The Museum as Artifact

The Museum as Artifact

Jayne Merkel

Today´s museum buildings get more attention than the exhibits they house.

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Hoping to recapture their days of glory, the citizens of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain´s northwestern corner, have embarked on a building program even more ambitious than the one that created the magnificent 11th-century Romanesque church that awed the medieval pilgrims who flocked to the city seeking the tomb of St. James. They are now constructing an 810,000-square-foot Galician Cultural Center on a 173-acre mountaintop two miles from the historic heart of the city. The gargantuan $125-million effort signals a new age of faith, a faith whose core belief is in the power of museum architecture to attract fame, fortune, and tourists, as the spectacular Guggenheim Museum designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry has done for the Basque capital of Bilbao in northeastern Spain.

The form not the content matters. The $100 million, 256,000-square-foot Bilbao Guggenheim was not built to house an existing art collection. In fact, there was none. At least until the recent recession, the New York Guggenheim´s entrepreneurial director, Thomas Krens, had been establishing a chain of museums around the world (Berlin, Las Vegas, New York´s SoHo, and Venice, where the museum has long maintained Peggy Guggenheim´s villa) to exhibit the New York institution´s holdings. But architecture, not the shows, has attracted the hordes to Bilbao. Because architecture put the Guggenheim on the international map, the people of Santiago de Compostela are using architecture to do the same. After an international competition, they chose as their architect Peter Eisenman of New York. He is of approximately Gehry´s age and professional stature--but has an even more radical reputation. His first major building was the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University (1983-89), so much a phenomenon unto itself that it opened before any art was installed. The building was sufficient display.

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