museums and art galleries … the best of architecture and design

Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

ARoS, Aarhus


For architects and designers, to work for museums and art galleries can be the most significant, fulfilling and long-lasting commissions of their careers. Sometimes the most difficult and demanding but in many cases the most important commissions.

Certainly new buildings for new museums or galleries, particularly for national collections, as well as major extensions to existing buildings that may in themselves be famous or even a commission to remodel and refit what may be well-loved existing buildings is usually attended by high expectations and extensive publicity.

Visitor figures to museums and galleries are staggering … in 2014 over 9 million people visited the Louvre and nearly 7 million visited the British Museum and in Denmark in 2014 national statistics show that there were 14.5 million visits to museums … nearly 650,000 people visited Louisiana which is amazing when you consider the relatively small size of the gallery - certainly small when compared with galleries of modern art in London or Paris - and the fact that it is well outside the city … although, thinking about it, of course, the setting by the sea makes a significant contribution to the attraction. 

Louisiana is actually a good example of how important architecture and design can be … the gallery evolved through the second half of the 20th century in almost the most complicated way possible to create one of the most elusive and most complex and most stimulating architectural experiences of any gallery … it is the Alice Through the Looking Glass gallery and all the more amazing for that.




But that is not to say it is the best. Just unique and amazing. The new maritime museum, M/S Søfart by Bjarke Ingels, ARoS in Aarhus by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, and the new museum at Moesgaard by Henning Larsen are all incredible.

With school visits, visits by students and academics, visits by tourists and regular visits by local people, it is probably through museums and galleries that most people have their strongest experience of modern architecture and current design of the very highest quality.

There are complex reasons for this and it’s a bit chicken or egg …. are substantial amounts of money spent because of the high profile … cutting corners does not reflect well on city or a benefactor … or does the money spent and the quality of the architecture generate the high profile?

At a simple and practical level, heavy use, with these large numbers of visitors in itself means that work has to be of a high quality simply to survive.

And of course, although few people talk about it in these terms, there is usually an element of bravado or show … no city and certainly no architect wants their work for a new museum written off as boring or dull or mean let alone dismissed as badly designed.

The architecture of museums and galleries varies from traditional formal gallery spaces, where the most important thing is that the artefact or painting or sculpture should be seen in splendid and appropriate isolation, to the museum that is essentially about an experience where there might be, surprisingly, few primary objects but a lot of sounds, images and information … a lot of experience. There are certain trends that emerge in museum plans and object display through the decades but then often the starting point for many of these commissions is that the work has to be distinct if not out and out unique. The opening clause for the contract to design a Guggenheim gallery must be that under no circumstances must it look remotely like any gallery that has been built anywhere.


M/S Søfart ... the new maritime museum by Bjarke Ingels


In order to survive, museums and galleries have to generate income over and above the ticket price and any grants or sponsorship so the spaces and facilities may also be used for concerts, conferences, festivals and receptions so again buildings and interiors have to be designed to make these additional functions feasible, successful and attractive so popular.

Architecture and the design of these museums and galleries is also fascinating for the back-of-house or service side. These are usually very complicated buildings that have to provide high levels of security, carefully-controlled lighting, workshops and equipment for coping with very large, very small, very heavy, very delicate or very awkwardly-shaped objects … so for instance how did the British Museum get into the gallery a low loader with a Viking long ship for the opening of its first exhibition in its most recent extension.

When visiting a museum or gallery, it can be worth turning away from the collection or exhibition, the more normal reason for a visit, to look at the space, to look at the way the items are displayed and lit, to look at how graphics are used or kept to a minimum, how the book shop is stocked and with what and even to look critically at the restaurant or cafe, the toilets and the tickets and publicity material. In the best museums all those aspects of your visit will have been very very carefully considered and often be the work of some of the very best architects and designers.

Because art galleries and museums are significant, both in the general history of contemporary architecture and in the development of civic style and private sponsorship of the arts and because their architecture and their use of good design in recent years has been of such a high quality then over the coming summer there will be a series of posts here to profile Danish museums and galleries to look not at their collections or exhibitions but to focus on their buildings and their use of design in general.