The Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, Brazi.
The process leading to a new building — particularly when that building is home to a major arts institution — is anything but slapdash. Just ask the people who spearheaded the massive capital campaigns and selection of architects that led to the new Walker, Guthrie and Minneapolis Institute of Art buildings. That’s why I’m baffled with the crux of a New York Times story today about handwringing over the recent work of Oscar Niemeyer, one of the 20th century’s most influential architects.
Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff leads off by asking “What to do with our aging architectural heroes? What if their genius deteriorates and they begin tinkering with their own masterpieces?” and points to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, Brazil, as particularly egregious. Ouroussoff should have posed a more poignant question — “Why did you select this architect?” — to the people responsible for commissioning Niemeyer. Perhaps Niemeyer, whom Ourousoff describes as “one of Brazil’s greatest national treasures,” is so synonymous with architecture there that nobody dared think critically about Niemeyer’s contemporary relevance.
Most projects go to bid, a process in which selection committees vet competing proposals. Not so with the new Walker. For Expanding the Center: Walker Art Center and Herzog & de Meuron, recently departed director Kathy Halbreich wrote an essay detailing the “extensive search and several flirtations” leading up to selecting the architect:
“We eschewed a competition because we wanted to begin the process with a lengthy series of conversations rather than a stack of preconceived ideas or partially digested drawings. This is the first of many risks we took that in hindsight make perfect sense. The architects worked like inspired detectives, mining our archives, studying topographical maps, talking to staff … and drawing, drawing, drawing.” Halbreich goes on to write “We know the form the new Walker has taken is specific to its mission to be ‘a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.’ It’s not a model for all institutions, and it may not be a model for any others.”
You have to ask, why not? The new Walker, now almost three years old, is a success by almost any measure, among them large increases in paid admissions, box office receipts and business in the gift shop. Nobody can say how much of that can be pinned on the architecture, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree in the field to see that a thoughtful, thorough front end is the best insurance against surprises on the back end.