Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich Picture Gallery with Rick Mather extension and Christ's Chapel of God Gift.

 

In the Spring and Autumn terms of 1999 the Friends of the Courtauld, in association with The Burlington Magazine, held a series of lectures at the Institute in which UK museum directors talked about major new building projects planned, completed, in course of construction or (in one case) abandoned, by their respective institutions. This is a personal view and covers the lectures I heard. Since the lectures were given, many of these structures have been unveiled, and it has been of extraordinary interest to look back at what was said, to judge the match between potential and actuality.

The terms of the debate were brilliantly set out by the one director who had eschewed construction, Simon Thurley of the Museum of London. In his talk opening the series, Dr Thurley divided the modernist museum since the Second World War into two types - the 'assertive' and the 'reticent'. The 'assertive' type, pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York, makes a bold, often wilful architectural statement, more to do with the architect's personal vision than with the effective presentation of the collection. The Centre Pompidou in Paris and Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim fit into this category. The 'reticent' type, exemplifid by the Burrell Collection in Glasgow or, in another cultural context, the British Library in London, is designed from the inside out, and is more concerned with modest functionality than architectural pyrotechnics. This assertive/reticent polarity provides a conceptual 'rough guide' through the thicket of recent museum buildings in Britain.

Decidedly 'reticent' are Dixon and Jones's Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery and the additions made by Rick Mather Associates to the Dulwich Art Gallery and the Wallace Collection (I missed Rosalind Savill's talk on the latter, but we can all now appreciate how her generous concept of offering more space for enjoyment and learning within this jewel among London museums has been matched by Mather's glassed over courtyard and excavated basment rooms). In his lecture, Charles Saumarez Smith emphasised that the interventions at the Portrait Gallery were aimed at improving the ways visitors use and experience the gallery. Dixon and Jones had been selected for their flexible intelligence (they submitted three alternative schemes) and their sensitivity to context and history with no overtones of pastiche. The result is an ingenious solution which has exploited the thin slice of land between the NPG and the National Gallery to open up access to the building at all levels, adding a new Tudor gallery and a stunning rooftop restaurant. At Dulwich, Mather Associates had, as Desmond Shawe Taylor told us, been almost the only architects who had not sought to rival or imitate Soane's masterpiece with a parallel block: instead they put the new rooms for education, storage and catering into a low, self-effacing L-shaped structure linked by a glass corridor articulated with an elegant bronze pergola. Calling his lecture 'How to improve on a sonnet', Mr Shawe Taylor gave us an architectural historian's insights into Soane's various projects, the additions to them and the rebuilding after the Second World War bombing and rightly stressed the improvements to the gallery interior, in particular the new lighting system which preserves the natural light that is the joy of Dulwich while carefully eliminating its harmful effects.

These projects have been well received by critics and public alike. Much harder to visualise in advance from slides were the interiors of Tate Modern at Bankside, a project engagingly outlined at the Courtauld by its Director, Lars Nittve. Here the 'assertion' is built in to the power-house function of Giles Gilbert Scott's original 1940s building; Herzog and De Meuron were chosen for their 'reticent' respect for this gaunt but impressive brick structure, as well as for their minimalist concern for detailing and materials. They retained the colossal turbine hall at the back, and added a neat glass box on the river side to cap the vertically-stacked suites of galleries. It was always apparent that this building, with its spectacular site and views of the Thames would prove a huge success. The Tate's global ambition to be one of the 'big three' Museums of Modern Art, along with the Pompidou Centre and MOMA in New York is triumphantly achieved. What remains less clear, is how the permanent collection will fare in these restlessly processional and over-crowded galleries. The choice of a on-chronological thematic display, avoiding a 'single history of modern art', brieþy touched on in Dr Nittve's lecture, has since been the focus of intense debate.

The Courtauld's neighbour in Somerset House is the Gilbert Collection. The then curator, Timothy Schroder, the distinguished silver scholar, talked with disarming candour and detachment about the vicissitudes of this project, which underwent major revisions and in design and display. Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of silver, gold boxes, pietre dure and micro-mosaics has now been installed in part of the south block of Somerset House, and this great public space has been opened up, to the huge benefit of London and its visitors. The lecture was an illuminating insight into the pressures involved in setting up a museum project in which the benefactor retains a major decision-making role.

As Robert Anderson pointed out in his lecture on the Great Court Scheme, the British Museum is the oldest of all our National Museums, a product of 18th century encyclopaedic antiquarianism rather than of Victorian pedagogical zeal. And yet, though it started out with a tiny scholarly paying audience, it has in this century been one of the most successful free educational museums, combining huge visitor numbers with the highest concern for scholarship. The moving out of the British Library from the round reading room at its heart, has presented the British Museum with one of its greatest challenges to date.

Lord Foster's Great Court scheme is a mixture of assertiveness and reticence. Invisible from the exterior, it will create on the interior a vast new public space, making Smirke's neo-classical courtyard available to the public for the first time. Not due to open until 8th December 2000, it is already apparent that it will be an awesome architectural experience, and will transform the museum's circulation. It remains to be seen how the round Reading Room itself will function as a public library and information centre.

Constantly referred to during the lecture series was Daniel Libeskind's 'Spiral' project, for the last remaining open site at the Victoria and Albert Museum, between the Henry Cole and Aston Webb buildings on Exhibition Road. This is a wildly futuristic, explosive, de-constructive homage to the twenty-first century. In his lecture, Alan Borg made a gallant case for seeing this as the present-day fulfilment of the vision of Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the founders of the South Kensington Museum. He pointed out that the museum in its early days both promoted modern design and displayed new media, such as photography, for the first time and was at the cutting edge of new building technologies. Then the great historical collections were built up, and in the first half of the twentieth century came to dominate more modern concerns. The Liebeskind building, we were told, would give the museum back its contemporary role. Explicitly positioning the project in the lineage of 'assertive' museum structures - Guggenheim New York and Bilbao - Dr Borg claimed it as the great millennial building so far lacking in London. Dr Borg's successor as Director of the V. & A. and the Trustees will have to decide whether or not to continue with this embodiment of architectural self-assertion.

At the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which opened in 1998, the architectural battles are long since fought and won. This enabled the Director of the National Museums, Mark Jones, to talk generally about issues of national identity and nationalism in a museum whose full meaning 'is still to be defined', but which is a powerful focus for the projection of notions of Scottish history and culture. For Dr Jones, museums are 'arguably the buildings most representative of the late twentieth century', which have not only taken over the spiritual and pilgrimage functions of the great cathedrals, but have also, in anthropological terms, become the prime locus for competitive display and prestige. The key problem for the twenty-first century is how to ensure that procession and pilgrimage lead to enlightenment.

Caroline Elam, Editor - The Burlington Magazine