Exquisite Box: The Bechtler Museum in the Context of Contemporary Architecture
OK, we've all seen and admired the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. But where does the Mario Botta building fit in the context of contemporary architecture? A review
Museums are often called the cathedrals of today’s culture. And that is true at many levels, but especially so architecturally. Like the grand gothic structures that stood out from the vernacular city fabric of medieval towns, contemporary museums typically relate more to a family of similar special structures around the world than to anything in their immediate vicinity. Such buildings also afford a unique window to that special world—an opportunity to better understand that strange realm of “high” architecture. In the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art we have, maybe for the first time in Charlotte, one of those distinctive buildings that could be considered a part of an acclaimed body of work that can be called “world architecture.”
The Bechtler is a quintessential Mario Botta building—a work in the signature style of the renowned Swiss architect, one that embodies so many of his characteristic traits, that a critique of it could very well be a critique of a number of his other buildings.
It is like “a cube of clay filled with light”—apparently that is how Botta likes to describe the design for the Bechtler. But then that could describe much of his work. His buildings are mostly compositions of basic geometric forms like cubes and cylinders, often clad in brick or a similar material.
Also like the Bechtler, most of Botta’s buildings are accessible. They rarely seek to shock or awe. They are special, while still relating to the architecture of our daily lives. He gives each place he builds in a distinctive, photogenic, and often iconic structure.
Inside the Bechtler, the top floor—the heavy mass that is boldly cantilevered—contains the main (and the only conventional) gallery space. Lit from above by skylights, the space is mostly open and windowless, except for those that overlook the main atrium. It is one of the nicest art-viewing spaces in the region: bright yet soft, large yet intimate, enclosed yet open.
Going down the rather functional (and strangely narrow—considering the scale of the building) stairs, are two floors of small galleries. On one side, the galleries overlook the large lobby of the Knight Theatre. On the other side the view dramatically opens up over the atrium onto the Green in the front, and diagonally over the sculpture terrace, past the plaza with the Firebird sculpture, on to the entire Cultural Campus. This makes the galleries feel very much a part of the city. This is also quite unusual, because like the cathedrals they are often compared to, modern museums usually focus “inward and upward”—the visitor turns away from the surroundings, to be one with the art.
All the openness also makes them difficult gallery spaces, offering little wall area and very low control of light. However it is ideal in the case of the Bechtler, which, unlike other similar museums that hold a family’s collection of art, is as much about a family’s connection to the pieces as it is about being a place for the display of the artwork. So these spaces work well as settings for Jean Tinguely’s machines, or even more, as a re-creation of the Bechtler living room, with furniture by Diego Giacometti and Le Corbusier.
Finally, on the ground floor, which contains the tall, bright atrium with the Sol Le Witt installation, is the one grand interior space in the whole building. It visually connects and unifies all other spaces, small and large, at all levels, inside and outside.
Overall, the elegance and efficiency of the plan belies the complexity of the spatial requirements of a contemporary museum. And that itself is the greatest testament to the mastery of the architect, who has managed to crystallize such a program into clean, simple forms and volumes.
“Homer’s Odyssey now takes place within us. We have internalized it. The islands, the sea, the sirens seducing us, and Ithaca calling us home—they have all been reduced to voices within us,” wrote Milan Kundera, somewhat sarcastically. He was talking about contemporary literature, but the statement is perhaps equally true for modernist architecture.
A major shift happened in architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. As colonialism faded away and democracies spread around the world, as abstract art and existentialist philosophies started to dominate thought and creativity, architecture withdrew from its traditional role in the city and community and turned inward. Modern architecture has since been—not unlike like Camus’s Stranger—unable to fit in: brooding introverted loners, presumably with a rich, if not tortured, inner life. The meaning, the essence, the action … everything exists inside. Exterior forms became a derivative of the interior forces and functions. Symmetry was easy, awkward shapes and unresolved forms were challenging, and hence preferred. Prettiness became a crime. Architects appeared to have taken to heart the dictum by another pioneer of existentialism, that “the fear of appearance is a sign of impotence.”
Of course, there was also great new architectural potential in this new direction. This new inward focus offered a chance to remove all external distractions and to intensify the experience. As a result, the abstract volumes by the likes of Kahn and Ando attained the quiet power and gravity one usually associates with the best of religious spaces. The new cathedrals became secular—or art became a religion—depending on which way you look at it.
Why is all that relevant here? Because Botta’s architecture developed partly as a reaction to this tendency to embrace such an existential alienation and to turn away from the city and the community. He was associated with the Tendenza movement of the sixties and seventies, and closer (to his) home, to the related school of thought/design that developed around the region of Ticino, Switzerland. Both the movement and the school of thought wanted their buildings to respect their traditional roles in the urban fabric and be better “citizens.” This meant that the exterior became important once more. They also defied the other modernist dictum that any work needs to be “the embodiment of the zeitgeist,” which requires architects to be constantly inventive. Instead they tried to establish a more timeless style of architecture based on classical geometries. We can see these principles well expressed in the symmetry and the exquisitely crafted exterior of the Bechtler and in its effort to connect with the city.
The counterrevolution didn’t last long. Along with its more flamboyant American contemporary, postmodernism or “pomo,” this approach soon became the style of a period. The more inventive and introverted approaches resurged in the nineties. Botta once again became a misfit, but not in a cool/fashionable way. He was too formal and “pretty” for dogmatic modernists, too abstract and individualistic for the classicists and new urbanists. He didn’t try to redefine architecture with each project, but made them variations on his familiar themes. In a field where the endless discovery and conquest of new frontiers is considered the moral imperative, he remained more a craftsman than an inventor.
Famous names in today’s architecture can be put into a few broad categories:
• The media darlings who do strikingly original structures but are mostly considered outdated in architectural circles—celebrities like Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Gehry (nothing says passé more than the fact that there is a Hollywood movie about you and Brad Pitt calls you his hero).
• Those who get a lot of media attention while also having a rock-star-like following in architecture schools—like Rem Koolhaas or Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron—who make headlines (and often controversy) whether they do an Olympic stadium, a public library, or even a parking garage.
• Then there are the “architects’ architects”—like Peter Zumthor and Glenn Murcutt—with a cult following among architects and students, but little known outside the field.
Botta doesn’t fit into any of these groups. And this inability to fit into these dominant narratives means that the Bechtler will probably not be on the cover of many major international publications. For good or for bad, this is definitely not Charlotte’s “Bilbao moment.” But all that doesn’t lessen the quality of the Bechtler as a work of architecture. On the contrary, its unclassifiable nature and its ability to raise these contradictions only increases its value and uniqueness.
Because of the solidity of Botta’s architecture, and through its collection full of legendary names mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, the museum perhaps inadvertently represents the established institution of modernism. At least at the outset, it seems to stand for modern with a capital “M,” the new orthodoxy that a lot of contemporary art and design is in reaction to. On the other hand, in a culture that is still struggling to reconcile tradition with modernity, it provides a solid base for modern art, architecture, and thought.
Ultimately, good architecture, like any real work of art, is dense and deep. It reveals more and more of itself (and more importantly, of ourselves) the more we interact with it. So the true value and quality of the Bechtler museum to each one of us individually, and to the city, will only be clear as we inhabit it and learn from it over the years. Until then, let us be glad that we finally have a structure that challenges us to that task, and is worthy of such an earnest engagement.