A trojan horse

Kersten Geers

Perhaps the best way to approach the new building by Christ and Gantenbein for the extension of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the so called “New Building”, is to see it as an artificial stratification: a frozen representation of both the desire to make a new building and the hesitation to make something new ‘after all’. This ambiguity seems typical for both the architects and the museum. The fact that the building is explicitly called ‘new building’, in one of the publications that accompanies the opening of the extension, speaks volumes. The new building might have obtained its title out of necessity. A building with such a rich set of references towards ‘old’ architecture and with the ambition to survive ‘more than a hundred years’ might need a particular name tag, simply to make it recognisable, to be able to spot it, or at least, that is what one might superficially think.

So is the extension of the Kunstmuseum a new building that hesitates to be new? And if so, why would it hesitate?

The existing building of the Kunstmuseum is an elegant masterpiece of thirties architecture: sober, conservative and elegant, and in many ways a building that was able to institutionalise the idea ‘museum’ in a classicist fashion. The entrance, deep inside the building block over the court and the monumental staircase linking the different floors filled with sets of rooms in enfilade - varying in size, but never very big - made the building by Christ and Bonatz into the perfect negotiator between (increasingly) radical art and a bourgeois society. It is not the only building of its kind in the world, but in its aesthetic purity it exemplifies the idea of a building perpetually in delay, because, seemingly, the only way one can deal with an ‘art in motion’ is simply by not trying to run alongside it.

Christ and Gantenbein did just the same. But even though the tropes are recognisable and somehow the same as the ones we find in the mother building, the result is quite different.

In a way, the new building places a mirror to the old building: height, overall volume and stratification of the facade read very similar; at some moments it looks like a transformed and crooked copy. The new building however, is a decisively contemporary building, built for a time when the museum as a public building has acquired a radically different role. So, where superficially the facade engages in the expected posturing connected to the public building as an institute, it communicates absolutely nothing, consciously. It is a brick shoebox - nothing more, nothing less. It talks to us about the absolute irrelevance of bourgeois decorum at a moment when the city is populated by addresses found on the internet. Should we mourn? Christ and Gantenbein remain ambivalent. Programs and opening hours are found on the net, people don't look. But the city needs blocks and streets, the corner next to the kunstmuseum needs to be filled, so they completed the volume and made a safe place to enter the new building, protected from the street. A well chosen door makes you enter, a big gate works for delivery. The heavily composed facade of the Kunstmuseum gets its rebuke by Christ and Gantenbein’s mute palazzo: all details, no depth - only a LED frieze might tell you what’s going on. The new Kunstmuseum building is a big box in perpetual hesitation about the necessity to communicate - a part-time decorated shed.

The new building is made out of a brick perimeter carefully draped around two small rectangular ‘towers’ of rooms. The two volumes house the main exhibition spaces and leave a space in between for a monumental staircase. The two volumes act as a ‘box in the box’ inside the perimeter of the museum building. The way the two families of enfilade like rooms organise the museum building spatially, is vaguely reminiscent to the old building. Routes and rooms and their inter-relation is similar to the building of the thirties, but their relationship is more intense. All possible (unnecessary) thresholds are eliminated, superfluous space is purged. The plan of the new building - the contemporary copy - is similar but dramatically simplified. It is interesting to see that a sequence of lines (as in the old building) is replaced by a sequence of shapes and clusters. Within this tighter framework, the new staircase that is not necessarily bigger than the mother stair appears monumental. The stair becomes the undisputed centrepiece of a tight and compact museum building. Here and in every other moment in the building, a particular use of scale and vicinity puts the acquired and emulated museum conventions under pressure.

So we have a marble stair, enfilade rooms, marble thresholds, wooden floors, vertical windows, shuttered doors… all of them elements echoing the conventions of the museum as a city palace, an urban villa, a sequence of rooms. The stratified brick wall with its vertical punctures, the well curated openings with shutters, the central staircase for its main circulation all emulate the building’s ancestors as a big public representative building. The combination of both tropes however make for a box full of small inconsistencies, or at least formal and material surprises. It is as if Christ and Gantenbein could only overcome the trap of nostalgia by allowing all tropes and elements to happen at once, without measure, in a slightly twisted fashion.

The shutters inside and outside are made out of galvanised steel and are in fact fire doors turned entrance gates. The size of the horizontal elements of these doors is the result of the profiles that make them. The main staircase space, originally made out of concrete, is completely cemented. The cement refers to the similar treatment one finds in the old building. The grey however, is pragmatic, and ‘in your face’. The same cemented details are used in the walls between the enfilade rooms, finished with marble thresholds, exhibition walls visually attached. From the exhibition rooms, a few gigantic windows give views to the city of Basel, and - more importantly perhaps - the Kunstmuseum. The view to the old Kunstmuseum shows how far one can walk away to remain close - the past is our immediate neighbour. 

Walking through the new galleries, looking at the ancestor faraway-close, one obviously deals with the wooden floor. Not unlike the gigantic windows and the big openings between the rooms, the floor material is enlarged to a particular (uncanny?) size. The enormous pieces of wood put in place as an enlarged wooden carpet is consistent with the architects decision to overcome the evident conventions of the museum (they embrace) by simply rescaling them and re-materialising them. The museum walks away from the current abstract canon. It is an audacious move, but an important one. It visibly puts the art currently at display in the museum (work from the 60s 70s and 80s mainly, in the first exhibition) under pressure. In its current mise-en-scene, the challenge is not fully taken. 

Hidden in a mirror palace of staged conventions, Christ and Gantenbein challenge the rules that secretly make the current art world tick. These rules today are surprisingly conventional: weird stuff has to be shown in abstract, unchallenging spaces, to give it a certain status, to leave it alone. 

In an art-world where, increasingly, mega-galleries are invested as conservative strongholds of mediocre but expensive architecture taste, built to do exactly that, it is refreshing to see that a new museum building seems to take the challenge, in order to put all of these silent conventions under pressure. Not to everybody’s agreement, obviously. 

When today, one walks around in the new building, one can only be surprised on how vulnerable these spatial exercises often are (or were), as we see that most of the pieces try to renegotiate their place and status in an everything-but-evident immediate context. Some works manage, others don’t. Hopefully, ‘Kunstmuseum Basel, the New Building’ is the beginning of the art-space reinvented, renegotiated. It appears at first as a mirage, an all invented/curious double of the building that defined Art in Basel and Art and the World from the thirties onwards. The difficult double might however have brought quite another challenge, one where the conventions of display, unscathed and beautified since the white cube, are all put under pressure. For the better, away from art as a glamorous minimalist commodity: the new building is a trojan horse.

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