iconic monumentalism


Towards the end of the last century major cultural institutions established themselves as generators of urban activity rather than just repositories for artefacts and information. Architecture is central to this role. As the new century progresses, the architecture of high culture is evolving still further, and a new museum now carries with it the weight of cultural expectation, anticipated by both critics and town planners as a potent symbol of place, be it a district, city or even a whole country.

Iconic monumentalism was a reaction against the anodyne Modernism that had become the de facto house style of museology. Sober, self-effacing, functional museum architecture stems from the Bauhaus-era fascination with purity and simplicity. The gradual reduction of the decorated façade into a muted, abstract composition took place in parallel with the most significant American art movement of the postwar era, Abstract Expressionism, an integration epitomized by Philip Johnson’s Rothko Chapel in Houston (1971), a self-consciously pared-down structure built to house a Mark Rothko triptych. Art overflowed the constraints of the canvas; architecture followed meekly.

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