De Matteis

When the Museum Grows. Notes on Two Extension Projects by Christ & Gantenbein

Federico De Matteis

In 2016, Swiss architecture firm Christ & Gantenbein completed two museum extension projects: the new building for the Kunstmuseum Basel, and the new wing for the Landesmusem in Zurich. Both buildings were the result of design competitions held respectively in 2010 and 2012 (fig. 1-2). The two projects, developed in a compressed timespan, are remarkably different in their overall appearance: although this divarication can be explained in relation to the difference in context, size and program, they offer an interesting occasion to reflect of the very concept of extension.
Quite obviously, we must not consider it in sole terms of an incremental logic, the increase in the available amount of a certain type of functional space. The two extensions confront pre-existing buildings completed between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s: the museum models of those historical periods, and the art objects they were meant to host, have little in common with what is typical of contemporary architectural practices. In this sense, with extension we must first of all consider the broadening of the museum-building’s role in contemporary society, and secondly the exponential increase growth of the aesthetic spectrum witnessed by 20th century art. As highly symbolic buildings, museums always embody the vision a certain society has of itself: the conceptual extensions occurred between the original foundation of the two Swiss institutions and Christ & Gantenbein’s annexes mirror this transformation.

That Afternoon at the Grand Louvre
What are thus the extensions that have taken place, in the course of the last century, in artistic practices, in their aesthetic spectrum, in the dynamics of art fruition and in the architecture of its containers? Two small ballon d’essai can help, if not to clarify the entire breadth of this transformation, at least to focus on some of its deepest rationales.
For whoever visits Paris, especially for the first time, it is compulsory to pay homage to the world’s most famous smile, that of Leonardo’s Gioconda. From her position of honor inside the Grand Louvre, Mona Lisa bestows her enigmatic gaze on all those beholding her: to be more precise, about 10.200.000 visitors in 2018, considering that the Louvre is the world’s most visited museum. Anyone who has visited Leonardo’s masterwork indeed well knows that the painting is not easy to see, since one is kept at a distance by a concentric series of security features, from the large bulletproof case to the mobile barrier posts containing the crowd on the busiest days, and clearly by the mass of visitors itself (fig. 3).
A quick calculation allows us to get a better idea of the situation: if we indicate with v the annual number of visitors to the Louvre according to 2018 data, p the percentage (with a conservative estimate) of the visitors who actually enter the Gioconda’s room, h the number of yearly opening hours of the museum, and q the average time a visitor spends in front of the painting, we obtain n, an average number of visitors who can be found together at any given moment beholding Mona Lisa with the following formula:


which, solved, returns as a result a whopping n=241. Any Louvre visitor thus shares the world’s most mysterious smile with an average other 240 persons: a number which, paired with the distance one is required to keep from the painting, makes the experience all but intimate. At the same time, the Louvre provides on its official website1 an interesting web application which allows us to explore the painting in detail, obtaining additional information and multimedia contents, while the Wikimedia platform stores a freely accessible digital reproduction with such a resolution (7.479x11.146 pixel, i.e. 83 MP) that one can observe in detail every single crack in the paint2. Why should thus a visitor fight with a crowd of people in front of a barely visible painting, while one could comfortably contemplate it from home with a simple Internet connection, or, for those who are particularly nostalgic, in a good art book?
The question is rhetoric and the answer in part obvious: it is not so much about (barely) seeing Mona Lisa, but about being there in that very moment, living in first person the object’s auratic presence. Artistic experience is not only based on the object that is being contemplated – in an idealistic, Winckelmannesque perspective – rather about the relation between the work itself and the subject observing it. What does it feel like to be in front of the Mona Lisa? thus seems to be the most legitimate question to be addressed to a visitor, sustaining the fact that the museum space where the encounter unfolds play a social and affective role: the building must no longer only preserve the art object, but also allow for the staging of the crucial moment of the encounter between the visitor and the artwork. This special moment thus requires to be crystallized in time – a contemporary version of the inscriptions left by ancient travelers on Roman ruins – and, possibly, shared on the Internet (fig. 4).

A Walk on the Lake
Between June and July 2016, artist Christo installed on Lake Iseo in Northern Italy a temporary work entitled The Floating Piers (fig. 5). The structure itself consists in two aniconic orange floating walkways connecting the lakefront with the Isola di San Paolo. During its brief life – just two weeks – the installation allowed 1.5 million visitors to take an unusual walk on the lake, understanding by actually it walking on the water rather than around its shore.
The Floating Piers fully embodies the broadening of the aesthetic spectrum of art occurred during the 20th century. If the traditional ontology of the artistic object considered a proxemic relationship based on an observer standing in front of a work affixed to a wall or raised on a pedestal, in contemporary practices it is quite usual not to be in front but also above, inside, around the artwork. In fact, many works acquire their sense only if completed by the visitors’ experiential dimension, since they become constituent parts of the art. We thus cannot be surprised that in the comments left on the Internet by the visitors3, the most recurring term is experience: not art nor work – after all, how visible were the piers among hundreds of thousands of feet a day? – but the visitors’ emotional response, again to be immortalized by an indispensable selfie (fig. 6).

The Specters of Art
These two examples of contemporary “artistic situations” allow us to understand the 20th century evolution of the museum’s social mission – from container of objects to place for the production of artistic experience – and the broadening of art’s aesthetic gamut – from hieratic object placed on a pedestal to the combined performativity of work and spectators. It is only in this changed cultural framework that we can fully understand the architectural strategies of cultivated and sophisticated designers as Christ & Gantenbein, and the spatial qualities deriving from them.
Already in the 1930s, John Dewey observed a certain anomaly in the concept of artwork. In his seminal work Art as Experience, Dewey writes:

«So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual recreations, at least in part, because of their esthetic quality. The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are the things he does not take to be arts; for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of lovenests, murders, and exploits of bandits» (Dewey 1934, p. 5-6).

Dewey’s observation highlights what had already occurred since the early years of the 20th century in the avant-gardes, where authors such as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso had opened the doors of their ateliers to found objects of daily (and sometimes vulgar) use. These artistic experimentations, entirely abandoning the obsolete quest for canons of beauty, questioned the axiology of the work of art, acknowledging the vitalism of popular and primitive forms of production, while analytically reflecting on the very sense of artistic practices (Menna 1975, p. 35).
During the 20th century, artistic explorations increasingly blurred the margins between the two families of practices codified by Nelson Goodman as autographic and allographic:

«Let us speak of a work of art as autographic if and only if the distinction between original and forgery of it is significant; or better, if and only if even the most exact duplication of it does not thereby count as genuine. If a work of art is autographic, we may also call that art autographic. Thus painting is autographic, music nonautographic, or allographic» (Goodman 1968, p. 113).

Goodman connects his distinction between these two artistic ontologies to the concept of uniqueness previously identified by Walter Benjamin4: however, we find ourselves in front of a divarication which can be quite simply recapitulated in architectural terms: autographic are those forms of art that have the stature to be preserved in a museum, given their irreproducibility, while allographic are those that are bound to performativity, as music or theatre, and that can be hosted by buildings specifically meant for their staging. The question What is the original of Beethoven’s 9th symphony is in fact meaningless, since, even in case it existed, we would be talking about a musical score preserved in an archive. The work, however, is not the musical score, rather its contingent execution, performed in an auditorium.
Goodman’s theory does not lack the precise awareness that this distinction was being made exactly at the moment in which it was losing its sense in art. It is indeed from the late 1960s that Duchamp’s intuitions on the sense of artistic action start to proliferate, giving birth to a wide range of performative works based on the interaction between artist and public, on site specificity, on works that must be somehow “activated” by the public, or that relinquish any idea of durability, being meant from the very beginning to dissolve. Is an artistic performance autographic or allographic? In which way can the traditional gallery-based museum type host this form of action? If Modernist architecture had invented the white cube, an anodyne container capable of hosting the avant-garde’s abstract artworks, in the 1960s it becomes coupled (and eventually surpassed) by other devices such as black box, grey box, art bay or gigantic pavilions perennially awaiting to the conquered by the next artist (Foster 2015).
In the same years in which analytic aesthetics questioned the evolution of the realities of art, philosopher Richard Wollheim sets forth another interpretive model for the multiple and protean historic and contemporary artistic practices. In his Art and its Objects, published in the same year of Goodman’s book, he articulates a dialectic between interpretation and experience. Interpretation operates by means of a representation of reality performed by the observer, constructed on the basis of specific acquired knowledge: lacking this, the artwork’s meaning remains latent. Experience, on the other hand, is grounded only on what the observer finds:

«The Presentational theory feeds on [...] the situation of the spectator, [...] that comes to dominate the account it provides of what a work of art is. [...] All the spectator of a work of art has to rely upon [...] is the evidence of his eyes and ears. [...] The theory before us is that a work of art possesses those properties, and only those, which we can directly perceive or which are immediately given» (Wollheim 1968, p. 43-44).

Wollheim – whose field of inquiry is primarily that of painting – thus connects with Heinrich Wölfflin’s theory, as outlined in his classic 1915 Principles of Art History. The expressive qualities and spatial structure of a work can corporeally engage the observer, producing a horizon of sense that precedes the more or less hidden meaning, thus becoming transversally accessible.
The implications of this second model are wide and pave the way for further elaborations even in the more conventional artforms. The artistic object is no longer considered the representation of another, separate reality, which is most likely inaccessible due to its distance in time or space or to its being a product of invention: the object of art is in itself presented, in the sense that it can be simultaneously perceived by all spectators who establish with it – and among each other – a dynamic of intercorporeal responses (Böhme 2001, p. 73-75).
The most emblematic work in this sense if perhaps Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance The Artist is Present (fig. 7). During a retrospective exhibition dedicated to her work, the artist occupies a chair in front of a table located in the immense atrium of New York’s MoMA. Dressed in a long red or black gown, she meets the visitors one at a time, as they are invited to sit in front of her. For a few minutes, she looks them in the eyes, with no further interaction. The work, part of the artist’s performance poetics, eludes any interpretive filter, as well as any other mediation bound to intentionally produced objects, with the sole exception of the table and chairs, which nevertheless “disappear” behind her magnetic presence. By eliminating the chain of interpretations, the equation that emerges is artist = art, and art itself emerges only by means of the artist’s presence.

Present, Represent
This long introduction allows us to illustrate the peculiar qualities of Christ & Gantenbein’s museum annexes, both grounded on a balanced dialectic between the principles of presentation and representation. Represented is in fact, in both buildings, the relationship with the surrounding buildings and urban environments: the formal structures of the annexes are abstracted interpretations of these pre-existing features. In Zurich, the new jagged volume encloses the courtyard on the rear of the 19th century building: according to the designers’ words, it is inspired, with its undulating roofline, by the roofs of both museum and city. The fair-faced concreted of the exterior walls contains tuff stone, the same material found in the older building’s interior.
In Basel, the museum’s layout follows a similar logic in reinterpreting the existing environment. The massing is given by the street fronts and by the height of the original building found on the opposite side of the street (fig. 9). Here, the walls are clad with grey bricks that were custom produced in various hues and placed in rows of alternating depths to underscore the façade’s horizontality (Christ & Gantenbein 2016, p. 95). The elevation is thus articulated in three registers corresponding to the tripartition of the facing 1936 building by Christ and Bonatz (Pfaffhauser 2016, p. 84). Both extensions, despite the formal rigor of their morphology, pursue a rather conventional relation with the surrounding context, based on a principle of analogy and interpretation (De Matteis 2009, p. 26).
The two buildings’ interior spaces, on the contrary, seems to keep a distance from an interpretive principle, rather aiming at endorsing the sensuous character of spatial experience. This notion becomes evident in the Basel museum: while providing sufficient flexibility for the installation of temporary exhibitions, the building denies any possibility of simulation. The two architects write:

«The striving for tectonic presence, for an architecture that does not conceal but rather explicitly stages the structural elements out of which it is made, is predicated on the idea that the presentation of art, no matter what form it takes, will always benefit from an architecturally defined space rather than a temporary spatial situation that merely simulates architecture» (Christ, Gantenbein 2016, p. 93).

Such strategy also becomes clear in the plan’s organization. In the complex polygonal geometry of the building plot, the exhibition halls are divided in two quadripartite nuclei, separated by the staircase piercing through the main volume. The two groups of halls do not have – as would normally be expected – a set of movable walls allowing for flexible installations: the divisions between spaces are permanent. Also the materials used in the interior – the revisited industrial wood flooring, the gray marble cladding the stairs and the door jambs – are not selected to recede in the background: on the contrary, they become themselves present through the expressive and sensuous qualities of materials (Griffero 2014, p. 96) (fig. 11). The staging of architectural space is thus not entirely given over to the individual installations of the exhibitions, but is rather grounded on the relationship these establish with the museum’s interior spatial character, which remains constantly accessible.

Museums as Acts of Resistance
The question of the fruition of art in the age of experience economy has been widely debated, discussing how the museums and buildings where this fruition occurs have often surrendered to the logic of exit through the gift shop5. In many of these buildings, the cafeteria frequently occupies a central position, the gift shops takes over the atrium, as emblems of a certain way of understanding the architecture for art that – albeit dictated by the need of coping with high costs – seems at least in part to undermine its freedom. Sometimes the very architectural decisions sustain this tendency, as in the many iconic museums that in terms of expressivity overshadow the very works they contain, or in those “simulated” architectures where the space for artistic fruition is limited to the creation of a freely modifiable stage set. As in the case of the Mona Lisa, the first goal of these buildings does not seem to be the exhibition or production of art, rather to allow their visitors to enjoy a fully commodified experience.
In the dialectic between being and appearing characterizing the architecture of aesthetic capitalism (Böhme 2017, p. 99-100), Christ & Gantenbein know exactly which side to take, and decide to create buildings shunning simulation, producing spaces that are not assertive, but also not too softly protean or lacking in character. They do not excessively insist on their objectual morphology, but rather focus on the need to orchestrate the visitors’ experience through an accurate spatial construction. In this sense, they represent acts of architectural resistance, capable of standing their ground – with the solidity of their built matter and the immaterial atmosphere this creates – against the loss of sense of many museums that only want to appear.


3  In the comments of Google users, the three most recurring terms are experience (42), unique (31), and “bellissima” (very beautiful) (14)..
4  There is a surprising similarity between Benjamin’s definition and that provided by Goodman: «In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else – that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. [...] The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity» (Benjamin 2008, p. 21).
5  Exit through the Gift Shop is the title of several works by Banksy, and of a documentary he directed in 2010. In his radical critique of the commodification of art, he considers the practice of forcing museum visitors to exit by walking though the gift shop as an emblem of the distortion of their freedom in the use of these places.


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