Art galleries: the cathedrals of the modern age

2016_24_tate_newMichael Prodger at The New Statesman:

From the Renaissance onwards, the building type that architects ­favoured as the ultimate showcase for their prowess was the church. It worked for Michelangelo and Borromini in 16th- and 17th-century Rome and for Wren and Hawksmoor in London after the Great Fire; churches were the ideal vehicle for both Pugin’s Victorian Gothic and Alvar Aalto’s 20th-century minimalism. But now, the building that architects most want to design is a modern place of worship – the art museum.

It was (with a nod to the Pompidou Centre) Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, inaugurated in 1997, that changed everything. Here was a building that was a work of art in its own right, which spurred urban growth and transformed the city in which it stood from a provincial backwater to a tourist destination. And this, even though the works on display were less striking than the building itself.

The Guggenheim and museums by other starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster also did two other things: they helped the public to accept challenging building design and they cemented the interdependence of modern art and modern architecture. The critic Hal Foster has written about the latter phenomenon in The Art-Architecture Complex. The gallery, he says, has become the “primary site of image-making and space-shaping in our cultural economy”. And not always in a beneficial way: big buildings mean big capital, and the good and the bad that brings with it.

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