THE PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT OF ARCHITECTURE AND CONTEMPORARY ART: STRATEGIES FOR A MARRIAGE

Some hold that the role of architecture, the "mother of all the arts" and the receptacle of culture, is outdated because of its inability to conceive itself as a discipline emitting positive proposals. Self-doubt is a recurrent attitude in architecture, whose history is studded with interrogations and radical breaks. The incursion of cultural studies as an analytical methodology able to question the very definition of architecture has been the last straw. Its research takes into account the enlargement of architecture’s manifestations. The exploratory field now includes the observation and study, not only of its traditional "products" (sketches, plans, manifestos, finished buildings) but also what were formerly considered adjacent domains, such as photography and film. The computer revolution has not spared the discipline, digitalization has changed it substantially, creating either a blind infatuation, or a violent rejection, or a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road attitude. It has created a new object, complex and hard to define, but allowing the interested public a more playful entry into a highly codified world. From the all-embracing grande dame at the summit of artistic creation, architecture has evolved toward a position in which it presents itself as an interstitial monad, a gluttonous ogre feeding on philosophy, sociology, photography, literature, contemporary art, and many other fields.

An architecture of pure project, without even a foot in the built environment, has come to coexist with an architecture that demands construction. The latter has founded the validity of its approach on a simple, pragmatic conception holding that a strategy can only aim at concrete fulfillment. Without the slightest doubt, the Chinese-American architect Pei forms part of this second group. Pei is an adept of the finely wrought object. His work allows us to examine the relationship that architecture weaves with the powerful, the economic decision-makers and the institutions. The pertinence of any analysis of Pei’s work rests on the reading of his constructive practice. His proposal for the Museum of Luxembourg shows us more particularly how architecture envisages its relation with the plastic arts. An often painful but sometimes happy relation, composed of intrigues, struggles, or encounters which sometimes give rise to an unexpected dialogue.

In 1997, Pei was invited to design the Grand-Duc Jean Museum of Modern Art on the plateau of Kirchberg, a few meters away from the archaeological treasure of Fort Thüngen, which was destined to become the Fortress Museum. If I take a few lines to mention the site of the future museum, it is precisely because this juxtaposition exudes a kind of sublime irony that immediately sparks off the debate. There it is: right next to a museum dedicated to contemporary art you have the museum-fortress. Obviously it’s just a coincidence, but Pei, in his early years as a student, took an interest in architectural enclosure, a concept envisaged from the viewpoint of the Chinese tradition, prefiguring the construction of his first museum in China. Let us pause over the importance of the city wall. It was the first definition of the Greek polis, an idea also taken up by the Latin word urbs and equally present in the English town and the German Zaun, in their original meanings. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, has written in this respect that the city with its wall embodies the law: "Without it [the law/wall] a public realm could no more exist than a piece of property without a fence to hedge it in; the one harbored and inclosed political life as the other sheltered and protected the biological life process of the family." The wall-city in its correspondence with the law guarantees the distinction of public and private and the proper functioning of both. The fortress museum, which in a certain way personifies the respect of the law, is juxtaposed to contemporary art. It then becomes indispensable to point out that Pei was initially supposed to include the fort in his project, which underwent subsequent modification. The proximity of the two museums ironically indicates that contemporary art continues, a priori, to be outside the law. A protective legal authority must stand at its side, to defend it or defend against it. On the other hand, the architect wishes to subject the law to its condition, by absorbing it.

Yet the observation of Pei’s project reveals a major axis which is particularly congruent with the context. The museum appears as a continuation of the fort: as the head of an arrow, enlarged and detached from a smaller arrow. It is either a repetition or a prolongation of the fortress. Pei has partially reappropriated the law-wall, enlarging the penetrating arrowhead and thus establishing the notion that contemporary art is a real though perhaps incomplete embodiment of the law. Art is therefore no longer illegal.

Political and financial power always seeks to display its presence by the intermediary of adequate form, and architecture shares in this process of shaping identity. France is an excellent example. Among their mandates, the Presidents of the Fifth Republic have the power to carry out what are called Great Projects. To name only the major examples: Georges Pompidou will construct the Pompidou Center; François Mitterand, the Bastille Opera and the Pyramid of the Louvre; and Jacques Chirac, the Museum of the Primary Arts. Power maintains an unflagging relationship with culture and the visual arts, via architecture. One can never discount the political will to embodiment in a building devoted to culture. The monument is also a sign, it develops a series of discourses. It speaks. It is something like a ventriloquist using a dummy as his spokesman. Everyone knows quite well that puppets do not speak. The technique is sly, but the show is a pleasure nonetheless. And the building acts in a similar fashion. It activates a discourse of which it is the complex material form. This is a fact which shapes architecture of a cultural character. The Luxembourg Museum, currently under construction by Pei, confirms that architecture, more than ever, has retained its function of social, political and cultural representation. For it is architecture in its authoritarian manifestation, preceding the activity of the museum itself, that supplies it with its representation and lends it its status.

In creating the Luxembourg Museum (a project confided to him without any program defining its objectives, such as the nature of the collection, for example), Pei worked more on the idea of the museum in general, than on a particular museum. What we have, consequently, is a demonstration of the relations and conceptions that architecture maintains with respect to visual art. A thorny subject, open to every kind of attack, notably those of the contemporary art that will be subjected to it.

The building activates a double reference, the first half of which is obvious for anyone who knows Pei’s work. It is an evocation of modernist logic through the use of geometric volumes and orthogonality. Pei, who is close to Breuer’s sensibility, was a student of Gropius, an escapee from the Bauhaus. Pei’s modernist rhetoric here takes the form of an enlarged arrowhead (one can see it as a representation of coitus interruptus, or as the stylization of the Grand-Duc bird). Pei, the "mandarin of formalism" as he is called in the title of a book by Michael T. Cannel, is a partisan of simple, monumental forms, and the pyramid of the Louvre towering monolithically above the courtyard and entry to the Palace, enclosed within small triangle-fountains restating the pyramid’s three-dimensionality on a horizontal plane, is exemplary of this stance.

The second reference is more unexpected. It is contextual: the architecture of the Museum of Luxembourg has a flavor evoking the 1980s. Glass, which in the early twentieth century was considered the new construction material by Bruno Taut, symbolizing democracy and the dream of a scintillating planet, has long since gone beyond the employ made of it by the modern movement; it has cast off its initial meanings, to finally embody a perversion of the equality between people, as explained by Jeff Wall in Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel. In the 1980s, buildings in general and European museums in particular would reinterpret glass and make sumptuous use of it: transparent walls, domes, skylights, light wells... The presence of the entry arc is also symptomatic of those years. It bears witness to the importance of formalizing the threshold by a pure geometric symbol (witness the Arc of La Défense, by Spreckelsen and Andreu, dating from 1983): the notion of a transition porous to both outside and inside was a subject of intense debate in the architectural world of the eighties. At the same time, the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg underwent a redefinition of its architectural landscape, with the construction of an important number of public and private buildings. This construction program coincided with an economic boom and a shift from a failing primary sector to a more dynamic tertiary sector. Is it a coincidence that in addition, the National Cultural Fund began its collection of international contemporary art in 1996, in anticipation of the Foundation, and that it did so through acquisitions running from the 1980s to the present?

What effect can a museographic "tool" produce on the exhibition programming to come? This question, arising legitimately for the visual arts, is an aspect of the debate which must be confronted before concluding. It stems from the acceptance of architecture as a purveyor of services, whose objective is to carry out the realization of a tool destined for other fields. It denies the legitimacy of architecture for architecture’s sake, conceived as a discipline of dissent and counter-proposal, a site of debate and questioning. Indeed, Pei would not disagree. According to him, the building on which he has worked must respond to a particular and well-defined use, i.e., the display of art works. Yet one can wonder about the pertinence of these huge rooms with their walls covered in Burgundy stone. Should we formulate certain worries about this encounter between architecture and museography?

The difficulty of the relation between the visual arts and architecture is articulated at precisely this place. Upon the delivery of the building, the Museum Administration takes possession of an object which in turn it must occupy. It is the passage of the baton from one discipline to the other, a smooth appropriation or a dissenting occupation. A delicate exercise, rich with structural constraints, which frequently sees a number of contradictory attitudes come into play: from denial to counter-attack, from riposte to withdrawal. The different actors are obliged to enter into a dialogue which, whatever its nature, poses essential questions for exhibition curating. These questions have the beneficial effect of bringing to light the fact that the neutrality of a place is only a lure, that one must always negotiate with a given space. In the same way that architecture is developed from the constraints of a geographic site, exhibition curating takes into account the space of presentation. The dream of a harmonious understanding, of an open space, neutral and without connotations, is only a dream. Two purposes confront each other, that of art and that of architecture. Despite all its goodwill, architecture cannot presume to dictate the realities of art, but the art to which the space now belongs can hope to use the architecture to its best advantage.

Alexandra Midal

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