryan, the couple’s intention “evolved from a concern that Rome, so rich in history and so inspirational to generations of artists, has become peripheral to current cultural debate and production.”

Ryan documents these six projects fully and describes them well. The drawings are elegant and essential, and photographer Iwan Baan brings buildings, landscape, and people to life in new and invigorated ways. It is important that the book itself is so well done because it has much to teach. Among the lessons? Art no longer needs to be housed in a single huge new building too big for its site, no matter how celebrated the architect. The architecture itself can consist of small low-scale pavilion-like buildings placed along meandering paths through many acres of restored landscape. Most challenging is the message that art museums should be built more slowly over time, to adapt to inevitable change. The clients in Ryan’s book include philanthropists able to acquire immense acreage, create new collaborations of architects and landscape architects to uphold their visionary ideals, and make almost a lifetime of it. They have raised the bar high but attention should be paid.