Changing Museum Landscapes

The Music Concourse in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, home of the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum image: Alexandra Hay

The Music Concourse in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, home of the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum
image: Alexandra Hay

Whether the context is densely urban or idyllically pastoral, changes made to a world-famous museum’s immediate environs often results in much heated debate, as many have already seen in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s plans for expansion, which include opening the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden to the public free of charge. Previously, access to the garden—originally designed by John McAndrew and Alfred Barr Jr. in the 1930s and updated by Philip Johnson in the 1950s and Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004—required a $25 admission to the museum.

As anyone who has taken advantage of MoMA’s popular Free Friday Nights knows, the Museum can get crowded—extremely crowded—which is a cause for concern with a space that was designed as a contemplative oasis for museum goers. A quick look at the titles of articles on the subject makes clear the mixed response this move has garnered. In The New York Times, “MoMA’s Proposal for Sculpture Garden Pleases and Riles” includes comments from a bevy of landscape architects, Michael R. Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Laurie D. Olin, FASLA, George Hargreaves, FASLA, Ken Smith, FASLA, Donald Richardson, FASLA, and James Corner, ASLA, among them. Earlier this month, an opinion piece by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, with the provocative title “Is the MoMA Sculpture Garden Doomed?” appeared in Architect, setting off another flurry of responses. One of the many follow-up articles—Lloyd Alter’s “Should All Parks Be Public?”—included an online poll for readers to vote on the issue.

This isn’t the first time that changes to an iconic museum’s sculpture garden or original setting drew ire.

In November 2013, Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s addition to Louis I. Kahn’s renowned Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth opened to the public. Construction of the new building required that century-old red oaks and elms—a central feature of the original museum’s landscape design that Kahn had described as the “entrance of trees“—be removed. However, the updated design did make an effort to appease critics of this change:

Some 320 new trees are being planted around the site, including 47 30-foot-high allée elms that will visually connect the Piano and Kahn buildings. The elms will reestablish the much-loved pattern of the trees that were removed for the construction of the new building—trees that once lined a street that had been transformed into a lawn before the Kahn Building opened in 1972.

In the 1970s, the initial design for the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall, was divisive, and construction was halted until a less austere redesign was agreed upon. Even the updated plan proved unequal to the task of rectifying the sunken garden’s shortcomings—namely, a lack of shade, access issues, and the overall bleak and uninviting look of the space—and the garden was reconsidered a third time, resulting in a softened, greener garden.

In an article from 2010, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, raises the question: “Shouldn’t a Museum’s Collection Include its Designed Landscapes?“—a question that no doubt bears repeating as more institutions plan extensive expansions, renovations, and transformations. Over time, many museum landscapes inevitably come to be palimpsests, redesigned and reimagined over the years by different landscape architects working in different styles. Whereas museums, as repositories of history and culture, evoke thoughts of permanence and continuity, landscapes, even those surrounding a museum, are dynamic spaces, as all landscapes are. In the case of MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, opening this relatively secluded area to the public is a dramatic change—we’ll have to wait and see if this intimate art space can adapt to evolving uses.

2 Responses to “Changing Museum Landscapes”

  1. Deirdre E Toner Says:

    I agree with Charles Birnbaum’s point about including the museum campus’ landscapes in their ‘collections’. Last summer Perennials in Focus, a group of 17 green industry professionals who trial perennials and release results for public/professional use, toured Chicago’s Millenium Park w/ behind the scenes Horticulturalists and then dropped in at the Art Institute if Chicago next door and toured 2 collection landscapes:1) South Garden designed in 1962 by Dan Kiley, 2)North Garden or McCormick Sculpture Court designed by Holabird, Root & Burgee in 1960 w/ landscape architect by Laurie Olin. South Garden is one of the best kept secrets in Chicago and has really stood the test of time. The original Hawthorn trees create one of it’s best features. Let’s hope the work at MoMA is done with as much integral landscape design as these projects which have stood the test of 52 years!

  2. Matt Mathes, PLA, ASLA Water Conservation PPN Co-Chair Says:

    One quote sums up museum site design: “Over time, many museum landscapes inevitably come to be . . . redesigned . . . over the years by different landscape architects working in different styles . . .landscapes . . . surrounding a museum, are dynamic spaces,” My appreciation for the quote was as landscape architect with WRT in the early 1990’s, designing the John & Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, also State of Florida’s art museum with an iconic world class collection to implement a $40 million master plan for gallery renovation including adding a performing arts center with parking and access changes. The 1920’s and 1960’s era designs by two prior landscape architects each contributed retained design elements. The state’s land management documentation requirements, storm water quality regs, ADA, Federal Register Historic District designation and surrounding site context change added “continuity vs. change” factors for that Sarasota site.


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